Gift cards aren't just for gifts anymore.
They've become another tool for smart shoppers who want to slice the price of goods, says Rebekka Rea, executive director of the Retail Gift Card Association, an industry group representing merchants offering retail-branded gift cards.
No matter how you use them, you can stretch your holiday budget by learning a few ways to buy gift cards for less -- or even score them for free.
Check loyalty programs
Do you belong to a credit card or retailer loyalty program that gives you points or rewards for the dollars you spend?
If so, there may be some free or discounted gift cards in your future.
"I look at my credit card or loyalty programs to see if I've built up enough points to get free gift cards," says Rea. "That's a good first step if you're budgeting."
Rea's advice: Before the holidays hit, check in with all your membership, credit card and affinity programs, and see just how many points or rewards you've accumulated. Which gift cards do the programs offer, and how much would your points be worth?
Too many times consumers forget they're even members of these programs, Rea says.
Don't be afraid to leverage your savings the other way too, she says. Some retailers will offer points or discounts in their affinity programs if you purchase gift cards from them, says Rea.
For example, she says there's a popular grocery store chain that also sells gift cards. When consumers make purchases there, they earn rewards toward discounts on gas, food and other items sold by the chain.
If you're buying gift cards anyway (and can't get them for free), it can make sense to get them at a location that will give you discounts on something else you also need, she says.
Shop your favorites
Gift cards are like anything else: Discounts and freebies are no good unless you'd want those items anyway.
Do you love eating in certain restaurants or shopping in specific stores? Those merchants' websites are a great place to check for sales or specials on their gift cards, says Kwame Kuadey, CEO and founder of GiftCardRescue.com, a site where consumers can buy, sell or trade gift cards.
When you limit your search for specials to a certain set of favored stores, you limit your shopping time and increase the odds you'll find something you really like.
If you know that during the holidays you want to shop a specific store for gifts, check back regularly for deals on gift cards. When you find them, stock up.
Browse gift card exchange sites
Another way to buy gift cards at a discount: online businesses that sell or trade gift cards.
Vet any sites carefully and confine yourself to ones where you are buying from the site, not individuals posting on the site, says Rea. Consumers "need to do their due diligence," she says.
If you're buying through third-party card exchange sites, you can often let the site know which retailer cards you're seeking and it will alert you when the cards become available, Kuadey says.
Many sites specialize, so it pays to stick with the sites that carry the types of gift cards and brands you want.
"If you want high-end brands, labels and designers, you need to be swapping with a site that gives you what you want," Hillary Mendelsohn, author of "thepurplebook" series of shopping guides and founder of thepurplebook.com.
Like anything else, "it's really important to read the fine print," she says. Familiarize yourself with the costs and the policies before you buy.
And keep an eye out for shopper-friendly policies and benefits, such as price-match guarantees and rewards points.
"Find a site that gives you exactly what you need," Mendelsohn says. "You have choices."
Look for freebies
What's better than discounted gift cards? Free gift cards.
That's an offer that's popping up frequently from retailers this year, says Kuadey. From restaurants to spas to home improvement stores, many retailers are offering free gift cards if you buy a certain number or amount of gift cards at full price.
"People should be on the lookout," he says.
Even if you don't like giving or receiving gift cards, you can still use them to save money. It requires a little planning and willingness to read some fine print.
Buy the gift cards at a discount, combine them with store coupons and use them to purchase your gifts, says Kuadey.
It requires a little advance planning, he says, because you have to know exactly where you're going to be shopping. However, if you do it right, Kuadey says, "you can double your savings."
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