Gift cards have become the go-to present for parents who have run out of time, ideas or, let's be honest, holiday spirit. The National Retail Federation estimates that each holiday season, eight out of ten shoppers turn to gift cards for some of their purchases. Maybe that's because the cards make especially good gifts for teachers, teens, tweens and other people who are hard to please. However easy as they are to purchase, getting the most from gift cards requires a bit of savvy. Here are a few tips:

Choose the right card. A closed-loop gift card can be used only at the store or restaurant that issues it, so be sure the recipient likes what they have to offer. Prepaid bank gift cards can be used wherever a debit card would be accepted, but there's a fee for that convenience. For example, the American Express website charges $3.95 per card purchased, regardless of the card's amount.

Don't buy off the rack . When cards are easily accessible, crooks can collect identifying numbers, using pocket scanners or even old-fashioned pencil and paper. By calling the toll free number, thieves find out when the card is activated and spend the balance while your present is waiting to be given. To avoid this problem, purchase cards that are kept behind the counter. Look for a scratch off pin number, and be sure it is not tampered with.

Be smart online . Don't buy gift cards by clicking on a link in an email or text message. Even if these offers look like they come from prestigious companies, they are invariably scams that steal personal information without giving you anything in return. You'll also want to avoid auction sites where there's a high risk of getting a card that is counterfeit, expired or fraudulent.

Look for discounts . Legitimate discounts on gift cards are available from resellers such as Plasticjungle.com, Giftcardrescue.com and Cardpool.com. Before buying, be sure the website guarantees the value of the card. Check shipping charges, too, because they can quickly offset discounts. Another way to find safe discounts is to visit scriptsmart.com, a website that rates gift cards based on their features. The site also provides information about how laws governing gift cards vary from state to state.

Express your spirit. Many companies sell gift cards with special messages for the holidays. Better yet, design your own card with a personal photo or message at a site like giftcard.com.

Share the joy. Some companies donate part of the price of each gift card to charity. At giftcardsforacause.com, a wide variety of cards are available for purchase, and it's easy to designate a charity to receive a percentage of what you spend.

Personalize the packaging. The biggest complaint about gift cards is that they are impersonal and, well, a little boring. To make giving more fun, insert the card into a holiday ornament, the paws of a small stuffed animal, pair of socks, trinket box, book, wallet, puzzle box or gift card organizer. At the very least, include a personal note explaining why you wanted this particular person to have this particular gift card.

Skip the plastic. Ten billion gift cards are produced each year. Not only do they contain toxic petrochemicals, but they also create disposal problems. Some companies allow you to bypass plastic by sending an e-card directly to a mobile phone or even a Facebook page. Because this is a relatively new way of giving, be sure to alert the recipient with a card or some other tangible reminder that she's received a virtual gift.

Get a receipt. No matter how you buy your gift card, get a receipt that includes the number on the card. If the card is lost or stolen, you may recover its value if you have documentation. Should you have a problem with a card, contact the company that issued it. If they can't or won't resolve the problem, complain to the FTC (877-FTC-HELP) about cards issued by retailers or the Comptroller of the Currency (800-613-6743) about cards issued by banks.

If you become savvy about buying gift cards, you may actually want to use them to save money on your own purchases. The important thing is to treat the cards as cash because that's exactly what they are. Don't leave them lying around. Don't tuck them into a drawer and forget about them.

For the same reason, be sure to spend cards received during the holidays. Bankrate.com estimates that $40 billion dollars in gift card purchases went unused in the past decade. That's like loaning money to the sponsoring companies without ever asking that it be paid back. Look for opportunities to use cards on things you or your kids really want. Take advantage of post- holiday sales both on and offline. If there's an expiration date, mark it on your calendar.

For cards you really can't use, turn to websites that will help you convert them into something more valuable. Cardhub.com has a Facebook application so people can swap cards with friends. Swapagift.com pinpoints local companies that buy giftcards for cash, usually at a deep discount.

The websites that sell discounted gift cards buy them back too. Before shipping off a card, review the FAQ to be sure you understand exactly what you'll receive in return (and how you'll complain if there's a problem). For example, plasticjungle.com converts cards into cash, credits on Amazon or even a donation to a favorite charity. Of course, the holidays are a terrific time to convert the odd balances on all of last year's gift cards into donations to organizations that will make the season bright for others. Now that's a way to rekindle holiday spirit!


Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for 10 years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict.