So, what’s the deal with gift cards?

Whether gift cards are cool or entirely uncool to give as gifts over the holiday season depends on who you ask.

Consultants at Deloitte said gifting is down, PricewaterhouseCoopers said gift cards will make up more than half of holiday spending this year, CEB TowerGroup projects gift card spending will rise almost 20 percent from 2013 to 2016 and the Portland-based e-gifting company CashStar said its survey found people are getting more comfortable and feeling less guilty about asking for and giving gift cards as gifts.

It gets even more complicated when you combine the trends of gift card sales and buying local. The Portland-based Buoy Local, which has a gift card spanning a variety of local businesses who pay to be in the network, expects to sell more than $100,000 in gift cards in its second year, according to its co-founder, Sean Sullivan.

So, at the broadest level, I’m not sure what to make of gift card trends. It’s a challenge that comes with forecasts based on surveys.

But the use of gift cards does have the attention of Maine’s treasurer, Neria Douglass. Based on national estimates, she projects Mainers will spend about $50 million on gift cards this year and leave about $5 million in unspent balances behind. With that, she issued a few tips if gift cards are a rising currency in your personal economy:

If it has less than $5, you can cash out. 

I had no idea about this one. Starting in 2008, Maine law provided that retailers have to cash out gift card balances under $5 if asked, in most cases. It doesn’t count if you got the gift card for free through some kind of promotion. And remember: Maine has a prohibition on gift cards expiring, so treat them like cash (I’m eyeing a Marden’s gift card I’ve had for about four years).

Some cards have fees for reloading.

State law allows merchants to charge fees for issuing or reloading value onto a gift card. Just something to check on as you consider your gift card purchases.

Take caution with online auctions for cards. 

As with anything you buy from someone you don’t know or anything you don’t see before purchasing (or both), “do your homework.” The Treasurer’s warning noted some auction sites can sell stolen or counterfeit cards. Just a precaution.

Make sure the retailer’s not on the way out. 

It seems fully within the realm of common sense not to buy a gift card from a company on the verge of bankruptcy, but it’s something to consider. The Boston Federal Reserve even wrote a whole report on it. There are basically three options: (1) the company files for bankruptcy and honors its gift cards, no hitches; (2) there’s a delay between the bankruptcy filing and when the cards are again usable; and (3) you’re out of luck.

You can’t cash out prepaid phone, bank cards. 

Maine law for prepaid phone and bank cards (good at anywhere Visa, MasterCard, etc. are accepted) is slightly different, mostly in that you can’t cash out that last $5 of value.

With the holiday shopping season upon us, I’ve spent a lot of time snooping around trends in retail (including this important note from The New York Times The Upshot blog, asking us to keep in mind that holiday sales are not a make-or-break part of the national economy), but I’m curious what you make of gift card shopping.

Are gift cards a part of your wish list or shopping list for this year?

Darren Fishell

About Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.