That's become a little easier, because many retailers have eliminated expiration dates and fees that sap the cards' value over time.
The changes come well ahead of proposed rules from the Federal Reserve that wouldn't allow gift cards to expire for five years, among other changes.
Even so, about $5 billion, or about 6 percent, of what Americans spend on gift cards this year won't be used, including what's lost to fees, according to TowerGroup. That's down from a high of 10 percent in 2007, said Brian Riley, research director at the financial-services consulting firm.
It's easy to waste those pieces of plastic. You might forget about them by sticking them in a sock drawer, or you might not spend the full amount. But in this tough economy, every penny counts.
"You should treat it like cash and have it be a contribution to something you really need or want," said Laura Gurski, partner in the retail practice of consultant A.T. Kearney.
Here's how experts advise wringing out the full value of cards you receive:
1. KEEP IT SAFE. Expert say that as soon as you get a gift card, put it in a safe place. That means stashing it in an envelope reserved just for gift cards. Some say to just put them in your wallet along with the credit cards.
"Don't leave them sitting on a desk," said Dudley Blossom, chairman of the marketing department at LIM College, a fashion college in Manhattan.
2. MAXIMIZE THE VALUE. Buy discounted merchandise when redeeming a gift card. Shoppers wanting to take advantage of post-Christmas discounts should do so between Saturday and Jan. 2.
That's because stores won't be swimming in holiday leftovers through February, because they came into the holidays with lean inventories.
"You'll find the peak" of inventory right after Christmas, Mr. Riley said.
3. USE IT ALL UP. Mr. Riley says it's better to spend beyond the value of the gift card because that will ensure that you used all of it.
Many shoppers don't redeem gift cards to their full value --- but $3 on a gift card is $3 that's not coming out of your own pocket.
4. STRATEGIZE: USE ON NECESSITIES. Want to buy that winter coat but couldn't afford it? Use the gift card toward the big purchase.
Gift cards may be free money, but experts say you shouldn't just buy anything, particularly in the difficult economy.
"You have to plan what you want to use it for," Mr. Blossom said.
Ms. Gurski said customers getting an all-purpose card such as an American Express gift card should use it on necessities.
5. EXCHANGE WITH FRIENDS. Don't like that particular store? Then get together with friends and swap cards.
You can even do it online. CardHub.com, a leading credit card comparison Web site, just launched a gift card application for Facebook.
Its main feature is the Gift Card Wish List, which lets users pick favorite stores so friends know what gift cards they'd like.
But it also has a gift card exchange, which lets friends post cards they want to buy or sell at a discount.
But there is a price. At Plasticjungle.com, customers can sell the card for cash and get up to 90 percent of the balance. (There's a minimum gift card value of $25.) Customers can no longer list their cards on the site for direct swapping and must sell them directly to the company.
7 . REGIFTING. If you receive a card as a gift before the holidays, regifting is always an option.
You can also use the card to buy a holiday present for someone on your list.