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What to do with unwanted restaurant gift certificates?

The obvious answer is, use them. It won't kill you. But consider this situation. It happened to one of my friends (and might happen again). What would you have done?

Years ago my best friend had to go to Washington, DC on business. She had one night free, and was faced with the bewildering yet very happy decision of whether to rent a car and go to the Inn at Little Washington, or eat in one of DC's incredible local restaurants. I was pushing for Roberto Donna's Laboratorio. And then her father-in-law gave her a gift certificate to a bland, boring chain restaurant. She didn't want to be on his bad side forevermore, so on her one precious night free she ate at that chain. She could of course have given the certificate away. But then he would have asked her how she liked the food. Should she have lied? Or told him that she gave the certificate away to a friend who really liked that chain? He would have been offended by the latter, and guessed that she didn't want to eat there. So what should she have done?

Two other questions. I've always been embarrassd to use gift certificates at a place where I'm known. I have the nagging feeling it makes me look cheap, or sends the signal that I can't afford to pay. And what if the certificate is for an amount far too large (or small) for the meal I want? Most places don't give change.

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  1. If you have unwanted restaurant gift certificates, give them to a teacher or other person who is in a mentoring program. You can easily learn if your local schools have a mentoring program that matches up teachers and kids in need. So many of our students have never been in an actual restaurant, and sometimes our mentors or a coach will take a kid/s (with parent's permission and all that of course) to a restaurant as a reward or goal. Many, many students have never been to a restaurant where you go in and sit down. Some have never eaten chicken with a knife and fork, or don't know to not pick up a steak with their bare hands. Of course this is one of the many things that teachers pay for out of their own pockets, so gift certificates would be awesome.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Betty

      I think this is an excellent suggestion and it is certainly true that some children have little opportunity to dine out. But I think it's important to avoid suggesting that children who are raised in homes without a dining-out budget don't know how to use a knife and fork and will gnaw at a chunk of meat at the table. Yes, some disadvantaged children may not have gotten good table ettiquette training at home but that is hardly universal and ridicule certainly won't help the situation anyway.

      P.S. take a look at the way some children from comfortable homes conduct themselves in restaurants... this is really not a matter of money or even socio-economic class.

      1. re: Kater

        I couldn't agree more. I have seen children from affluent, priviledged homes eat and act like animals in restaurants because they have never been taught manners, nor have they been modeled for them.

        1. re: MRS

          I agree too. I've spent a lot of time in the poorest parts of both Tulsa and New York and, believe me, NOBODY picks up a steak with their hands! They may not have money but they do have pride.

    2. I've used GCs at places where I'm a regular. I've been able to come in a million other times and pay, so why would showing up with a GC mean I'm down on my luck? Since I've got to this restaurant a lot, it's well-known to my friends and family that I like it, so a GC to it is a great idea. I think the staff likes it because since I'm not paying out of pocket for the food, I tend to leave a larger than normal tip.

      Most of the places I've gone to won't give you change in cash (some will if there's only a small amount left), but they'll give you a new GC for the balance.

      1. The mentoring program is a great idea.
        What I've done up to now (I've only ever received 2 or 3 GC's) is keep them in the glove compartment of my car for "emergencies." E.G. if I'm on a road trip, stopping for the night in a town I don't know, haven't done research in advance, hungry enough to die but not hungry enough to eat nasty fast food... then I see a sign for Olive Garden and say to myself "yes, I think it's time to use that gift card."

        1. in the case of your friend, she simply could have said a colleague had made arrangements for dining elsewhere than the chain in question.

          in your case, it's quite silly to feel weird about showing up at one of your regular haunts with a gift certificate. i'd love a g.c. to one of my faves! if it's too large they'll issue you a credit to use next time. if it's a place you don't care to revisit, no big deal.

          1. Ah, the vagaries of youth sometimes deserves a good drop kick to the forehead:

            - Your "friend's" FIL graciously give her a gift certificate to a resto. Fortunately she had the good common sense and proper upbringing to suck it up, eat at the resto and thank her FIL profusely. OMG, it's one meal and this is her FIL. Believe me this will be a mole on the butt of an elephant over her marriage. What's to consider? It's a no brainer, any other answer screams of entitlement and self-importance, neither a good quality. No she could NOT have given it away and lying is preposterous for a simple dinner.
            - "been embarrassd to use gift certificates at a place where I'm known. I have the nagging feeling it makes me look cheap, or sends the signal that I can't afford to pay" - if you are looking for honesty, here it is... get over yourself. You're a customer, not a celebrity, and even if you were, i'd say the same thing. The last sentence only makes sense if the GC is too large. If they do not give change or a replacement GC, too bad. If it's too small, since you "are known" there, they'll probably take cash or credit card for the balance.

            1 Reply
            1. re: jfood

              She's from rural Oklahoma. This was the one opportunity of her lifetime to eat at a good East Coast restaurant. To her credit, she gave it up without a second thought and never for an instant thought of a way to get out of it. She died suddenly last month so the chance will never come again. I asked the question because similar situations might happen to other people (including me, though I'm not married) so I wanted to figure out in advance what to do.

            2. I have to ask why you would think that using a gift certificate would make you look like you can' afford to pay?? "Someone" paid for the gift certificate, so the business got their cash, AND up front no less.
              Lots of restaurants sell gift certificates and would love it if they aren't used. It 's free money for them. (Thats why there are so many promotions for them around the holidays).

              1. Regift, it's always the answer to any gift certificate that is unwanted. As far as feeling cheap using a gift certificate at a restaurant you go to often, don't. I ask for gift certificates for birthdays and Christmas for restaurant's I love every year. It beats some gift I won't use. It's easy for the giver and it gives me alot of Free dinners throughout the year.

                1. May I suggest a women's shelter as a place to donate also? Some of those women could really use a dinner out.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Heatherb

                    I do something along those lines - hand gift cards off to homeless people all the time. Not necessarily restaurant certificates, but grocery store, clothing store, etc.

                  2. Give them to any non-profit social service agency in your area. They usually use them in silent aucitons to raise money for direct services. Or you could always auciton it off on ebay. You will usually get close to the face amount for it.

                    1. Not a direct reply to the OP, but I once had purchased a $100 gift cert. to a local restaurant at a charity silent auction (I think I spent $80). Time flew by and suddenly I realized that I couldn't use the gc before the expiration date due to previous commitments. On the last night that the gc was still valid, I drove by the restaurant and called out to a group of students(?)/young adults, explained the situation and gave it to them. I didn't stick around long enough for them to react but I hope they had a great time. I felt great for having performed a random act of kindness and feel my money was spent well twice. The mentor idea would have been great if I had the time.

                      A friend also had a gc she was unable to use before it expired. She simply called the restaurant and they were happy to extend the gc for another six months. It pays to ask.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Raokay

                        In some (many?) states, including CA, gift certificates are normally no longer allowed to carry expiration dates, for precisely the reason that another poster mentioned: traditionally retailers were hoping they wouldn't be redeamed!


                      2. I was recently given a $150 gift card to a bunch of very mediocre Manhattan restaurants. I would not have felt comfortable giving it away. My acquaintance was giving me what she thought was a gift I would enjoy and I thought it incumbent on me to find a way to enjoy it. And I did. When a friend was in from out of town, he and I went to one of the restaurants, ordered the least-screwuppable items on the menu and a $150 bottle of wine. We ended up having a great time and I could honestly say to the gift giver that we enjoyed a perfectly indulgent evening.

                        1. I don't see where there would be a problem telling FIL that there was a restaurant in DC that she wanted to try and as such, hasn't used the gc yet. Thank him for the thought and tell him that you can use it anywhere but this restaurant is in DC only. He should understand. If not, it's time you start training him now.

                          As for giving it away to someone who would appreciate it more. There is never anything wrong with that. Just so that it's not a birthday gift to a friend or something. Just a random act of kindness.


                          1. I hesitate to mention this amidst talk of donating the unwanted GC to some good cause, which is certainly a nice thing to do, but a ton of unwanted GCs are sold on ebay.

                            1. I think it's a bit tacky to turn around and SELL something you were given as a gift although plenty of people do it... but if you don't want it (or can't use it) it's fair enough to pass it on to someone who can.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Kajikit

                                If you sell it and use the money to go to a restaurant of your choice, I don't see how thats tacky. I've returned clothes that I've gotten as gifts and didn't like to store and bought something else. in your opinion does that make me tacky?

                              2. Many people sell gift certificates on eBay.

                                1. I don't understand the discomfort in using a gift certificate. It's 100 cent dollars. In other words, if it's for $200, someone paid the restaurant $200. You're not getting anything free or at a discount.
                                  If you don't use it, you just gave the restaurant $200 and got nothing in return.

                                  As to why your FIL would give you something like that you wouldn't like, I can't address that. If it's a chain, can you use it in your own city? Or, can you sell it to someone? I would not have used it if I hadn't wanted to -- I would have told him that you did not have time for dinner out anywhere.... (okay, it's a little white lie)