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Americans have left $3 billion on unused gift cards

The most requested gift can go unused for years.

We’ve all experienced the unbridled joy of finding a $10 bill in the dryer after a washing load or $5 on the sidewalk. But nearly all Americans could have untapped cash just sitting in the back of our wallets or the bottom of our purses.

The most requested gift by far

Gift cards may get a bad rap for being impersonal. However, they are the most requested holiday gift for 13 years running. In 2019 more than 59% of people surveyed by the National Retail Federation said they wanted a gift card this holiday season.

So how many gift cards actually get bought — and how many go unused?

According to an annual survey by Paytronix, approximately half of all gift cards are redeemed within two months, while the remaining spending time levels off. Approximately 80% of gift cards are spent within a year, leaving about 20% of gift cards unused after a full year from purchase. Other estimates go even even further; the Mercator Advisory Group estimates that as much as 3% of gift card dollars are never redeemed.

Almost $3 billion in gift card cash went unused in 2019 alone. Meanwhile, total gift card spending in 2019 clocked in at $98.6 billion. Despite the billions of dollars that go unused, that’s an estimated 1% increase in annual growth in 2019.

Why this isn’t free money for companies

Sounds like free money for businesses, right? It’s all in the accounting.

When gift cards are sold, they are counted as a liability until spent. Only when they are spent does that money count as revenue. This means that US businesses carried $3 billion in liabilities on unused cards last year.

Further, closed-loop gift cards — or gift cards that can be used at a single store or chain only — are generally bought through card vendors. These vendors can charge for everything from setup to stocking the card inventory. When you’re not using, they’re losing.

The current state of gift cards

Despite all the unused gift cards out there, 2019 brought on even more gift card purchases. It’s estimated that $100 billion will be spent on gift cards in the US alone.

To give you an idea of just how much money that is, with $100 billion you could buy about 360 billion rolls of toilet paper or 100 million bidets. (Talk about panic buying). Of that $100 billion, it’s projected that about $3 billion will go unspent. Still enough to buy 11 billion rolls or 3 million bidets.

Preferred Payment Statistics

  • Link to page:
  • Although the gift card market is large, it’s far from being the most popular payment method. A Finder survey found that prepaid cards (which can include some types of gift cards) were the least popular payment method, lagging behind paying by Credit card, Cash, Electronic, Check, and Charge cards.
Type of payment method% of Americans
Debit card36.07%
Credit card24.11%
Electronic (Apple Pay, PayPal, Venmo)7.72%
Charge card5.20%
Prepaid card2.29%

So what do you do with a drawer full of gift cards?

If your gift cards are collecting dust because you don’t like the stores they’re to, consider selling them. Sites like Cardpool allow you to sell your cards or exchange them for stores or products you prefer better. And you’re not limited to selling your physical cards: With most exchanges, you can sell e-cards and put a little extra cash in your pocket.

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Buying gift cards with a credit card

A handy tip for earning rewards on gift card purchases is buying them at grocery stores with an eligible rewards credit card. Many grocery stores carry a wide variety of gift cards — if you purchase them at the grocery store using a credit card that earns rewards on grocery purchases, you’ll earn rewards like any other typical grocery store purchase.

Depending on your card, you can get anywhere from 1.5% to 5% back on your gift cards this way. Just make sure to pay off the charge right away so it doesn’t build interest.

Buying gift cards with an exchange

When your budget is more shoestring than sky-high, consider buying gift cards from an exchange. These third-party businesses connect people who want to buy gift cards with those who will use them — selling them at anywhere from a 3% to 35% discount.

Next time you’re gifted a card for a product or store you just don’t want, consider your options. Turn that well-intentioned present into what we all want in the end: cold hard cash.
Looking for ways to make money online? See our list of legitimate ways to earn cash online or off.


The number of toilet paper rolls that could be bought with unused gift card cash was calculated based on the average price of a toilet paper roll inside a 36-pack of Charmin Ultra Soft toilet paper (27.75 cents per roll). The number of bidets that could be bought with unused gift card cash was calculated based on the average price of a bidet ($1,000 per bidet according to Fixr)


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For all media inquiries, please contact:

Richard Laycock, Insights editor and senior content marketing manager


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