Gift Cards

Nov 24: Best from the blogosphere

November 24, 2014

By Sheryl Smolkin

Do you typically buy a fistful of gift cards for holiday gifts? Just in time to save you a bundle, Boomer & Echo’s Rob Engen writes about How To Hack Gift Cards For Big Discounts. He suggests buying gift cards with your cash back credit card, the RedFlagDeals forum dedicated to buying and selling gift cards and purchasing discounted gift cards at Costco. Who knew?

On Retire Happy, government benefits expert Doug Runchey explains that Receiving a partial OAS pension affects the amount of GIS a pensioner will receive in two ways:

  1. A pensioner receiving partial OAS will receive more GIS than someone receiving a full OAS pension, to make up for their lesser amount of OAS.
  2. A pensioner receiving partial OAS will receive GIS up to a higher income, compared to someone receiving a full OAS pension.

Jonathan Chevreau on Findependence Day Hub profiles a 28 year old Winnipeg-based investor named Saxon Funk who has a firm plan for achieving financial independence through various passive streams of income. But his real play for findependence comes through real estate. He was attracted to real estate when he discovered he could buy properties at 10% down, and he caught the Winnipeg real estate cycle at just the right time.

Do you know How Your Daily Commute Affects Your Finances? Dan Wesley from Our Big Fat Wallet reports that the average time Torontonians spend commuting is 80 minutes – the longest time in the world. In contrast, Saskatchewan Jobs says the average commute time in the province’s two largest cities is only 20 minutes. Another reason to count your blessings!

And if unexpected, frequent required changes to eyeglasses for family members is putting stress on your budget, you may be interested in How I saved over 50% buying eye glasses online, my recent blog on Retirement Redux.

Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere?” Share the information with us on and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

Want to save more for retirement? Pack a lunch

November 14, 2013

By Sheryl Smolkin


When I graduated from law school and finally got a job, I decided that I would never pack a lunch again. My reward for scrimping for so many years would be tasty, varied lunches prepared by somebody else instead of a squishy sandwich and a tired apple.

But it didn’t take long for me to realize that when I was working I often didn’t have time to eat out or even pick up a salad. And when I did, I was overpaying for excessively large portions of average or inferior food. By the time my children started school, we got back into the routine of making lunches for all of us most of the time.

Yet 60% of Canadians surveyed by VISA Canada last year reported that they bought their lunch out at least once a week. The majority of those who bought lunch spent between $7 and $13, while just under 10% shelled out between $14 and $25 for each midday meal. Young Canadians age 18-34 ate out between two and three times a week.

These appear to be small amounts, but they really add up. If you buy lunch for $10 a day even twice a week you are spending $1,000 each year. Throw in a $4 fancy coffee on 240 working days, and you’ve spent another $960. If both you and your partner do the same, your total outlay is close to $4,000. For a small fraction of the cost you can lunch on leftovers and for around $100, even invest in a single serving pod coffee maker for your office.

Just think of all the things you could do with an extra $4,000 like pay down your mortgage, top up your retirement account, save for your children’s education or go on a vacation.

Another bonus when you bring your own lunch is that you know what you are eating and can eat less of it. Commercially prepared food is often super-sized and high in both calories and salt. I found that one of the easiest ways to manage my weight was to impose portion control by always making my lunch in the same square plastic container.

There is no doubt that one of the pluses of going out for lunch is the opportunity to get away from your desk and spend some down time alone or with friends. But many offices have a lunchroom with a fridge and a microwave.

One place where I worked, a group of three or four co-workers didn’t just pack pre-made lunches. They brought various fresh ingredients and made lunch for the group. There was always bread in the freezer, sliced meat and salad vegetables in the refrigerator. Multi-ethnic leftovers were particularly yummy.

These days I work from home so going out for lunch is only an occasional treat. But there is no doubt that I have way more money in my pocket at the end of the week than when I worked in downtown Toronto.

Now if I could only resist the leftover piece of pie or the ice cream in the freezer and get to the gym a couple of more times a week, maybe I could get into one of the tailored suits I used to wear when I have to go out to an occasional business meeting.

Saskatchewan Pension Plan (SPP) has teamed up with Federated Co-operatives and, beginning in November while supplies last, new members will receive a $10 Co-op gift card as a “Thank you” for joining SPP. If you join the Plan during this promotion, you could use your card to buy lunch or purchase lunch ingredients.

Do you have any money-saving hints for readers who need to free up cash to save more for retirement? Share your tips with us at and 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 one of our money-saving ideas.

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

21-Nov Money management How to choose a financial planner
28-Nov Avoiding fraudulent scams Latest scams to avoid
06-Dec Holiday decorations A real tree or an artificial one?

What you need to know about online shopping

January 17, 2013

By Sheryl Smolkin

SHUTTERSTOCK: Online shopping. Do your research.
SHUTTERSTOCK: Online shopping. Do your research.

When I worked in a building that was linked by a tunnel to the Toronto Eaton Centre, I did all my shopping for clothes, gifts and even household items on my lunch breaks. Because I was in and out of the mall almost every day, I knew how much items I was interested in cost and when there was a great sale.

But since I started working from home almost eight years ago, shopping has become a chore. I have to get into my car and drive somewhere which wastes a great deal of time that could be better spent doing client work.

So now I am the poster child for online shopping. I particularly like that I can send orders to out-of-town family members directly without having to wrap and mail them myself.

However, if you shop online there are some basic things you need to know to ensure you get good value:

Real cost: If you are shopping online for the convenience or because there is no retail outlet selling what you want nearby, you may be prepared to pay a premium. Otherwise, before you add that great purse to your shopping cart, find out what the regular and sale prices are in a “bricks and mortar” store.

Shipping: “Free shipping” is the magic mantra of online shopping. But read the fine print. Even if you think you qualify, you could be in for a surprise. For example, has free super saver shipping if you spend more than $25 but low-priced gently used books are not included. Items shipped for free may also take longer to arrive. Some U.S. vendors ship to Canada but don’t forget to factor in taxes, duty and currency conversion.

Return policy: Be very careful when you buy shoes and clothes online. I have trouble finding shoes that fit so I only order shoes online if I have tried them in a store and they are cheaper or available in a colour I can’t get locally. If there is a chance that you may need to exchange or return your order, make sure you understand how long you have, how much it will cost and whether you will get a credit or your money back. Shopping online is no bargain if unsuitable items cost more to return than they are worth or end up in the give-away bag.

Payment: Before providing your credit card number or other financial information, make sure the merchant has a secure transaction system. Most Internet browsers indicate when you are using a secure Internet link. Look for one or both of these clues:

  • An icon, often a lock or key somewhere on the outer edge of your browser window; the lock should be in the locked position and the key should be unbroken.
  • Whether the website address begins with https:// — the s indicates that the site is secure.

Personal information: Never deal with vendors who do not post a privacy policy committing them to protecting your personal information. For many Internet vendors, your personal information is as important as the money you pay for a product or service. Make sure you know why vendors are asking for information and what they intend to use it for. Ask yourself whether it is reasonable for the vendor to use your information in this way. Canadian companies are subject to privacy laws.

Online auctions: Shopping on online auction sites like eBay can be exciting and you may get a great deal. But it’s important to know what you are purchasing and get a description in writing in case the item doesn’t meet your expectations. Keep in mind that when you are buying from a private individual consumer protection laws may not apply. Better sites will keep records of customer satisfaction and should also have dispute resolution mechanisms.

Finally, if you are buying from the United States or another country outside of Canada ensure that products meet Canadian Safety Standards and that if there is a warranty, it will be honoured in Canada.

Do you have any other hints about how to maximize value when you shop online?  Send us an email to so*********@sa*********.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 get a great deal when you shop online.

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

24-Jan Home insurance What does your home insurance cover?
31-Jan Winter vacation 7 ways to protect your credit cards on vacation
7-Feb Valentine’s Day Budget-friendly Valentine’s Day ideas

How to take full advantage of your gift cards

January 10, 2013

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 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, 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 so*********@sa*********.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

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