What should you do with all the gift cards you got during the holidays?

Even the most festive cards have an expiration date.

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— Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. However, our picks and opinions are independent from USA Today’s newsroom and any business incentives.

People are generally of two minds about getting gift cards for the holidays: Either you end up feeling like the gift card giver didn't know what to get you (hint: most people wanted these), or you're jazzed that you just got a bunch of free money to spend on things you actually want.

Either way, there's a good chance you're now sitting on a reserve of gift cards for places like Target, Amazon, Visa, Disney, or Walmart. The obvious next step is to spend those gift cards at their appropriate locations and call it a season, right?

The fun thing about gift cards, though, is that they can take you out of your spending comfort zone—if you're thoughtful about them. Here are some strategies you can apply to get the most out of your holiday gift cards, and avoid any buyer's remorse.

Don't be frivolous just because it's 'free money'

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Credit: Getty Images

I don't know about you, but my go-to behavior when I get a gift card is to just find something that I can afford without paying anything, even if it's something I'd almost never buy or don't even want. I'm not sure where that compulsion comes from, but I'm often left feeling buyer's remorse afterwards.

On the other hand, "gift card creep"—the tendency to spend more than you would just because you have a gift card—is a very real thing. Market researchers have reported that on average, gift card users spend $38 (versus spending nothing) simply because they're using a gift card.

The complex solution is to carefully think about and weigh the pros and cons of whatever you're buying—but then it kind of feels like someone gave you the gift of fiscal responsibility, and that's no fun.

A better solution? Find things that are on sale or clearance already, so you know you're still getting a deal on top of those gift card savings. If you're shopping online, check out retailers' sales such as Target's clearance section, Walmart's end of year discounts, or Amazon's Gold Box deals.

Try something different

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Credit: Getty Images

If you just can't find some essential or especially wanted item on sale or clearance (or just something you've been dying to buy but was too pricy), it's okay to take a chance on something new or different.

Especially if you've got a Visa gift card, you can put it towards more experiential things rather than just more "stuff." Check out Hotels.com or Airbnb and stay somewhere new. Or you can find an event on StubHub or even order a meal from GrubHub.

At least with Visa gift cards, you can use them for partial payments almost anywhere that Visa debit cards are accepted (which seems to be almost everywhere).

Keep in mind that places like Target, Walmart, and Amazon sell groceries, too, and even if there's no "stuff" you want, there's no shame using your gift card to reduce the cost of this week's bread and milk.

Turn it into cash (sort of)

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Credit: Getty Images

There's always the chance that you just can't think of a way to spend your gift card. Maybe you're moving and just don't want to buy any new things, or maybe you feel liberated by your newly adopted minimalist aesthetic—it might even be a New Year's resolution.

While it's not the most economical way to use them, there are ways to simply turn gift cards into cash. Check out CardCash, where you can usually get around 60% of the gift card value back in "cash" (or the PayPal/online equivalent, anyway).

Perhaps a more economical and more charitable move could be to donate the gift card instead of losing 40% to a third-party site. Sites like GiftCards4Change allow you to donate full or even partially used gift cards, where the value will go to someone who might just need it more. It may not seem like the most fun way to use your gift cards, but we think Santa would approve.

Prices are accurate at the time of publication, but may change over time.

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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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