My Discount Gift Cards, Myself
Can you really save money by buying gift cards at a discount?
I’d heard of discount gift cards before. They were usually mentioned in the same kind of blogs that breathlessly advertised the joys of extreme couponing. The concept of discount gift cards made me picture a Survival Mom-style bunker filled with canned tomatoes, and I don’t even like canned tomatoes.
Maybe that’s why it took me so long to look into how to get them.
I tend to be extremely specific about what I want, which ruins most couponing for me. I’m also suspicious of discounts because I know that stores would not offer discounts and sales if they weren’t making money from them, probably because whenever you have a 30 percent off coupon, you end up spending more than you would’ve without the coupon.
To be clear, I didn’t think that buying gift cards at a discount would solve that. But when I read that you can get an automatic 20 percent or so off at many businesses, my curiosity was piqued.
So I did some research. I learned that there are people and businesses that act as “gift card brokers.” The brokers buy gift cards from people who want cash instead, and are willing to accept less than the value of the card in exchange for cash in hand. Then the brokers sell those gift cards at a discount that still allows them to make a profit.
One website, GiftCardGranny.com, acts as a search database for several large gift card brokers. You type in the name of a store, and it shows you the available gift card amounts and which brokers will give you the largest percentage off. For most stores, you can buy either a digital gift card, which is emailed to you, or a physical gift card, which is mailed to you.
It blew my mind when I found out what a giant business this is. According to GiftCardGranny.com, their largest gift card broker, Gift Card Zen, is selling $2,471,723.90 worth of gift cards. The second and third largest, ABC Gift Cards and Raise, are also selling about $2 million each in gift cards.
I immediately worried that I was going to get too into this. After all, if I started getting too excited about discounts at stores where I wasn’t already planning to spend money, I wouldn’t really be saving anything at all. I decided that the trick was to only get a gift card for something I was going to buy anyway.
I started with Starbucks. The office coffee machine was broken, so I’d been buying coffee in the morning more often than usual. I bought two $15 digital gift cards for $13.63 each, or a total of $27.25. The Starbucks gift cards weren’t as heavily discounted as cards for other chains. The best discount I found was ABC Gift Cards, which gave me 9.15 percent off. There were some other cards in larger amounts that had steeper discounts, but an extra 4–5 percent off wasn’t enough to tempt me into spending that much money on gift cards, even if it meant getting discount Starbucks for life.
I ordered the Starbucks digital gift cards at 8:28 AM, and I got them at 8:33 AM. They came as a PDF attachment to an email, with instructions to print the PDF if you want to use the gift card in a store. Print?! Isn’t part of the glory of a digital gift card supposed to be not having to keep track of it? I tried typing in the gift card numbers into my Starbucks app instead, hoping to transfer the amounts onto the gift card that I already had loaded on the app—and lo and behold, it worked. Then I went to Starbucks.
I was nervous standing in line. I felt like I was getting away with something. I ordered my drink and scanned the app to pay. It worked! I had the fleeting sensation that money wasn’t real and everything was an illusion. It passed quickly. I still felt pretty smart, though, especially when I earned a free drink with Starbucks rewards at the same time.
I started browsing the top deals on GiftCardGranny.com and found it oddly soothing. I imagined how I would use the ridiculously high-value cards. I imagined what my life would be like if I bought a $300 Jamba Juice gift card for $175, or a $783.94 Ann Taylor gift card for $535.04. I bought neither.
The downside of using a search site like GiftCardGranny.com is that every time you buy a card from a different retailer, you have to make an account with the retailer and enter your payment information. Some of the retailers have minimum purchases, and I was surprised to see that they don’t promise to email you the digital gift card immediately. Instead, you’re supposed to get it within 24 hours. I usually got mine within a few minutes, so maybe they want to under-promise and over-deliver. Still, I had hoped that I could buy my digital gift cards inside the stores themselves, right before I made my purchases—and learning that it could take up to 24 hours to receive my card made that plan seem less enticing.
Next I ordered a $25 digital gift card to Panera, which cost $19.56, from Gift Card Zen. I was committed to sticking with my ideal to only buy cards when it was money I was likely to have spent. The Brooklyn Book Festival was coming up, and my boyfriend and I have a habit of going to the nearby Panera for coffee, breakfast sandwiches, and a bear claw beforehand. I decided to plan in advance to get a discount on breakfast, and have money left over for lunch.
The Panera app wouldn’t let me add a gift card as a method of payment, so I dutifully printed my gift card according to the instructions. I showed the printout to the store associate. She scanned the barcode. It didn’t scan. There was no music playing in the store, so it was eerily silent except for the clicking of keys as she manually entered the long barcode. I felt terrible that I had inconvenienced her, and self-conscious that someone else had just gotten in line.
When I got a discount gift card to CVS, the barcode didn’t scan there, either. Depending on who was working, sometimes they would type it in, and sometimes I would type it in. Every time, I felt like a nuisance.
Meanwhile, I carried around my wrinkly paper digital card print-outs. I folded them into library books so keep them less wrinkled. Then I worried that I might have accidentally returned a gift card to the library, and I stopped doing that. I began to wish that I had finished spending the digital gift cards so I no longer had to keep track of them. Sometimes the gift cards only had tiny amounts left, but I still carried them around. I reasoned that if I lost them, I could always reprint them. Unless, of course, I lost them in a place where someone else found them and used them.
I also worried that something would go wrong with a gift card and I would have to call customer service, an experience that combines my dislike of bureaucracy with my anxiety about feeling powerless. Was it worth a $5 discount to call customer service? I hoped I wouldn’t have to find out.
I decided I was done with digital gift cards. For my next trick, I would order physical gift cards.
New worries came up almost immediately. What if the gift cards didn’t come in the mail? What if they were the wrong amount? The gift card brokers have a money-back guarantee, and I reasoned that their businesses need to have good reputations in order to continue to exist. If too many people have bad experiences, the websites would shut down because people would no longer trust them enough to buy gift cards from them. Maybe that’s true. The gift cards arrived. They were all the right amount.
I was now armed with a $50 gift card to Outback Steakhouse. It cost me $41.58, or 16.85 percent off.
I do not go to steakhouses enough to remember how much they cost. What I did remember is that my boyfriend and I had an amazing meal once at an Outback Steakhouse, which appeared like an oasis in an unfamiliar part of south Brooklyn when we went in search of the two independent bookstores closest to where I live. We had talked about going back there before moving away from the neighborhood.
We picked a night when we both decided we needed steak. Even though I had bought the gift card, it still felt like a gift. We were giddy when we walked in.
“I should probably download the app. For journalism!” I said as we waited for a table. The app gave me an additional 10 percent off coupon.
Considering that it had been four years since I’d eaten at an Outback, I didn’t want to have anything left on the card to have to keep track of until my next visit. It took me a few minutes to realize that this is a foolish thing to worry about at a steakhouse. I ordered a ridiculous and delicious cocktail called the Tiki Bandit, which tasted like candy and contained rum, vodka, blood orange and ginger syrup, and soda. We ordered steaks in hungry-people sizes. In an act of true decadence, I got bacon and bourbon on top of my mine. He got dessert. We walked out full and happy. We ended up spending $28.23 on top of the gift card. (Total amount owed, including tip and 10 percent app discount: $78.23. Total amount paid, including tip: $69.81. Gift card discount: $8.42.)
Did we save money on this meal? Probably not, considering that we rarely order drinks AND meals AND dessert at a restaurant. But I was amazed that this gift card felt like a gift. I almost forgot that I was the one who bought it.
I’d like to revisit discount gift cards during a month where I’m looking to spend money instead of save it. I could have gotten a discount on the Pokémon socks that I got at Hot Topic last month, the cashmere sweaters I’ve gotten over the years from Uniqlo or J.Crew, and the aquarium that I got from PetCo.
I think the smartest and easiest way to use gift card brokers is to check to see if there are deals when you’re already shopping online. For example, you see that a website is having a 30 percent off sale, and you add $50 worth of clothes to your cart. You search for a $50 discount gift card, and find one that costs you $40. You save money, and you avoid carrying around wrinkly pieces of paper that you can lose in library books—plus, you don’t have to inconvenience anyone but yourself.
Abigail Welhouse is the author of the poetry chapbooks Too Many Humans of New York (Bottlecap Press) and Bad Baby (Dancing Girl Press). Tell her about your discount gift card experiences on Twitter: @welhouse.
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