Ask anyone who's ever shared an apartment or an office with me and they'll tell you: I'm a collector of things. I try my damnedest to keep the clutter to a minimum, but I'm what organizers call a "piler and filer." For the past three years, I've been collecting intangible clutter — "piles and files" worth, I'm now realizing, more than a paycheck.
Hello, my name is Melissa, and I collect vouchers & gift cards.
Maybe I was saving for a rainy day, or maybe — like 15% of consumers who buy daily deal vouchers or gift cards but never use them  — I just got busy and ran out of time before they expired. Whatever the reason, after poring through three years' worth of emails, reviewing dozens of online accounts, and dumping out every drawer in the house, I realized we own more than $2,700 worth of pre-paid credits for goods and services. Just in time for Christmas. Hallelujah.
Thanks to an $8.5M court ruling against Groupon back in April , in addition to several previous lawsuits over the last two decades claiming that gift card expiration dates are illegal, your daily deals and gift certificates will always be worth the pre-paid value (if not the promotional value). So get thee thrifty self to your drawers, piles, files, and deal center accounts to dig up some free money this season.
DIG DEEP & GET ORGANIZED
Poring through several years' worth of emails may seem daunting, but in reality it only took me about an hour. Systematically go through each of your daily deal accounts — Groupon , Living Social, Bloomspot, Yelp, Rue La La , GILT City  (including BuyWithMe, which GILT acquired in 2011), Restaurant.com, Eversave, etc. — and find any deals you've purchased (current or expired) that haven't yet been redeemed. When I went through all of these sites, I found more than $1200 in paid value for ice skating passes, rock climbing & boxing lessons, yoga & pilates classes, hotel credits, restaurant vouchers, salon credits, communal hot tub soaks — even an architectural boat tour (to use next summer).
Next up: Are you a frequent backer on Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, or another crowdsourced project platform? Catalog any funded projects and check on the status of your rewards. In my Kickstarter account alone, I found $150 towards a custom-made dress from my friends at Bow & Drape , which I'd almost forgotten about and am excited to get made in time for my birthday in late January, plus a coffee table book and art print I'd never received (worth $60) and a pair of "convertible heels" (worth $75) from a project that's gotten postponed (which I followed up on by contacting the project founders).
In addition, also check shopping sites like Hautelook  or Fab.com  where you might have "free money" in the form of referral credits from inviting friends to join the site or sharing products/sales. I found $127 on Hautelook from a return and referral credits, which I used to buy new luggage (above) for a trip I'm taking, also for for my birthday, and more than $75 in referral credits on Groupon, Rue La La, and Fab.com from sharing favorite sales on Facebook  and Twitter , which I used toward getting last-minute "experience gifts." Score!
BINDERS FULL OF WOMEN...ER, VOUCHERS
Now that you've got all of your pre-paid, unused deals and gift cards in order, it's time to get organized. Like, really freaking organized. Get a binder and some clear binder sleeves  (including the kind made for business cards, to fit your gift cards) and put all of your pre-paid credits in one place, starting with current deals that still hold their promotional value in the front. Put them in order of expiration date so you'll be most likely to use them in time, if possible. You can also sign up for a daily deal aggregator site, like Couptivate , to access a digital archive "in the cloud" when you're not at home.
CALL ME, MAYBE? NO, DEFINITELY.
Consumers who purchase daily deal vouchers can sometimes get a bad rap from the business community, who frequently dub us "bad customers" and claim that we have no loyalty. I personally only purchase daily deals from places I already patronize, or have long liked to, but the reality is that you're not always going to use your deal before it expires, and companies do know this.
As the old saying goes, you'll attract more bees with honey, so politely cold-calling each business individually to ask about redeeming your expired credits goes a long way, especially if you're genuinely enthusiastic about their product or service. I spent about an hour and a half on the phone, calling about three dozen places from whom I'd bought pre-paid daily deals, and only got one negative response (from a famous local fine dining restaurant, which you'd expect to be snooty). The majority of the business owners were super nice, took the time to walk me through my options, even — in the case of fitness venues — offering current specials or deals for the holidays/New Year that I could capitalize on if I wanted to use my pre-paid dollars toward them before the end of January.
CREATE DATES ON THE CALENDAR
Spoiler alert, husband of mine, if you're still reading this far!
Once you have all those awesome, well-intentioned vouchers collected, it's time to put them in action. The first two Groupons  I ever purchased, back in 2009, were for a mani-pedi with my sister  and an introductory rock climbing lesson with my friend Kara . Both expired before we were able to use them because we could never find time in the calendar to go together. Never again.
In order to put those pre-paid dollars to work, lock down dates to use them, even if it has to be months in advance. Call and schedule spa appointments. Make restaurant reservations. Send Google calendar invites, to work out or try something new with friends and family in the case of fitness classes or other experiences. Even if you have to move the dates around, at least you're a step in the right direction.
At our house, even after 10 years together, one of the biggest sources of (stereotypical) relationship stress comes from figuring out what we're going to have for dinner or where we're going to go out for date night. I'm putting to work our more than $600 in restaurant vouchers, credits, and gift certificates and more than $200 in skating passes, hot tub soaks, and other classes/tours by planning out our next, oh I don't know, 25 weekly date nights — then plotting them on a fun printed calendar, wrapped up with a bow and placed under the tree.
I may even use the $300 gift certificate, that he got for me for Christmas in 2009, to finally treat myself to a new pair of skates. It could happen!
May you find money in your mattress, or email, or drawer, or all of the above, and have a fabulously frugal, pre-paid start to 2013, too. Have you recently used expired Groupons or found "free money"? Would love to hear from you!
Story: Copyright 2012, Shoestring LLC. Photo: Shutterstock.