Mar 12

What’s the Happiest Way to Spend My Gift Cards?

I have a ton of gift cards left over from the holidays. Some are to places I go regularly, like Starbucks, while others are to places I rarely shop. I know I could sell them for cash online, but what’s the happiest way to use them?

—Want My Gift Cards to Buy Happiness



Dear Want my Gift Cards to Buy Happiness,


What a great question! While all gift cards may look the same, they definitely don’t all bring the same amount of happiness. You’re smart to pause before you convert the gift cards to cash. This could be a good option if you absolutely need the money to pay some key bills, but research has found that it may not bring the most happiness.


Turn those gift cards into social plans

In our lab, we’ve consistently found that both giving and sharing time with others consistently enhance happiness. In fact, we had one experiment where we handed out $10 coffee cards to strangers. We told some people to give the card to other people, others to spend it on themselves, and the third set of people to use the card to take someone else out for a coffee date. Participants reported back and took a survey on their feelings, and it turned out that the happiest participants were the ones who were able to share coffee with a friend. With that in mind, it may be a smart idea to use those coffee and food gift certificates and use them to plan social gatherings with friends.



Think about experiences over things

What about those other gift cards? While a Target card could always be useful, using it in lieu of your typical form of payment is unlikely to create a lasting memory, which would give you a happiness boost. So what would be a memorable, happy way to use them? Research has consistently proven that purchases that result in experiences make you happier than purchases that result in more stuff. Since the person who gave the gift likely wanted you to use it for something memorable, it might be smart to trade them for an experience (for example, trading a retail gift card for a night at the movies).


Since physically trading the card may be more trouble than it’s worth, it may make sense to make a mental trade instead. For example, let’s say you have a $50 Target gift card. If your budget is in good shape, you could use the Target gift card for your everyday essentials and then earmark $50 for a fun date night or concert tickets.



Give to others

Another good option for getting the most happiness out of your gift cards would be to use them for giving. Passing the cards along to a charity you love, or using the cards to purchase supplies for a group that’s in need, can be a smart way to use the gift card and make you feel happier.


Finally, have fun deciding how you spend it — and enjoy spreading the wealth!



Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia who researches how time, money, and technology shape human happiness. She is also the scientific advisor for Happy Money, a financial company that combines psychology and money to help people live happier lives. Have a question for Liz? Write to her at and check back every Tuesday for her next column.



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