An illustration of gift cards

If you received a gift card over the holidays you might have already used it to buy yourself something you wanted, like items for your home or the latest electronics. But what do you do if, after your purchase, your card still has a small balance?

“It’s wonderful to receive a gift card, but it can be frustrating when you have just a few dollars or cents left on it,” says Trae Bodge, a shopping expert for

There are many reasons you may wind up with gift cards with a few dollars and cents left on them. Asking the cashier to apply, say, 50 cents toward a purchase can be embarrassing, says Bodge. Plus it's easy to lose track of a card's balance, or to not think to use the card when shopping. There can also be logistical hurdles to using up a small balance when shopping online.

More on Gift Cards

Zaida Khaze, a 45-year-old Fort Lee, N.J., resident says she has a wallet stuffed with not-fully spent gift cards she's collected over the years. “You don't want to throw something away that's worth money," she says.

She's in good company. According to a recent Consumer Reports nationally representative survey of 1,004 U.S. adults, nearly 20 percent of Americans say they have three or more gift cards with balances. And nearly 40 percent of them say those cards have values of $25 or less.

All those unredeemed gift cards equal a lot of lost money. Nearly $130 billion worth of gift cards were purchased in 2015, according to the most recent data from research firm Gartner in Stamford, Conn. Of that, $1 billion was never spent. 

Do you have a few small-balance gift cards taking up valuable wallet space? Here's what you can do to spend them down.

If You Have a General-Purpose Gift Card

If you end up with a small balance on a gift card issued by Visa, Mastercard, or American Express, spending it can be complicated if you're shopping online because of how checkout works at most retail websites, says Shelley Hunter, a gift card expert with

When you purchase a product online, you need to input the Visa or Mastercard gift card number into the debit or credit card field on the website—not the gift card field, which is reserved for store-branded gift cards, she says. In other words, you can't pay using both the gift card and your credit or debit card. 

"If you have $3.98 on a Visa gift card and you're purchasing a product for $5, the gift card will be rejected," says Hunter. 

But you do have options.

Buy an e-gift card from an online retailer. Some, such as Amazon and Walmart, allow you to use a general-purpose gift card to buy an e-gift card for use on their sites. There's no fee and you can apply the e-gift card value to a purchase, then pay the balance with a regular credit or debit card. 

It's a strategy Sam Ochs, a savvy 12-year-old video-game player in northern California, says he uses to keep his Xbox subscription going. "My friends give me gift cards sometimes and if there's a few dollars left on the card I just apply it toward the cost of the Xbox service, or a game," he says.

There are restrictions, though. Amazon and Microsoft (which owns Xbox) won't sell you an e-gift card for amounts of less than a dollar.  Other retailers may also set minimum amounts.

Place an order by phone. This way, you can ask the customer service agent to use up the funds on the gift card and then put the rest on a credit or debit card. (This is a great option if you have a small remaining balance on an general purpose e-gift card, which you can neither apply online nor use in a brick-and-mortar store.)

Head to a physical store. The retailer will usually apply the value on your gift card toward a larger purchase, says Courtney Jespersen, consumer savings expert with NerdWallet. “Even if it only takes a dollar or two off of your order, at least you’ll completely use up all of the funds,” she says.

If You Have a Store-Specific Gift Card

If you have a remaining balance on a gift card issued by a retailer, and there isn’t anything in the store you want to buy, you have some alternatives:

Ask the retailer to give you cash. Some states have laws that require retailers to cash out balances on gift cards they issue.

In California, for example, stores generally must give you cash for any gift card they issued that has a balance below $10. In Rhode Island, though, the balance has to be less than $1.

If you’re in a state without such a rule, ask the retailer to cash out your card anyway. “A smile and a polite request often go a long way,” says Sara Skirboll, a retail and trends expert at RetailMeNot, an online coupon site.

Try using your gift card at a sister store. If you have a small balance but there is nothing you want to buy, consider using the gift card at another store owned by the same company.

A Gap-branded gift card, for example, is also redeemable at Old Navy, Banana Republic, and Athleta. An Olive Garden gift card can go toward a meal at LongHorn Steakhouse, Yard House, and any other restaurant owned by Darden Restaurants.

Whatever you do, don't wait too long. Some gift cards may expire five years after being issued or after the date funds were last loaded. So you’ll want to use up the money before that happens, or before you're hit with an inactivity fee, which some cards charge if you wait more than a year without using the card at all. The fee, usually $2.50, could wipe out the card’s remaining value, says Jill Gonzalez, a credit analyst at consumer finance website WalletHub. 

To reduce the chance that you'll never use up the funds loaded onto a card, it's a good idea to load your gift card onto a gift card app such as Gyft or Raise, says Hunter. These apps can help you track their balances of multiple cards. They also make your gift cards easily accessible when you’re on the go.