The 10 Best Gift Cards to Buy This Holiday Season & 5 That Are Simply Scroogey

woman shopping with gift cardWhat did we ever do before gift cards? Those shiny bits o' plastic are perfect for everyone from the second cousin you forgot you needed a gift for to the sullen preteen who rolls his eyes at the idea of toys. But apparently we need to be more careful about the cards we purchase. Some gift cards might be more trouble than they're worth.

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GOBankingRates.com, a personal finance site, took a look at gift cards from 30 major retailers to find out which are good buys -- and which fall short.

Because FYI, not ALL cards are created equally. Some charge purchasing fees or have expiration dates, for instance. Others have a minimum balance requirement or charge for shipping if you buy their cards online.

Others only accept cards at brick and mortar stores. (We're looking at you, H&M.) Or won't provide digital cards, as is the case with Google Play, of all places.

More from The Stir: The 2015 Holiday Gift Guide: 25 Awesome Picks Under $25 (PHOTOS)

These are pretty Scroogey moves, if you ask us. Luckily, other retailers have more goodwill toward shoppers.

Nordstrom ships gift cards for free. AND they donate 1 percent of gift card sales to nonprofits. Amazon allows gift cards to be bought with a balance as low as 50 cents. Not sure what you can buy for 50 cents anymore, but still, it's a sweet gesture.

But let's get to the info you REALLY want to know -- which cards made this year's "naughty" and "nice" list.

The Best:

  1. Nordstrom: Buy the department store's eGift cards (which start at just $5) online and you can choose when they'll be digitally delivered. Physical gift cards are mailed free of charge.
  2. Amazon: Send a digital card, print it out at home, or have a "real" one mailed via free one-day shipping. Gift cards can also be redeemed at Amazon-owned sites like www.MyHabit.com and Whispercast.amazon.com.
  3. Walmart: Gift cards start at just five bucks. They're good to go online or in Walmart or Sam's Club locations. AND they can be reloaded.
  4. Starbucks: Send an eGift card by email or have mailed for free. As soon as it's registered, every purchase earns points toward rewards.
  5. Lowe's: One gift card can hold a balance anywhere between $5 and $500. You can easily check the balance or reload in a store.
  6. Macy's: Email an eGift Card or ship a physical one for free. Both can be used in person or online. Macy's also allows you to load up to $1,000.
  7. JCPenney: Send a gift card for a minimum of $10. Once that's used up, the card can be reloaded in-store.
  8. Target: Purchase a gift card of any amount by Dec. 25 and Target will ship it for free. Gift cards can also be emailed or sent to a text number.
  9. Toys "R" Us: This card's good at either Toys "R" Us or Babies "R" Us. Plus, you have the option to customize the gift card with a special photo, message, or design. (Doing so will set you back $4.50, FYI.)
  10. Best Buy: Any gift card of $25 or more is sent free via two-day shipping.

The Worst:

  1. MasterCard: Most of these cards charge a fee, usually between $3–$5. AND they come with an expiration date.
  2. American Express: Same deal here with high purchase fees. Plus, once the expiration date passes, you'll need to buy another card to transfer remaining funds.
  3. eBay: Every recipient needs a PayPal account to redeem. Plus, you need to call to check the balance; there's no way to do it online.
  4. H&M: Cards are only good in stores, not online.
  5. Google Play: No digital gift cards for GPlay, and they don't even allow you to gift digital content.

Even if you're looking at a gift card that's not on this list, always read the fine print beforehand, says Elyssa Kirkham, an editor at GOBankingrate who researched the study.

"It's helpful to keep an eye out for policies and customer service that will make buying and using a gift card easier, like the ability to check balances online ... or even earn rewards," she explains.

And of course, "make sure you're avoiding costs as much as possible," Kirkham adds.

In some cases, says Kirkham, "it's better to skip the extra expense [of getting a gift card] and just give cash."

 


Image via Tom Wang/Shutterstock

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