Monday, September 13, 2010

Guest Post: Restaurant Gift Cards - Use it, Don't Lose it

Guest Post by Laura of Frugal Friends in Northern Virginia

Here are some helpful tips for using restaurant gift cards and/or gift certificates followed by a story of how I would have lost 30% of my gift card value earlier this year, if I hadn’t kept my receipt and read the fine print.
When you receive or buy a gift card or gift certificate to a restaurant for your own use I suggest doing the following:

Keep all your restaurant gift cards in one place (I keep mine filed in a special drawer in the kitchen, near the take-out menus (which we barely use it seems). Keeping them in a pocket organizer in your purse or in your car is also another good idea.

If you have more than a few gift cards, you should keep a catalog of the gift cards noting the: restaurant name, value of card, purchase date and special terms (fine print). You can create a spreadsheet on your computer, keep a list in digital format on your phone, or keep a handwritten catalog.

Become a FaceBook fan of the restaurants for whom you have gift cards and also join their e-Newsletter/E-mail list, and considerfollowing the restaurant on Twitter. It is free to do this, and as a fan, member or follower of the restaurant you will often get access to exclusive offers or coupons (via email, printable off of FaceBook, or printable off of Twitter). Combining coupons/special offers with a gift card helps you get more for your mileage.

And now my story of a recent restaurant outing and how I would have lost 30% of the value of my gift card, if I hadn’t been a savvy shopper.

My husband and I decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day 2010 by going out to a restaurant at Tyson’s Corner in McLean, VA the Saturday night before Valentine’s Day (we don’t go out to Tyson’s much these days, so it was a treat!). We figured that the restaurant would be less crowded on Saturday than on Valentine’s Day. We even arrived fairly early (5-ish) thinking we’d beat the rush. What we didn’t factor in was the fact that snowmaggedon had left much of the parking area at Tyson’s un-parkable, and the parking garage was packed to the brim! It took awhile to find a spot, but once we got inside to the restaurant, we were seated right away.

We had a gift card, plus my husband had just signed up for the restaurant’s e-Club and had printed off a coupon for 1 free appetizer that was e-mailed to him. We were ready for a nice dinner, using up the remainder of our gift card with little out-of-pocket expense.

The gift card had actually been a birthday gift given to me by my mother-in-law a year and a half prior. The original value was $50, but back in October 2008 we had used up about $30 worth when my husband, son and I had gone out to celebrate my birthday. We had exactly $20.19 remaining on the gift card and I figured that our meal would cost us about $10 out-of-pocket plus tax and tip (using up the remaining balance on our gift card).

When paying our bill we handed over our gift card, and our waiter came back and said that there was only $14.19 left on the card. I pulled out the two original receipts (the original receipt from my MIL and the receipt from our last visit in Oct. 2008) and showed him that we should have $20.19 left, but wondered if it had started to lose its value because it had been 16 months since we had last used it.

The manager came over and explained quite matter-of-factly that all gift cards lose value after a certain amount of time and that if I had read the fine print I would have known that. I was a little flabbergasted that my card had already lost 30% of its remaining value, and by the manner in which the manager delivered the bad news to me (although he was probably just having a bad night, and he probably didn’t realize that I really cared about that $6 that I had “lost”).

Our waiter was extremely nice and understanding, and after the manager left our table I asked the waiter if he would mind bringing the gift card back to the table so I could read the fine print; he was more than happy to oblige. To my delight, the fine print on the gift card actually stated that “after 24 months of consecutive non-use” the gift card would start to lose its value incrementally per month. Since it had only been 16 months of non-use and the fine print stated after 24 months of non-use the value would decrease, the waiter and manager were able to apply the full $20.19 gift card value to our check. If I hadn’t kept my original receipt and hadn’t asked for my card back to read the fine print, I would have lost 30% of the value of my gift card.

Lessons learned:

Always keep receipts from the original gift card purchase showing the initial value.

When you don’t use the full gift card amount, always keep the receipt(s) from your purchases made using the gift card, so you know your remaining balance.

Note the fine print and special terms of the gift card. Be aware that either due to “error” in their system, or a change in their special terms/fine print, your gift card when redeemed at your local restaurant could show it is worth less than it really is.

Laura blogs about great deals in the DC area at Frugal Friends in Northern Virginia.

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