It's easy to overspend during the holiday season, so try to make a budget and stick with it. One way to stretch your holiday spending is to tap unused points from credit cards and other rewards programs. 

“A lot of cardholders have existing rewards that they might not even know about,” says Jill Gonalez, a credit card analyst with WalletHub.com. This could be a great time to put them to use.

The value of rewards points varies greatly, depending on how you use them. But any purchase you make with points, miles or cash back leaves more money available in your holiday spending budget. 

Here’s how to make the most of your rewards:


Visit Consumer Reports' 2016 Holiday Gift Guide for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more. And be sure to check our Daily Gift Guide.
 

Get your cash back. Most cash-back credit cards require you to call your issuer or make a request online or via its app in order to get the cash. You’ll get it either in the form of a statement credit, a check, or a direct deposit to your account. Check your cash-back balance before you start holiday shopping so that you know how much you have to offset your spending.

Calculate the value of noncash rewards. Using your rewards points at online rewards malls—websites that gives you bonuses for shopping there—is often a poor value. During the holiday season, though, there are usually better deals.

Ideally, look for at least a one-to-one ratio of points-to-pennies in order to know whether you’re getting a good deal. For example, a $100 item should cost 1,000 points, or less.

Besides merchandise, some rewards points can be used for hotel rooms during the the holidays. Though the cost of the room is often higher because of peak demand, the number of points required doesn’t change. So if you’re not using rewards points for holiday shopping, you can use them to reduce travel spending.

Roll multiple balances into one account. If you’ve got multiple rewards cards or miles accrued with several different airlines, you may not have enough in any one account for a meaningful redemption. However, you can use a site like Points.com to roll points from more than one hundred different loyalty programs from one account to another. This is also a good option for making sure that you don’t lose access to points that are about to expire.

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Purchase gift cards. One of the best ways to spend points is on gift cards, which rewards programs typically offer to members at a discounted rate of around 20 percent. You can then use the gift cards to make merchandise purchases at that discounted rate, or you can give the gift cards themselves as presents to people on your list.


“If you’re going to give a $20 gift card to someone for a Christmas present, spending $15 worth of points to get that card is a great deal,” says Sean McQuay, a credit card expert with NerdWallet.

Redeem rewards for experiences. 
Sometimes the beauty of credit card rewards is that you’re able to redeem them for an experience, such as tickets to an event that might otherwise be expensive to purchase. Citibank card members, for example, were recently able to redeem points at Citi Private Pass for floor seats to see Andrea Bocelli or VIP access to a Dallas Stars Hockey Game.

Chase Sapphire was recently offering a weekend trip, complete with hotel stay and event tickets, to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. A lot of those experiences are first come, first served, so check back often to your issuer’s site or sign up for notifications. Also, if you’re planning to give an experience to someone, make sure that it’s transferable, since some are available only to cardholders.

Make a donation. 
If charitable contributions are part of your holiday spending plan, many card issuers allow you to make a contribution to a charity of your choice using points. As with purchases, look for a contribution that has a one-to-one ratio and that waives transaction fees, so that your charity receives the full donation.