I Only Spent Gift Cards For A Week — & Here’s What Happened

My mother has always been a strong believer in “just because” presents, and every holiday, even the minor ones, she rises to the occasion and sends me a handwritten note and a gift card for “something extra.”

By the end of April, I always have quite a collection of gift cards. This year, I found myself with an exceptional stack, for various holidays of the past six months — Christmas, my birthday, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, and an additional few “just because.”

I pulled them all out of my wallet one day at work, and my coworkers were shocked. (Although, one coworker admitted to having a business-card case full of gift cards arranged alphabetically, so I don’t think I’m the worst offender.) Before I knew it, I was undertaking a new financial challenge: I would spend nothing but gift cards for a week. Considering Americans wasted $41 billion by not using their gift cards between 2005 and 2011, I thought this would be a worthwhile endeavor. Plus, it would be a quick way to save some cash, and might inspire others to do the same.

I had the following gift cards in my wallet:

$20 Panera
$25 AMC
1 x $25; 1 x $50 Barnes & Noble
2 x $25 Trader Joe’s
$50 Anthropologie
$15 Subway
$20 iTunes
Voucher for a free burger at Shake Shack
Voucher for a free gel manicure at Lilac Nails

Now, let’s be honest here: A week of only being able to spend “free money” is not some sort of hardship. But it was a new budgeting challenge, which I am always up for. I usually cook dinner at home (on the nights when I don't have something going on after work), but I rarely pack my lunch, so I knew meal-planning would be a bit of a struggle. In the end, I did save a lot of money (I think around $300), but I also realized there is a reason gift cards are meant as “something extra” and not a way of life.

Saturday

I had to be careful about when I started this challenge, because I needed seven days with as few pre-planned events as possible. Evenings out with friends are rarely gift card-friendly. I had limited offerings in my kitchen (the basics: olive oil, spices, peanut butter, bread, pasta, popcorn, cereal, and some granola), so I knew I needed to start with a trip to the grocery store. In order to not hungry-overshop — a very real phenomenon — I stopped for breakfast at Subway ($4.90). I headed to Trader Joe’s and picked up groceries for the week ($30). I tried to get cash back for the rest of the gift card, but the nice checkout girl said it was against store policies. That was fine, because I would definitely be going back to Trader Joe’s.

After waiting in the horribly long line, I was ready to stay home for the rest of the day, but I volunteer one Saturday a month with a group of kids. This week we went bowling, and while the organization pays for the kids, the volunteers have to pay for themselves ($20). I wasn’t even eight hours into the challenge, and I’d already failed.

When I got home, I decided to cross a couple things off my to-do list. I went to Anthropologie.com and found birthday and housewarming gifts for two dear friends. (Total with tax and shipping was $43.) That evening, I rented a movie on iTunes ($4.99).

Total Spending:
Subway Gift Card: -$4.90
Trader Joe’s Gift Card: -$30 (all of one gift card, and $5 on another)
iTunes Gift Card: -$4.99
Anthropologie Gift Card: -$43
Cash: $20

Sunday

I made myself some yogurt and granola for breakfast, and then went to Central Park and read for a couple of hours. I walked across the park to meet a friend at Panera, my favorite suburbia treat that has finally made its way to the city. We had lunch ($12 including a free pastry thanks to MyPanera Rewards) and worked on some additional projects together (thank you, free WiFi). Plus, I received a notification that I had earned a free meal from Panera upon my next visit (score!).

I came home and made dinner (zucchini noodles, sausage, peppers, and sauce) with leftovers for Monday’s lunch. I also browned and seasoned some ground beef for easy taco preparation later in the week.

Total Spending:
Panera Gift Card: -$12
Cash: $0

Monday

I am NOT a morning person. Even though I have a job that starts later than most, I find myself staying in bed way longer than I should. While I grabbed the lunch I had pre-made, I didn’t have time to eat some granola. So, I ended up going to Subway for breakfast again ($4.90).

I brought lunch to work and was doing well not spending money — until 4 p.m., when I realized I had scheduled a coffee with a coworker. We were supposed to go to a local coffee shop, but once I explained my challenge, she agreed to go to Starbucks. I have a, um, chocolate milk habit that I indulge about three days a week, and that particular order means all the baristas remember me. I ended up telling them about my challenge, and they gave me my drink for free even though I had a gift card.

That night I went to go see Batman vs. Superman after work with a friend. We bought our tickets online the night before (I used my AMC gift card), but I had hoped to stop and get something to eat before the movie. I left work too late, though, so instead I had to buy concessions. I have an AMC StubHub Rewards Card, which gave me $10, plus there was the rest of my gift card, so I got a pizza and drink at the movies. It wasn’t the healthiest dinner, but it was free.

Total Spending:
Subway Gift Card: -$4.90
AMC Gift Card: -$23
AMC StubHub Rewards: -$10
Cash: $0

Tuesday

I got up in time to prepare eggs, sausage, and berries for breakfast before work, and packed up some of the taco meat, kale, and cheese for some Mexican kale wraps for lunch. I was too busy for a Starbucks run, so before I could think about it, the day was over.

I met up with an old coworker after work for a gel manicure at the salon near our home, where I had a gift card. It took basically all of the self control I had to not get a 20-minute massage, because if I’m not paying for the manicure, what harm would a massage be? But I resisted. The gift card covered the service, but not the tip, so I tipped $7 in cash.

I grilled some corn and peppers, heated up the leftover taco meat along with some beans and tortillas, and had tacos for dinner.

Total Spending:
Lilac Nails: -$30
Cash: $7

Wednesday

I needed to be at work a couple of hours early on Wednesday, so I quickly scarfed down some cereal and milk with a side of berries. It was only when I was halfway to work that I realized I hadn’t brought the already-packed tacos from my apartment. I was debating what to do for lunch — I didn’t really want Subway, and Panera was too far away. I was saved by one of my closest coworkers. I had done a favor for her, and she paid me back with a voucher for a free burger at Shake Shack. Hello, the most delicious lunch.

About halfway through the day, I was struggling, and ended up going down to the deli in our office building for a soda ($1.00). Then I ate some office snacks.

That night, I met a friend for dinner at Panera (no one ever turns down Panera) and used the free meal I had on my rewards card for dinner. I also purchased breakfast for $5 for the next day with my gift card. When I got home, my package from Anthropologie had arrived, so I made cards and boxed up the gifts.

Total Spending:
Panera Gift Card: -$5
Shake Shack Voucher: -1 burger
Cash: $1

Thursday

Real life caught up with me a bit today. I realized that the electricity bill was due — and there is no gift card for that ($31). Since I had to mail the check, I went ahead and brought my packages to the post office, too ($20). I also needed to get my new monthly subway card (the train, not the sandwich), which comes out of my paycheck pre-taxed and is on a card exclusively used for transportation; I never consider that “cash” since it budgets itself.

I packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a side of granola and berries for breakfast, and made a taco salad with Tuesday’s taco fixings, plus kale and salsa, for lunch. After work, I went out with two coworkers for a goodbye dinner and drinks, since it was my "work wife"’s last day. Once again, this wasn’t something I could use a gift card for. (You can’t really tell someone to move the location of their party to Panera, and — surprise! — my mom never gives me gift cards for alcohol.) We went to three different locations, and my part of the night cost $47.

Total Spending:
Cash: $87

Friday

Have I mentioned that I am not a morning person? Staying out late on Thursday night made Friday morning even harder. We get free bagels at work on Friday, so I was all set for breakfast, but I stopped at Starbucks on the way to work ($5). I hadn’t prepared lunch, so I decided to go back and use my Starbucks card to grab a pre-made sandwich, plus a fruit cup and chocolate milk ($17).

I was exhausted when it was time to leave work, but I was supposed to meet a friend for her birthday the next day and didn’t want to come empty-handed. I stopped at the Trader Joe’s wine store for a bottle and then went to Barnes & Noble to get her a book I knew she’d love. I stopped at Subway on my way home and grabbed dinner ($7); this depleted my Subway gift card, and I ended up spending $2 of my own money. I ate dinner and crashed pretty soon after I got home.

Total Spending:
Starbucks Gift Card: -$22
Subway Gift Card: $-5
Trader Joe’s Gift Card: -$6
Barnes & Noble Gift Card: -$18
Cash: $2

Saturday

It was the last day of the challenge! I made an omelette with eggs, kale, and cheese, plus ate the remainder of the berries for breakfast. I was in the middle of marathoning one author’s books, and I had two of her books left to read, so I stopped by my local library. Both were checked out, except for e-books, and I hate getting e-books from the library, so I knew I would need to stop by a bookstore.

I didn’t join my friend for her birthday dinner the night before (it started before I normally leave work and was 100% not gift-card friendly), so the two of us decided to picnic in the park as a birthday treat. I stopped at Trader Joe’s and got lunch for two ($12). We spent a couple hours eating, drinking the wine, and reading. When she left, I really, really wanted the next two books, so I went back to my neighborhood Barnes & Noble and found them ($32). I should have gone to the grocery store again, but instead made some pasta and a peanut butter smoothie for dinner.

I went out that night with some friends, but was determined to not spend money. Well, being 100% sober with a bunch of people that are not sober? Not too fun. I was so excited when I made it to midnight (and the challenge was officially over), so I could order a drink without feeling guilty.

Turns out, as awesome as free money is, trying to limit yourself to just spending your gift cards takes the fun out of them. Planning my life around using only certain cards was hard, and making plans with friends made me feel really guilty. Outside of Thursday (a complete fail), I did pretty well. Honestly, I had never been so glad to spend real money.

Total Spending:
Trader Joe’s Gift Card: -$12
Barnes & Nobles Gift Card: -$32

Final Gift Card Balances:

$3 Panera
$3 AMC
$25 Barnes & Noble
$2 Trader Joe’s
$7 Anthropologie
$0 Subway
$15.01 iTunes
USED Voucher for a free burger at Shake Shack
USED Voucher for a free gel manicure at Lilac Nails
That's right: In the end, I was stuck with a bunch of tiny amounts on all of these gift cards (except for Barnes & Noble and iTunes). No one would give me cash back. Maybe for my next challenge, I'll have to figure out how to use up these cards by spending the least amount possible at each location.

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