Food / Groceries, Personal Finance, Saving Money, Shopping

Gift Cards: My Secret Emergency Supply Item

gift card display

Ah, hurricane season is here again. That means it’s time to check over the emergency kit and make sure I have enough water, food, and other supplies to make it through several days if we should lose power. Even if we don’t get a hurricane this year, there’s snow and ice season to look forward to. It’s always something. Almost every area of the country has some sort of natural disaster that they should prepare for, whether it’s earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, or snowstorms.

Along with all of the essentials, I add a secret ingredient to my emergency stash: Gift cards. It sounds strange, but I discovered this tip sort of by accident. A few years ago we got hit pretty hard by a hurricane and ended up without power for a week. After two days we’d cleaned out the fridge and freezer, had numerous neighborhood picnics to get rid of food before it went bad, and were starting to get a little punchy at the lack of air conditioning and hot water. By day three, we were working on the non-perishable things like tuna, soup, and canned chicken. By day four, we were tired and fed up.

Then I remembered that I had a gift card for the local pizza place that I’d won in a church raffle. Well, since the commercial areas get power back well before those of us that live in the sticks, the pizza place was up and running. (This is a universal truth. As long as they aren’t wiped off the map, the commercial districts will almost always get power before the residential areas, so if you can get out on the roads you can find places to eat and shop.) I will tell you that not much tastes better than a hot pizza in a cold restaurant after four or five days without power. And we got to wash our hands in hot water! Even better, it was food I didn’t have to pay for. Ever since then, I’ve made a point of including gift cards in our emergency stash.

Sure, we could just pay cash but rather than hit our emergency fund, I get gift cards for free or close to it and use those, instead. That keeps my emergency cash available for things like ice, gas for the generator, and more tuna.

What kinds of gift cards are useful? I’ve used almost everything. Gift cards to restaurants allow you to eat something different in a heated or air conditioned restaurant. Gift cards to places like Home Depot, WalMart or Target can be used for emergency supplies ahead of, during, or after the event (particularly if you have repairs to make or items to replace). Gas cards are great if you need to feed a hungry generator. Even if you don’t need gas, you can get ice and other supplies if the cards can be used in the convenience store. I’ve even used gift cards to hotels/rewards points when we’ve needed to evacuate. So where do I get these cards? Lots of places.

GPT Sites

I participate few rewards/survey/shopping rebate sites also known as “Get Paid To” or GPT sites and cash out for cards I know I might need.

Focus Groups

Some local focus groups I’ve done have paid in Target and WalMart cards.

Credit Card Rewards

One of my credit cards let you cash out rewards for gift cards. Another one is a dedicated hotel card that gives me a free night or two when I’ve earned enough points.

Health Insurance “Gifts”

My health insurer lets me earn gift cards by eating right, exercising, and recording my activities on their website. Every activity is worth points and I can trade in points for gift cards once I’ve reached the required level.

From Work

My husband’s company likes to give gift cards to Target and local restaurants for Christmas, staff appreciation day, and other occasions throughout the year.


During the holidays and on my birthday I get a lot of gift cards. Some are gifts from relatives who don’t know what else to get and some are from clients. My neighbor gives me gift cards when I dog sit for them. Some are to restaurants, others are for stores.

Raffles/Dirty Santa/Other Giveaways

Throughout the year I find myself entering raffles at church or vendor presentations. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to win. During the holidays, games of “Dirty Santa” usually yield a gift card or two.

Store “Gifts With Purchase”

Target is the master of the “Buy this item, get a $5 gift card” deal, but other stores do this, too. If I need the items and the price is otherwise a good deal, I jump on these and put the cards in my stash.

Holiday Bonuses

At Christmas, many restaurants run deals where, if you buy a set amount in gift cards for others, you can get $10 or $20 for yourself. If I’m buying cards for gifts anyway, these deals are a chance to pad my emergency stash. (Just know the expiration rules with these. Sometimes the cards you buy are good forever, but the ones you get for free have to be used within a couple of months. Still, if you live in snowstorm country you might find yourself using them for an emergency, anyway.)

Chances are at least a few gift cards and rewards come into your possession during the year. If you stash them away, you’ll have a nice “emergency fund” of free meals and supplies should you need it. Just make sure you know when all of the cards expire (and if they carry any fees if you don’t redeem them within a certain amount of time) and you don’t lose them. Most cards that you buy are good forever, but if you lose them it can be hard to get them replaced unless you have the receipt.

Even if we’re fortunate enough not to have any emergencies this year, I can still use the cards for my everyday life. If my stash starts getting too big, I’ll pull out the oldest ones and use them for my regular expenses or a free restaurant meal. Either way, it’s money I didn’t have to spend out of my cash reserves.

(Photo courtesy of playerx)

7 thoughts on “Gift Cards: My Secret Emergency Supply Item

  1. I have an emergency credit card for just this reason. I don’t use credit card for anything and it has a several thousand dollar credit limit on it. It doesn’t have a yearly fee so it doesn’t cost anything for me to keep it, but it has the advantage that it can be used anywhere and not just at a particular store like gift cards.

  2. Do gift cards expire? I could see myself putting a gift card into my emergency kit and then not look at it for several years. If gift cards expire, then I would lose all that money. I guess this might work for somebody who checks their kit on a regular basis, but for me I just put it together and put it to the side so I’m not sure how well gift cards would work for me.

  3. Gift cards expire, cash doesn’t. A dirty little secret about some gift cards is that if you don’t use them, there is a ‘fee’ – sometimes a monthly fee that reduces the value to zero withing a few months.

    Also, What if you do need something and the local stores still do not have power? They will be unable to process your gift card, however most will still be able to process cash. Note that some stores are so dependent on their heavily automated system that they will closed down rather than sell without the electronics working.

    I once worked as a clerk in a small locally owned convenience store. We had a regional power loss, and my store was the only one that would sell anything because I knew how to make change and calculate tax without an electronic cash register. The bigger corporate store across the street locked their doors because they didn’t know how to function without electricity.

  4. I know that credit card style gift cards from Visa and MasterCard usually have fees and can expire, but is this common with store gift cards which are mentioned in the article? I don’t know of any store gift card that I have it comes with the fee or an expiration date.

  5. Normally I like Jennifer’s writing, but this one really didn’t impress me. I would rather just put an extra $100.00 in the emergency box so as not to limit my choices to one pizza parlor, gas station or store if I am in the process of recovering from some type of natural disaster.

  6. I love getting gift cards, and there are so many ways to get them for a discount these days that if you do use them, you can save a lot of money over cash. It seems like having a stash of them for emergencies would be a great way to use them. A lot of times I get gift cards as giveaways or for buying something that I would already buy, so they are just an added bonus. I think this is a great idea.

  7. Gift cards are good but so many have now gone to fees for non-use after some time that they can loose all value. Instead we use a no fee credit card and a no fee cash card. Most places will take one or the other, we are not stuck to a limit (our family of 8 w/ grandkids can easily out-eat a $100 gift card at a single seating). We also now have a Pet Survival Kit that has eliminated the need to buy things post-storm for our dog. He’s covered for more than a week as we modified the contents to include extra food and bedding just for him.

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