Cheap Ass Geek: Gift Cards

Pile of gift cards & my keysAs I write this I am sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop. I know for many in the “know” Starbucks is all played out but for me it’s part of how I save money. I know you might be asking your self right now, “How could Starbucks save you money?” Not a terrible question, and the answer is that I did not pay for my coffee with cash, I used a gift card. Not a gift card that was an actual gift mind you, but one I bought for my self.

Since I left my position as general manager of two local restaurants last June and started freelance work I have had to find ways to save my cash. One of the biggest ways for me to curb my spending was to go on a strict(ish) budget, limiting not only how much I spend but also what I buy. I also did things like cut out new release games in favor of used or older titles that have hit the $20 platinum status, clipping coupons, and more. This has allowed me more time to focus on starting my own company and getting contracts; so I don’t have to spend as much time earning money as a bartender or pouring wine as a sommelier.

How does a Starbucks gift card fit into my attempts to rein in my spending? It’s very simple, gift cards have become the enforcer of my budget in many arenas of my life. Each month I get a $20 budget for coffee and tea; honestly I don’t drink coffee but I love a good cup of tea. At the beginning of the month I load $15 on my Starbucks gift card and save $5 cash for the off chance I might end up at a neighborhood coffee/tea shop. If I use the full amount on my gift card I can’t go to a coffee shop again until the next month. If I don’t use it all that month I have a remaining balance that carries over to the next month, meaning I get to buy my self a treat, like a Top Pot doughnut!

Example b: every month I get a $30 book budget. For this, I carry two gift cards: Amazon and Powell’s. I love Powell’s City of Books and often take trips there in my free time just to haunt the stacks. So I prefer to buy my books there first, but they don’t always have what I need or the price might just be outside of my price range. That’s where Amazon comes in. I try to split the budget to $15 on each card at the beginning of the month, but don’t often use all the money on the Amazon card, so I’ll limit any “rollover” funds to $40. If there is something big that I want, like a copy of the up coming DSM V diagnostic manual, I will have to save some of my budget from a few months to get what I want. That’s ok, though, because that’s how budgets work.

Clothing is another good example, we will call it example 3: if there is a store at which you shop more often than any others gift cards are an applicable budget tool; for me, it’s Nordstrom Rack. I know, shopping at any Nordstrom store isn’t really a way to save money but, as I often present work to clients and negotiate for contracts, I prefer to look my best and I also believe that buying quality clothing pays off over the long run. I replace my $80 jeans about 1/4 as often as my $20 Old Navy denim.┬áPlus, they make my ass look awesome.

This principle can be applied to many different aspects of spending. I could use it for groceries but, because I cut coupons, I prefer to have my funds be a bit more flexible and allow me to shop where I will get the best savings. Gas cards, game stores, eating out, movies – many things the average person spends money on – can be paid for in the form of gift cards.

The point is that gift cards can be a useful tool to help one adhere to a budget, especially when just getting started. Every time I have started a new budget I have had trouble falling into line and sticking to it. If I had cash on hand I often spent it without tracking which part of the budget I was spending. I might also make excuses for buying an extra coffee or beer because “I can’t go to a meeting and not get a drink.” But gift cards, while somewhat lame, offer clear boundaries that can not be crossed.

Gift cards carry a second benefit, and I’ll use my Starbucks card to illustrate this point: I have registered my Starbucks card on their corporate website, which puts me in their rewards program. Every time I use the card it earns me points. At the basic “Green” level I get free syrup and milk, and free refills on my teas and drip coffee. When I spend 3+ hours working on a presentation or writing an article those free tea refills add up. One cup of tea at $2.25 become 3 cups at less than a dollar a cup. After 25 points the account is upgraded to “Gold” which gives the same benefits but also gives you a free drink every 15 points earned. Right there I am able to stretch my budget just a little bit more with free refills and a free drink from time to time. I’m also able to go online to check my card balance, put more funds on each month without having to go to the store, and if the card is lost or stolen I can have them send me a new card with the remaining balance.

Different companies offer different services with their cards. It’s a good idea to look into some of your favorite stores and see what they offer; you might just be surprised. In the end, using gift cards might not be for you. Some people might not enjoy giving up a bit of spending freedom to save a few bucks, but those who need to stick to a budget might find this tip useful. Try it for a few months, see if it works for you. If it does write me and let me know, or if you hit a snag I would love to hear about it.


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