Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas!
Wait, it’s summer? Okay, you may not be thinking about Christmas now. After all, summer is just starting to get into full swing (and after a very long, cold winter here in the Midwest). So you probably don’t want to think about snow and cold and tinsel and all the other things that come along with Christmas.
But you should. Why? Because, if you’re like me, December usually goes a little something like this:
- Husband signs Child 1 up for indoor soccer ($$$).
- Child 1 now needs new soccer shoes ($$) that actually fit his ever-growing body (and oh my goodness I don’t know how I’m going to keep this kid in clothes at the rate he grows).
- And he probably also needs new shinguards ($) because why would he keep track of those things in the off-season?
- Child 2 smashes her winter coat zipper in the locker (or her locker mate does — sure, we’ll go with that one, Child 2) so she needs a new one ($$).
- Oh, and did I mention she also tore a hole in her snow pants ($)? Might as well replace the boots while we’re at it ($).
- What’s this? A broken heater in the husband’s car? Since there’s a blizzard going on, I guess we should get that fixed ($$$$).
- What’s that, leg? You decided to form some blood clots? Well, sure, I would love to shell out money for ultrasounds and blood thinners ($$$$).
- Oh, hold up, appendix. You want in on the action, too? Well, sure. Let’s just add a surprise appendectomy to the budget ($$$$$).
- And at this point, I really need that bag of Dove chocolate and the bottle (or 3) of moscato to make it to Christmas ($). Are moscato and blood thinners compatible?
*Based on true events from last winter.
So then on top of all those extra expenses, you also have to fit in gifts for your kids, husband, siblings, parents, mailman, kids’ teachers, and everyone else you’ve ever known. At least that’s how it feels. Is it acceptable to start grabbing stuff from the pantry as gifts?
This year, I’m determined to take the sting out of the budget come December 15th when I finally start Christmas shopping. (Maybe procrastination will be my focus next year?)
But, you know, those unexpected expenses pop up year round. So I don’t really want to set aside actual money from my paycheck to achieve it. Instead, I’m going to use gift cards to work a little Christmas magic.
But, Shelley, don’t gift cards cost money? Well, traditionally, yes. But lucky for all of us, there are so many ways to get free ones. So you can start simply, starting now on your Christmas budget without setting aside cash. Here are my favorite options.
Target Gift Cards
I’m in love with Target. Like full-on in love wanna have a lifelong relationship. I mean, sure, they reel you in and make you spend way more than you planned. But you get some really cool stuff out of the deal.
They also offer some seriously good incentives. One of those are all the gift card options you can get. It seems like almost every week you can find some kind of deal (or multiple deals) where you get a $5 gift card if you buy 2 (or 3 or 4) of a certain item.
I used to ignore those deals. Because I’m here for one jumbo package of toilet paper, thank you very much, not 3. But we’re obviously going to use that toilet paper (as evidenced by my at least weekly trips to buy more). So why not buy in advance? Get ahead of the game? And also get some free cash (in the form of gift cards) from it.
When I did get the deals, I would use the gift cards the next time I shopped. But this year, I’m saving them all. When Christmas rolls around, I’ll have a decent stockpile of gift cards to use toward gifts.
Here are some guidelines and tips for making this work:
- Check the ad to see which deals are available that week. You’ll find the details and available products there.
- Look in all departments. Last year I upgraded my iPhone so my son could have my old one after his phone bit the dust. Instead of going to Verizon to get a new phone, I got it at Target. I got a hefty gift card at the time. And I also scored a $15 gift card every quarter for the next year. Since it was right before Christmas last year, I used the big gift card on gifts. I’m banking the $15 gift cards I get for this Christmas. By Christmas this year, I’ll have an extra $60 for something I was going to buy anyway.
- Look for signs as you shop. The deals are usually clearly marked. A lot of times I don’t look at the deals ahead of time, but I’ll keep an eye out when I’m shopping. If there’s a sign by something I was planning to buy anyway, I’ll add a few extras to my cart and get the free gift card.
- Get the Cartwheel app. Seriously, it’s a lifesaver. You can check for coupon deals in the app that often give you gift cards. As I write this post, I see a coupon in the app for a $5 gift card with the purchase of $30 in men’s clothing and a $5 gift card on a $20 purchase of Mickey and Minnie Mouse Special Collection items. They also have deals for grocery purchases occasionally. And we all need groceries (since the kids keep expecting food), so you might as well get a free gift card out of it, too.
- Know what you have to do to get the gift card. The “buy 2 to get a $5 gift card” deals often cause the register to automatically prompt the cashier to hand over your free gift card (or if you do self-checkout, it pops up a message to grab a nearby gift card and scan it). But the coupon deals often require you to have the coupon bar code scanned first. Those deals are often things like “get a free $5 gift card with a beauty purchase of $20 or more.” Make sure you show the cashier those coupons or scan them yourself if you do self-checkout.
- ONLY BUY THINGS YOU WOULD NORMALLY BUY. If you’re buying things just to get the gift card deal, you’re defeating the whole point of this, which is to basically get free money to use toward Christmas. I may be able to get a $10 gift card for buying two boxes of diapers, but my kids are 10 and 12, so I’d bejk wasting way more money than I’m going to get back.
- The only exception to the above is if you’re donating to a charitable cause and would donate anyway. Then you’re doing a little good for the charity and a little good for your Christmas funds.
Earning Gift Cards on Swagbucks
One of my favorite ways to earn gift cards online is with Swagbucks. Why? Because you totally earn money for something you probably already do: shop online. Plus, you can earn money for doing lots of other things. Some cost money. Others are totally free (like filling out surveys and watching videos). That means you can build up your Swagbucks even when you’re not shopping.
So how does it work? Once you sign up for a free Swagbucks account, you go there first whenever you shop online. Swagbucks is my go-to cash back option when I shop online. So you search for the website, click the link and buy whatever it is you’re already planning to buy.
After your purchase, you get a certain amount of Swagbucks (SB) per dollar you spend at that online retailer. For example, at the time of writing this, Hotels.com was good for 8% cash back or 8 SB per dollar you spend. (Note: This is a special rate right now — the normal rate is 2% — you can often find this increases for certain stores at certain times.) If you spend $500 on a hotel reservation, that means you’ll get 4,000 SB. That’s equal to a $40 gift card for most of the redemption options. Even at the lower 2% rate, you would earn 1,000 SB or $10. And that’s on something you’re going to book anyway.
I mentioned other ways of earning money with Swagbucks. Some of the ways to earn SB include:
- Doing online searches through Swagbucks
- Taking surveys
- Signing up for free offers
- Signing up for paid offers (Dollar Shave Club is my favorite!)
- Watching videos
- Exploring content
- Playing games
If you have some free time, you can rack up several free SBs each day. Plus, they give you daily earning goals. If you reach them, you get a few bonus SBs.
So what do you do with these SBs? You can redeem them for gift cards. Unlike the Target gift card trick for saving money for Christmas, you have a lot more options here. Amazon is a big one. I mean who doesn’t love Amazon? And who can’t find something on Amazon to buy?
Another option is getting PayPal cash. Then you can spend it anywhere. You can also get gift cards to lots of popular stores like Target, Walmart, Starbucks, iTunes, Kohl’s, Sam’s Club and lots of others. Choose a gift card to the store where you want to buy Christmas gifts, and you can get them for free (or at least at a discount). Or give the gift card itself as a gift. Keep in mind the gift cards you get from Swagbucks are usually e-gift cards, so you won’t have a physical card to give as a gift.
Earning Cash Back for Shopping Online at Ebates
Ebates is a cash back program for online shopping that’s very similar to Swagbucks. And it’s also very popular. The main difference is that Ebates doesn’t have the extra earning opportunities like Swagbucks does. And you get cash back instead of a gift card. But you can use that cash back toward your Christmas gift purchases. Set it aside for that purpose, or, if you’re tempted to spend the money when you get it, use that money to buy a gift card to the store where you want to buy Christmas gifts. Then when Christmas rolls around, you have the gift card ready to go.
You have three options for cashing out your moolah:
- A check to you
- A check to someone else (charity, organization or an individual)
- A PayPal payment
The cash back amount you get varies quite a bit depending on where you’re shopping. It’s not uncommon to find cash back offers up to 10% or more of your purchase, although many are lower. Many online retailers are on there. Plus you can save on travel expenses for things like your car rental, airport parking, hotels and other expenses.
Ebates used to be my go-to way of getting cash back for shopping online, but I lean more toward Swagbucks these days. I earned $73.95 in cash back over the course of a 2-year period. And let me tell you, that was a lean period when I wasn’t doing much shopping at all, let alone online shopping. So if you like to get the deals, you can definitely get a lot more back.
Ebates issues payments four times per year. You’ll need a balance of more than $5 to qualify for the payment, but that’s not tough to do if you shop online a lot. (I’m not advocating irresponsible online spending, but let’s just say I’ve justified a few extra items in the cart knowing I’d get cash back!)
If you’re new to Ebates, you can join for free. Plus, you get a $10 bonus (as in totally free money!) if you’re a new Ebates member and make purchases totaling at least $25 in the first 90 days. So basically, make one online purchase and you get an extra $10 on top of whatever cash back you earn on the purchase.
How I Maximize Free Money From Gift Cards and Cash Back
With so many options, how do you decide where to go? And how do you keep track of it all?
Like so many things, it comes down to personal preference. I recommend checking out each of the options first. Look at the following features:
- Available shopping options: Check to see if the online shops you use regularly are on all of the programs or just some. You might find your favorite store is on Ebates but not Swagbucks, for example. In that case, Ebates is the obvious best choice.
- Rewards: Consider how you want to spend your cash back. If you want more freedom, Ebates gives you actual cash back, so you can spend it anywhere. If you don’t mind gift cards, Swagbucks offers a lot of options.
- Cash out options: Another issue is how you cash out your points or rewards or whatever it’s called on any given site. Swagbucks lets you cash out at any time (if you have enough for a gift card). Ebates automatically sends you the cash (if you meet the minimum amount) four times per year.
So what’s my process? Well, I use the free Target gift card trick any time I see a deal I would buy anyway at the store. That’s a no-brainer. And there’s really no competition for that one. Same goes for any local stores that offer you gift cards. A regional grocery store chain in our area recently had a deal for a $25 for a transferred prescription plus two additional gift cards if you kept the prescription there. I probably wouldn’t find much for Christmas gifts at the grocery store (although this one does have a good selection of other things), but that gift card can cover that portion of your grocery budget for the week. Then you can put the same amount of cash (that you would have spent on groceries) toward your Christmas gift budget. So instead of paying $25 out of my bank account for groceries, I would withdraw it and put it in my Christmas fund. Then I would use the gift card for groceries.
The dilemma comes when you shop online. I personally like Swagbucks because of the different ways to earn SBs. So that’s my first choice. But if a store I’m shopping at isn’t available on Swagbucks, I’ll look at other options.
Here’s what I recommend:
- Choose your top online cash back/free gift card/point earning website using the points above.
- Rank the remaining options in order of how you would use them.
- Go to your preferred website first to see if the store you’re buying from is on it.
- If it’s there, use it. If it’s not, go to the next cash back site on your list to see if it’s there.
Choosing your main cash back site helps you maximize the amount of free money you can get back to put toward your Christmas gift budget. Since Swagbucks is my go-to option, I have way more points there than anywhere else. That means I can cash them out for a larger gift card. If I were to randomly choose cash back sites each time, I would have my free money scattered, and it wouldn’t make as big of an impact.
How I’m Saving my Gift Cards
So the next dilemma is how to save the gift cards. If I keep my Target gift cards in my wallet, I’m tempted to spend them on random trips. So I have a special gift card jar where they go until it gets closer to Christmas. Before they go into the jar, I write the dollar amount on the card with permanent marker, so it’s easy to see how much it’s worth. I also have a little tracking sheet in the jar for a quick running total.
As for Swagbucks, I’m just going to let those babies pile up in my account. When Christmas rolls around, I’ll cash them in for the gift card of my choice to use toward Christmas presents. Keep in mind it does take a little while to process the redemption, so it’s a good idea to redeem the SBs before you actually want to use the gift card.
Setting Free Money Goals for Your Christmas Gift Budget
How much do you want to save for Christmas? My goal is to earn $300 in free money for Christmas. That won’t cover our entire Christmas budget, but it will make a dent in it. And it’s free money that’s not coming out of my pocket because I’m getting the gift cards for things I’m buying anyway.
I’m currently at $55 in Target gift cards and just over $40 in SwagBucks. So I have a ways to go, but I’m going to buckle down and get moving.
So what are your goals? Start by calculating your budget for Christmas gifts. Then decide how much you want to earn in gift cards.
What are you waiting for? Make this Christmas a little merrier by using free gift cards to buy your gifts!