How to take full advantage of your gift cards

By Sheryl Smolkin

SHUTTERSTOCK: You can sell unused gift cards online
SHUTTERSTOCK: You can sell unused gift cards online

Whether I am giving or receiving a gift, I have mixed feelings about gift cards. I like receiving cash because I can spend it on whatever I want, but often I just deposit gift cheques to my VISA card and don’t buy anything special with the money. Giving gift cards requires a bit more thought than just putting $50 in an envelope, but they are easily lost or misplaced.

The big problem used to be that many gift cards had expiry dates. However, since 2008 Saskatchewan (like most other Canadian provinces) has had legislation prohibiting expiry dates on all prepaid purchase cards and banning inactivity or dormancy fees that reduce the value of all cards bought and sold in the province.

Nevertheless, there are a few exceptions to the general rule:

  • An expiry date is allowed for prepaid purchase cards that are issued for charitable purposes, e.g. a charity auction.
  • An expiry date is allowed where the consumer has not given anything of value in exchange for the gift card or gift certificate, e.g. a retail business gives employees gift cards for store purchases as a holiday gift.
  • Retailers can charge a fee for replacing lost or stolen prepaid purchase cards.
  • Retailers can charge a fee for “customizing” a prepaid purchase card by adding personalized elements like names and logos.

So even if you excavate your bottom drawer and find a stash of gift cards that are several years old, chances are they are still useable. But what if there is absolutely nothing you want to buy from the establishments that issued the cards?

Here are some ideas:

  • Re-gift the card to your brother because you know he is renovating his house and definitely can use something from a hardware store.
  • Sell the card to a friend who frequently buys from a clothing store that doesn’t sell anything in your size range.
  • Use the card to buy a wedding present for your cousin who has registered and made a selection at the gift store where the card was purchased.
  • Donate gift cards for books, cosmetics etc. to registered charities like women’s shelters and seniors centres. Registered charities can issue official donation receipts for income tax purposes for the eligible amount of gifts of gift certificates and gift cards under specific circumstances.

And if all else fails, you can sell gift cards on several online websites like cardswap.ca. CardSwap also accepts store credits for returned merchandise accompanied by the receipt of purchase.

Here is how CardSwap works:

  1. Enter the details of your gift card into the online form. There is a list of over 450 merchants in the pre-populated form, but if you don’t see the company that issued your card you can request that it be added.
  2. Mail your gift card to CardSwap using their free pre-paid shipping label. You will receive an email confirmation when they receive your gift card.
  3. CardSwap will mail you a cheque, credit your account with SwapPoints or the amount can be deposited directly to your PayPal account. A PayPal deposit is instant, but further charges may apply. If you select points instead of cash, you can redeem your SwapPoints for gift cards from your favourite Canadian merchants sold online by other CardSwap users.

Another Canadian website where you can buy and sell gift cards is giftah.com, developed by several University of Waterloo students. Before selling your gift cards online do your own due diligence to satisfy yourself that the site is on the level and delivers what it promises.

Do you have any other ideas how to use unwanted gift cards?  Send us an email to socialmedia@saskpension.com. If your idea is posted, your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar every time you use or sell a gift card that you forgot about before you read this article.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

17-Jan Online shopping Ways to save by shopping online
24-Jan Home insurance What does your home insurance cover?
31-Jan Winter vacation 7 ways to protect your credit cards on vacation

Related:
How to turn unwanted gift cards into cash
7 tips for buying and selling used gift cards
These holidays, put those unused gift cards to work

Jan 7: Best from the blogosphere

By Sheryl Smolkin

blogospheregraphic

Happy New Year to all! This week’s roundup includes blogs that recap the best of 2012, and encourage “financial fitness” that can save you money in 2013.

If you ran out of vacation days long before the end of last year, you will not be surprised by results of a Mercer survey I reported on in my moneyville blog Eye on Benefits that reveals Canadians alone in preferring time off to a raise.

On squawkfox.ca Kerry K. Taylor reprints her top blogs in 2012 including “This is going to be expensive… but who cares!” which announces the adoption of her infant daughter Chloe.

Retiree Dave Dineen writes about ways we can add meaning to our lives in New Years- A time for rediscovery on brighterlife.ca

For those of us who struggle with making and following a budget, Boomer and Echo blogger Robb Engen makes the case for Why budgeting is not a waste of time.

And finally, for those of you who have budgeted for upgraded tech gadgets even after your holiday spending spree, moneyville blogger Marc Saltzman says there are rumours that New Apple iPads set to debut in March?.

What to look for in a gym membership

By Sheryl Smolkin

SHUTTERSTOCK: A gym membership is a good investment if you use it
SHUTTERSTOCK: A gym membership is a good investment if you use it

In the aftermath of the excesses of the holiday season, January is prime time for gyms seeking new members. People who have resolved to lose weight and get fit in the New Year sign up in droves. But by the end of February most of these “resolutionists” are rarely seen and regulars no longer have to contend with line ups for classes and cardio equipment.

Committing to regular exercise at gym is only one way to get fit in 2013. Local recreation centres and schools offer a myriad of reasonably priced activities. For example, you can purchase an annual pass to the 100 metre indoor walking track at the Arcola East Community Association in Regina for $80/year or just $25 for the winter season.

However, if you decide that this is the year to join a gym, there are some basic things to remember that will increase the odds that you will actually stick with the program and get value for the money you spend.

First of all, find a gym that is close by with free parking and hours that fit into your schedule. A referral from a friend or listings in the online yellow pages are good places to start.

Also check out the equipment and classes included in at no extra charge by the gyms you are considering. Most gyms will give you a courtesy pass to try out the facilities before you actually become a member.

If you will never take a yoga class, swim laps or need childcare you may decide to join a more bare bones facility that costs less. However, the advantage of a full service gym with a broader range of fitness options is that trying new activities can keep you from getting bored over time and giving up.

Cost and the method of payment are important considerations. Beware of new member specials where you get a reduced rate for several months but have to sign up for a year and provide a credit card or bank account information to get the deal. You may get a better price if your employer has a corporate rate or if there are enough interested people to negotiate one.

And don’t forget to check out the company’s business track record.  A good place to start is the Better Business Bureau in your province.  If you choose to sign up for a year in advance, you’d like the gym to stay in business for at least that long.

Finally, remember that when you join a gym, you are signing a contract. As a consumer you need to ask yourself what your fitness goals are and what medical issues you should consider prior to entering into any contractual arrangement for a gym membership.

The Saskatchewan Better Business Bureau gets frequent complaints from consumers who want to cancel their gym contracts but are unable to do so. They suggest you ask the following questions before signing on the bottom line:

  1. What are the terms of any introductory offers? Gyms use special introductory offers to entice new members. Ensure you understand the terms and the cost once the introductory period is over. Many gyms require multi-year contracts and don’t offer month-to-month arrangements, which for most consumers are probably preferable.
  2. Will my membership renew automatically? The BBB receives frequent complaints from people who joined a gym and didn’t realize that their contract would renew automatically and specific steps must be followed to cancel the contracts.  Early or mid-term cancellations may carry financial costs. Early or mid-term cancellations may carry financial costs.
  3. How can I get out of my contract?   Getting out of a gym contact isn’t as easy as getting into one, so ensure you understand what steps the gym requires to cancel your membership. Ask what happens if you are ill and have to terminate or put your membership on hold.
  4. What happens if I move?   Policies vary by company when a consumer is moving and how the gym applies the policy may depend on how far away you are moving and if they have another facility in your new community area.
  5. What happens if the gym goes out of business?   The BBB receives complaints from people when their gyms suddenly close taking their money with them. Ask the gym to explain what will happen to your money if they suddenly go out of business.

Also check out CBC Marketplace’s January 2011 exposé called Big Gym Ripoff which offers tips on how to avoid continuing to be charged after cancellation of membership and how to avoid being charged for services not requested or received.

How are you planning to get fit and stay healthy on a budget in 2013?  Send us an email to socialmedia@saskpension.com. If your idea is posted, your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar every time you add exercise to your daily routine in 2013.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

10-Jan Post-Christmas How to get the most out of your gift cards
17-Jan Online shopping Ways to save by shopping online
24-Jan Home insurance What does your home insurance cover?

Financial New Year’s resolutions

By Sheryl Smolkin

27Dec-payoffdebt
SHUTTERSTOCK: Paying off debt will mean you have more money to save

Are the papers on your desk a jumble of bank statements, utility bills and reminders that it’s time to make a dentist appointment?

Does the balance on your credit cards exceed your ability to pay off the balance every month?

Do you know how much discretionary income you have or do you simply write cheques hoping you have enough money in your account to cover them?

If managing your household expenses is an exercise in frustration, maybe this is the year to get your financial house in order.

Every year most of us make at least one or two New Year’s resolutions, but often they are not written down and we do not hold ourselves accountable. Maybe it’s because we make too many resolutions or our goals were not realistic to start with.

Here are some financial New Year’s resolutions that could help you better manage your money and begin saving for longer term goals, including retirement.

  1. Get organized: Two accordion files – one for outstanding bills and one for paid bills can go a long way to taming the mess on your desk. Keep a record of when each bill must be paid or when the amount automatically comes out of your account.
  2. Reduce debt: Commit to paying off your credit card balances every month. If this is not realistic, consolidate debt at the lowest possible interest rate and pay it off as quickly as possible. Most provinces have credit counselling services that offer free, confidential debt solution services.
  3. Understand your expenses: January is a great time to get a handle on your expenses vs. your cash flow. You have all of your 2012 credit card bills and bank statements. Once you figure out where the money went last year, you can more easily determine how you can free up dollars to repay debt and begin a savings program.
  4. Pay yourself first: If you set up automatic monthly withdrawals for Saskatchewan Pension Plan, RRSP or other pension contributions, the Canada Revenue Agency will allow you to pay less tax each month instead of waiting for a tax return at the end of the year. You will hardly notice the decrease in your disposable income.
  5. Saving at work: Employers offering the Saskatchewan Pension Plan or another registered retirement savings plan typically match all or part of your contributions — often up to 5 or 6%. If you haven’t enrolled, you are leaving money on the table.
  6. Benefit claims: Your workplace health and dental plans are terrific tax-free benefits. Resolve to immediately send in all bills for reimbursement so you don’t lose or forget about them. If your spouse also has a health plan, make sure to re-submit for the balance not paid by your plan. Even small amounts can add up.
  7. File your tax return early: If you have overpaid, the earlier you file your return, the sooner you will get a cheque back from CRA. However, if you have investment returns you may not get all of your tax slips until the end of March. Sending in your tax return too early could mean that you have to re-file later and even pay interest on taxes not paid by April 30th.
  8. Spending your tax return: Plan to spend at least part of your tax return to pay down debt, contribute to a tax-free savings account  or enhance your retirement savings.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Pick a couple of these resolutions that relate to your situation and put them on your “to do” list. Then send an email to socialmedia@saskpension.com with other suggestions you have for financial New Year’s resolutions. If your idea is posted, your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar for every resolution you make to get your financial house in order in 2013.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

3-Jan Getting in shape What to look for in a gym membership
10-Jan Post-Christmas How to get the most out of your gift cards
17-Jan Online shopping Ways to save by shopping online

Beating the day after Boxing Day Blues

By Sheryl Smolkin

SHUTTERSTOCK It’s only a bargain if you need what you buy……

The day before Black Friday money-saving maven Gail Vaz-Oxlade tweeted, “Only in the U.S. do people trample each other to acquire more STUFF exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have!” Gail agreed when I tweeted back, “Actually Canadians do the same thing on Boxing Day.”

I think the problem is we all have selective amnesia. December credit card bills won’t arrive until January so we forget that our bank accounts are tapped out and hit the stores looking for “just one more great deal.”

But to make Boxing Day shopping worthwhile you need to know what you are looking for and stick to the plan. Here are my suggestions to help you beat the December 27th, day after Boxing Day blues:

  1. Set priorities: Decide what you want most, where it can be found for the best price and make that your first stop. If you are looking for several big ticket items on sale in different places, consider a “divide and conquer” approach where individual family members each head for a separate store.
  2. Know the real price: Whether or not the sign says it’s a sale, the item may not be much of a bargain. Also, either before Boxing Day or after when the store is less chaotic, the manager may be willing to drop the already low “Boxing Week” price, particularly if the item has a scratch or dent.
  3. Shop online: Check online to see advertised deals which may not be available anywhere else. The specials may also be posted after midnight and long before your morning newspaper arrives with the sale flier. My daughter got both a front loading Samsung washer and dryer for $800 on Boxing Day several years ago. This price was only available online and delivery was free.
  4. Pre-shop: If you have your eye on a new winter coat or a pretty dress for New Years, visit the store as late as possible on December 24th to scout out the stock and try things on. That way you can be pretty sure it will still be there on Boxing Day and you will be able to grab exactly what you want without wasting valuable time and energy waiting for a dressing room.
  5. Shopping apps: Smartphones can scan barcodes and offer real-time discounts. They can also help you more easily compare prices without driving from store to store. While high tech shopping apps are just starting to catch on in Canada, a recent survey by wireless carrier Mobilicity revealed that 43 per cent of 18-to-34 year olds planned on using features and apps on their mobile phones to help with holiday shopping.
  6. Check sizes carefully: Dressing rooms can be chaotic on Boxing Day and typically you can only take a few items in with you. When you have tried multiple sizes and styles to find what looks best on you, it is easy to inadvertently take home a top in size 12 and pants in size 14. By the time you get back to exchange the item in the wrong size, there may be nothing left to choose from.
  7. Understand the company’s return policy: Even stores that generally allow you to bring items back within 7 or 14 days for a cash refund with a receipt may suspend or modify that policy on Boxing Day, particularly if you are purchasing ends of lines. Unless you are sure the items are suitable, don’t buy things you can’t give back.
  8. Travel light: Park indoors or close to the mall, if possible. That way you can leave your coat and boots in the car. Also, take the junk out of your purse or consider a money belt to lighten your load for the expedition. If you are comfortable, you will be less likely to make rash purchases just to get it over with.
  9. Watch your wallet: The Boxing Day crowds are prime territory for pick pockets. Hold on to your wallet and make sure you get your credit card back after you make a purchase. When you are entering your credit or debit card PIN shield the keypad so no one else can see and record the information.
  10. Count your bags: By the time you have spent several hours shopping you may have multiple bags of all shapes and sizes. Keep track of your growing haul so you don’t collapse in the Food Court for a snack and then head for home without a significant portion of your loot.

Finally, if your excuse for shopping on Boxing Day is to use your gift cards, make sure you can actually afford the difference if you buy items that cost significantly more than the gift you received.

These are just a few of my ideas for beating the Boxing Day blues. Tell us about yours by sending an email to socialmedia@saskpension.com. If your tip is posted, your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

27-Dec New Years Financial New Years resolutions
4-Jan Getting in shape What to look for in a gym membership

And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar for every dollar you save by using savewitspp.com tips to beat the day after Boxing Day Blues…….

November 2012 return

SPP posted a return of 0.52% to the balanced fund (BF) and 0.05% to the short-term fund (STF). The year to date return in the BF is 7.15% and in the STF is 0.46%.

Market index returns for November 2012 were:

Index  Nov 2012 return (%)
S&P/TSX Composite (Canadian equities) -1.28
S&P 500 (C$) (US equities) -0.04
MSCI EAFE (C$)
(Non-north American equities)
1.79
DEX Universe Bond (Canadian bonds) 0.62
DEX 91 day T-bill 0.10

Click here for a complete list of returns.

Dec 17: Best from the blogosphere

By Sheryl Smolkin

blogospheregraphic

November was Financial Literacy Month and Glenn Cooke of Life Insurance Canada organized a campaign by Canadian bloggers who published their best financial tips. Links to all of them appear in this blog from Canadian Capitalist.

Masters of Money’s Alison Griffiths warns on Getsmartaboutmoney.ca that if an investment seems to good to be true, it probably is.

Toronto Star columnist and consumer advocate Ellen Roseman blogs about how social media helped Kavitha Nadarajah get compensation from Whirlpool after she had to replace her top of the line five year-old refrigerator.

For holiday travellers, Mike Holman at Money Smarts has some ideas about avoiding cell phone roaming charges when you travel to the U.S.

T.V. personality Gail Vaz-Oxlade calculates how much money you can save by making lunch instead of eating lunch out every day.

Tax time is quickly approaching, so bookmark this post on Million Dollar Trader about CRA’s Community Volunteer Income Tax Program for both people who need help and qualified volunteers who are able to assist them.

10 frugal last minute gifts

By Sheryl Smolkin

SHUTTERSTOCK  Get creative. Give more affordable, meaningful gifts

The clock is ticking and if you haven’t finished your Christmas shopping, you may be starting to get nervous. You may also feel like you have no option but to descend on the local mall and buy something for everyone left on your list, even if you end up spending way more than you planned.

But the fact is that most of us already have way too much stuff. With a little creativity, you can give more affordable gifts that will mean more to the people who receive them. And you won’t have to fight the last minute crowds.

  1. Plan an outing: Give friends and family tickets or a computer-printed “gift certificate” for an inexpensive post-holiday outing. Curious children will love a visit to the Saskatchewan Science Centre. The entrance fee is under $10 for adults and children. Toddlers get in for free. In 2013 the Globe Theatre is mounting great shows like Pride and Prejudice and The Drowsy Chaperone. Economy tickets start at $29. Every town has community sports teams that play regular games.
  2. Donate to a charity: Donating to a charity in honour of a person who has everything can be a welcome gesture. If your child has been to the zoo in Saskatoon and fallen in love with one of the animals, consider the adopt-a-critter program for $25 that will get you a picture, certificate and fact sheet of your chosen animal. Of course then you might have difficulty explaining why the monkey Tarzan can’t move in.
  3. Re-gift an heirloom: Do you have a locket with your children’s baby pictures? How about the china teapot your mother left you? Are you downsizing to a smaller home in the near future? Consider passingbeloved items you no longer need or have room for to friends and family who will give them new life.
  4. Make something yummy: I’m not a crafty person so I won’t suggest complicated make work projects to add to your holiday stress. But a double or triple recipe of something simple like cranberry sauce or chutney will make dozens of small jars for only a few dollars. These make great gifts for neighbours, co-workers and teachers.
  5. A Boxing Day IOU: Although many stores run sales through the whole month of December and Black Friday has moved north of the border, many items still cost more on December 24th than two days later. If an item someone you know is coveting is still too expensive, give him an IOU for a Boxing Day or Boxing week shopping trip.
  6. Give your time: Do you play with your smartphone when you should be playing with your children? Do elderly relatives need snow shovelled or help with grocery shopping? Give tickets or homemade gift cards that can be used to reserve a specified number of hours of your uninterrupted time.
  7. Make memories: I have boxes of baby pictures that I never put into albums. And now that pictures are digital, we rarely print them. Most camera stores offer templates online or in the store so you can assemble attractive hard cover photo books to preserve your memories.
  8. Popcorn and a movie:  Whether you buy gift certificates for the local Cineplex, rent a DVD or take movies out from the library, a movie and popcorn can be a welcome treat for kids of all ages.
  9. Buy a book: My absolute favourite gift to give and receive is a good book. Our family always gives the short list of Giller prize books and then we re-circulate them so everyone gets a chance to read them all. The great thing about books and gift cards for books is that you can order them online and have them delivered anywhere in Canada on very short notice.
  10. Your favourite recipes: My husband’s family does a potluck Chanukah dinner. Everyone loves Lil’s chiffon cake and Anne’s noodle pudding with fruit cocktail and Joel’s potato latkes. If your family has a similar tradition, why not put all the recipes together so newer family members can carry on the tradition?

These are just a few of my ideas for last minute frugal gifts. Tell us about yours by sending an email to socialmedia@saskpension.com. If your tip is posted, your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

20-Dec Boxing Day How to beat the Boxing Day blues
27-Dec New Years Financial New Years resolutions

And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar for every dollar you save…….

Best from the blogosphere

By Sheryl Smolkin

blogospheregraphic

If you are reading B.C.-based Kerry K. Taylor at Squawkfox for the first time don’t miss 50 ways to save $1,000/ year. But her blog Price Check: How to cut the cost of a gluten-free diet is a must-read for anyone shopping and cooking for people with this dietary limitation.

In Give me back my five bucks Krystal Yee who also blogs on moneyville.ca and The Frugal Wanderer asks what you would do if someone gave you $1000.

At Boomer & Echo, Robb Engen from southern Alberta (also another moneyville blogger) test drives a new rewards credit card from American Express.

Tim Stobbs lives in Regina. He is well on his way to the Canadian Dream: Free at 45. He recently posted a five-part blog updating his retirement calculations and how he is going to get there 20 years before the rest of us.

And as you prepare for the holiday season with your nearest and dearest, make sure you have a tissue handy when you read a reprint on Brighter Life of the tender 2011 letter from Sun Life AVP and blogger Kevin Press to his daughter, Dear Grace: The three secrets of Christmas.

Christmas entertaining on a budget

By Sheryl Smolkin

SHUTTERSTOCK Brunch can be an inexpensive way to entertain.

My husband Joel and I are foodies. We look on food as much more than sustenance. It is family, community and culture. Preparing and eating a good meal is creative, sensual and satisfying.

Joel generally does the cooking, but I do the planning and most of the shopping. So I know how expensive holiday entertaining can be — particularly if you serve multiple courses including an expensive cut of meat and a pricey bottle of wine or two.

But there are lots of ways to fill your home with good friends and the heady aroma of good cooking before and after the holidays without breaking the bank. Here are a few of my favourites:

  1. Decide what you can afford: Budgets are boring, but it’s also all too easy to just cruise up and down the supermarket aisles and throw things into your buggy. Figure out what you can afford to spend and shop with a list.
  2. Plan ahead: Plan your menu as far in advance as possible. That will allow you to buy ingredients on special and cook and freeze some dishes. You will not be paying top dollar at the last minute and you will be much more relaxed because a significant part of your party preparation is already done. The  cost of your event will also be spread out over several weeks.
  3. Keep it simple: Make more of a few things rather than offering a huge variety of items on a buffet. If there is too much choice everyone wants to taste everything and you will either run out of the most popular dish or end up with a lot of leftovers. Lasagna, shepherd’s pie, chili, a pot of stew or a curry can all be served with a couple of salads and good bread.
  4. Potluck dinner: Divide up the meal into appetizers, main course, salads, beverages and desert. Ask your guests to indicate which category they will contribute and to bring their dish in a container suitable for heating and serving. Each person gets to take their leftovers home or trade with others.
  5. Progressive dinner: A progressive dinner means that each course is served at a different home. It lends itself to groups of up to half a dozen couples or families who don’t live too far apart. While traipsing from house to house may be less appealing on cold dark nights, a progressive dinner can still be lots of fun.  It’s also less expensive for each family than preparing a full meal. If alcohol is being served make sure to have designated drivers.
  6. Brunch: Brunch on weekends or holidays is a great time to entertain. You are not worn out before your guests arrive and parents with young children can still get them home for a nap. Fruit smoothies, an egg frittata and muffins are inexpensive and easy to make. Even if your crowd includes carnivores who love breakfast meat you’ll spend much less than on a prime rib roast.

Even if you are on a budget, plan to make enough to feed a few extra mouths so you can issue last minute invitations to friends or friends of friends who can’t make it home for the holidays.

These are just a few of my ideas about how to entertain economically. Tell us about yours by sending an email to socialmedia@saskpension.com If your tip is posted, your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

13-Dec Christmas shopping 10 frugal last-minute Christmas gift ideas
20-Dec Boxing Day How to beat the Boxing Day blues

And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar for every dollar you save…….