It’s amazing what can happen in the course of a few weeks. A month or so ago we were in the midst of holiday season wonderment and now it’s almost Groundhog Day. And these past several weeks have been incredibly transformative in our world.

I’m grateful that so many in our global community have united by reaching out to our brothers and sisters in Haiti, supporting loved ones impacted by the storms and mudslides in California last week, and generally trying to be helpful in individual homes, communities, churches, and civic groups across the United States.

As you consider how you can provide resources to your proverbial neighbors and your family and friends throughout 2010, the nifty gift cards you received during the holiday season could be a great place to start. Following are some ideas that may help you keep track of your gift cards and use them to support others or meet the needs in your own home.

Know what cards you have, and their balances.

It may seem fairly obvious that if you know what gift cards you have, you can use them most effectively…but this doesn’t always happen. So how to track them?! As is my answer to almost all paperwork-related items, I recommend that you create a file specifically for your gift cards. This will take all of 30 seconds – slightly longer if you want to make your file label extra fancy – and it will make a world of difference in helping you keep tabs on your plastic money.

As you place each gift card in your hanging file, jot down the name of each card along with its balance. You’ll eventually store this list at the front of your gift card file for future reference. It may seem counter-intuitive to file something that’s the size of a credit card, but it’s a super easy way of keeping all of your gift cards in one place.

If the gift cards have yet to be spent, the filing process should take just a few moments. If you’ve used the gift cards and you’re unsure about their balances, the process could take slightly longer if you choose to confirm balance information online or by calling the toll-free number on the back of each card. While it’s certainly not necessary to have this information at your fingertips, it can be helpful to know it so you can make informed decisions about how you’ll use your gift cards.

Going forward, whenever you pay for something with a gift card ask for a receipt stating your card balance. The hubster and I find that when we store receipts and corresponding gift cards in the same hanging file, we can easily confirm the amounts available for spending.

Make yourself known to the gift card purveyor.

Consider taking a few moments to hop online and register your gift cards with their respective purveyors. This brief time investment on the front end could be a great resource down the road. Registering a gift card usually allows you to maintain the existing balance if you report the card as lost or stolen. If an unregistered gift card is lost, it’s equivalent to losing cash and you won’t be refunded.

Shop, donate, or give.

Now comes the fun part! Consider how you want to spend your gift cards. Do you want to use them for family members, friends, neighbors, or yourself? Do you want to donate the cards – or items purchased with the cards – to relief efforts in Haiti and elsewhere in the world? Once you decide, make your shopping list and hit the stores or online retailers.

Another option is to donate your gift cards to charities or schools. Call your favorite charity or local school to find out if they accept gift cards as donations. The Santa Barbara (Calif.) chapter of the Red Cross is currently accepting gift card donations online to provide aid to Haiti.¬† For more details visit their Aid to Haiti campaign web page and click on “Ways to Give.”

Another idea you may wish to consider: Some friends who are on tight budgets have decided to donate toward Haiti relief efforts by putting their gift cards to good use. They’re using existing gift cards to cover their own personal necessities (i.e. buying deodorant) and then they’re taking the money that they would’ve spent on deodorant and directing it to efforts in Haiti. I’m sure you’ll find what works for you.

And last but not least, consider expressing gratitude again.

Of course you already wrote thank you notes for the gift cards you received over the holidays, but here’s one more gratitude-based idea to consider. After using a gift card, you may want to let the gift card giver know how you used the card, why it made a difference to you, or how it helped you do something meaningful for someone else. You can be in touch with this person during a visit or by telephone, email, written note, carrier pigeon…and while this is not obligatory, it’s a nice touch. To my sense of things, gratitude never goes out of style.

Wishing you much joy in your support of your family, friends, neighbors, and fellow world citizens throughout the remainder of 2010.

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