Today, the Federal Reserve announced long-awaited new rules governing gift cards. For some of you, your state laws already provided these protections, but now they will be extended to all consumers as of August 22, 2010. The new rules also apply to network cards (bank-issued cards), which many state laws do not. If you’ve got gift cards in your wallet, here’s what you need to know.

Gift Card Expiration Dates Extended
In some states, gift cards expired a little as a year after being issued. The new rules require that gift cards be valid for five years from the date of issue OR the last date the card was loaded with funds, whichever is later. So, if you filled up a coffee card and then forgot about it, you may still be able to use it a few years later.

Inactivity Fees Curtailed
Currently some states bar inactivity fees on gift cards and other states don’t. Under the new rules, inactivity fees can’t start accruing for 12 months after the card has been inactive. In addition, only one fee per month can be charged. The fees can’t be charged unless the card holder has been given clear and conspicuous notification. In most cases, this will be disclosures on the gift cards themselves. Unfortunately, the Fed didn’t limit the amount of the fees that can be charged.

Some Cards Already in Compliance
Perhaps trying to avoid new regulations or sensing they were coming anyway, some retailers and network card issuers have already moved to eliminate inactivity fees and extend expiration dates. If you’re buying a card after August 22, be sure to ask when inactivity fees start to accrue and what amount is charged.

Use Up Gift Cards Quickly
As always, your best course of action is to use gift cards as soon as you receive them. If you receive a non-store card, use it for groceries or something similar as soon as you receive it. If you’re saving up for a major purchase, you can then simply take those funds from your grocery budget and put them in your savings for later.

I ran into a problem using the small balance left on an Amex gift card I received – when the cashier swiped it, the system didn’t reply with the balance due and instead rejected the transaction because it exceeded the balance. I had to tell the checker the exact balance so she could charge exactly that amount to the card. If you have a balance left on a network card, write the exact amount on the card and stick it to the front of the card on a post-it. If you have a balance left on a store gift card, the store’s register should be able to read the balance correctly, but it’s still nice to know what’s left on the card so you don’t spend more than you need to.

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