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5 ways to find free money for the holidays

Budgets are tight and gift lists can be long, so it's time to start looking for ways to find more cash.

Posted by Money Staff Wednesday, December 01, 2010 5:45:24 PM

This post comes from MSN Money's Liz Pulliam Weston.


Liz Pulliam WestonThe holidays can be expensive -- and there are only so many people you can kick off your gift list before you start to feel positively Scrooge-like. When you can’t trim expenses any further, it’s time to look for ways to raise more cash.

Now, you could try holding a yard sale (in the snow) or opening a lemonade stand (in the snow), but there are other, easier ways to come up with free money, including the following:


Gift card bonuses. I don't think much of gift cards as gifts, but I love using them to stretch my gift-buying dollars.


Donna Freedman already told you how to buy gift cards for less, but I like looking for gift cards that offer a bonus, like the current deal from The Children’s Place clothier. For every $40 in gift cards you buy there, you get a $10 coupon to use on a future visit. I snapped up a $40 gift card this week and went back a day later to cash in the card, the $10 coupon and another 20% off coupon, which allowed me to buy $65 worth of clothes for $42. I liked that deal.


Gift card bonuses aren’t as abundant as they were last year, and many retailers and restaurants put tight restrictions on when you can use the bonus. DSW, for example, gives you a $10 bonus card for a $50 gift card purchase, but you can only use the card between Jan. 15 and Jan. 30.


"Outback Steakhouse has this promotion," reader Christopher Wilhelm noted on my Facebook fan page. "However, the bonus card expires so rapidly that I have never managed to use any of the ones that I had!"


I prefer deals that allow me to use the bonus right away, but if you bite on one that involves a delay make sure you note the redeemable dates on your calendar.


Here’s a sample of other deals to check out:

  • Barnes and Noble offers a $10 eGift card for $100 gift card purchase if you purchase by Dec. 6.
  • Borders offers a $10 bonus coupon redeemable only in store and only from Dec. 26 to Dec. 31 when you buy $50 in Borders Signature Design gift cards.
  • Brunswick Zone bowling alleys offer a free $5 bonus certificate for every $25 gift card purchase.
  • California Pizza Kitchen gives you a $20 rewards card redeemable Jan. 10 to March 25 when you buy $100 in CPK gift cards.
  • Claim Jumper gives you a $10 rewards card, redeemable between Jan. 10 and March 31, plus a card for a free slice of Chocolate Motherload Cake, when you buy $50 in gift cards.
  • L.L. Bean currently offers one $10 promotional gift card for orders of $50 or more until midnight Dec. 24, while supplies last.
  • Red Robin gives you $5 free "bonus bucks," useable between Jan. 1 and Feb. 28, when you buy $25 in gift cards.

Found others? Note them in the comments. Post continues after video.

Coinstar gift certificates. Cashing in your coins isn't really free money, but it feels that way. The problem is that many coin-counting machines charge you 8% to 10% of your total for the privilege.


You can check to see if your bank or credit union offers free coin counting, or skip the fee by using Coinstar machines and selecting the gift card/e-certificate option. No-fee options include gift cards or certificates you can use at Amazon, Starbucks, iTunes, Lowes, The Gap, JC Penny and more.


Unclaimed cash. You may be owed money from an unclaimed utility deposit, unredeemed gift certificate, leftover cash from a closed checking account or even a life insurance payout. We're not talking small change, either: Nearly $33 billion in unclaimed property is being held by state treasurers' offices.


Finding out if you're one of them is easy and free -- just visit the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators site, click on any state where you've lived and enter your name.  If you're owed money, the state’s escheat office will provide information about how to claim it.


Rewards points. You can use your frequent flier miles or other rewards program points to buy merchandise directly, although the exchange rate is often pretty terrible. For example, the rewards program for one of my business credit cards offers an iLuv Stereo Speaker with iPod dock, available on Amazon for $26.99, for 5,300 points -- an exchange rate of half a penny per point.


You typically can boost your exchange rate to at least one cent a point by buying gift cards instead, and many programs offer point discounts that boost your yield even more. That same rewards program, for example, offers $100 gift cards from The Gap and Macy's for 9,000 points, for an exchange rate of 1.1 cents. If you have a Discover card, check the offers that boost your exchange rate even more -- a $25 Bed Bath & Beyond gift card for $20 in cash back bonuses, for example.


Unused gift cards. "Breakage" is the retail industry's term for value on gift cards that hasn’t been spent. Research firm TowerGroup predicts that breakage will decrease dramatically this year, thanks to new rules that limit gift card fees and to consumers' desire to stretch a buck this holiday season. But the amount that will go unspent is still a whopping $2.5 billion of $91 billion cards to be sold, TowerGroup predicts. Don’t let it happen to you -- search your desk, your closets and your car for any gift cards that might still have money left on them and use it now.


Liz Pulliam Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "Your Credit Score: Your Money & What's at Stake." Weston's award-winning columns appear twice weekly, exclusively on MSN Money. She also helps middle-class families cope at Building a Brighter Future.

Tags: gift givingholiday spendinghot dealsLiz Westonsavings
12/02/2010 12:06 PM

Texas Roadhouse- Buy a $25 gift card get a tin full of peanuts and cpn. for a free appetizer. Buy a $50 gift card get a tin full of peanuts and cpn. for $10 cpn. towards next visit. Wrapped adorable!

Charlotte Rouse Buy $40 gift card, get $10 gift card to use after Christmas.

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