Ever received a gift card but run out of time in which to spend it? No more!

Gift cards must remain valid for five years, and if you don't spend it in that time, you get a new one for free, according to federal regulations that just took effect.

Michael Conroy/AP/File
Various branded gift cards on display at the at the Circle Centre Mall in Indianapolis. Caps on credit card penalty fees and bans on gift card expiration dates are among the changes in the final round of new consumer card protections that went into effect Aug. 22.

Recent credit card legislation, among many things, proposes to reform the market for gift cards

According to an article at Forbes the new rules include

* Limits on expiration dates The money on your gift card will be good for at least five years from the date the card is purchased. Money added or loaded on to the card must also be good for at least five years.

* Replacement cards. If your gift card expires and there is unspent money, you can request a replacement card at no charge.

* Fees. The law bans dormancy, inactivity and service fees on gift cards unless there has not been any activity for twelve months and the issuer clearly discloses all fees on the packaging. In those cases, consumers can only be charged one fee per month. Last month, Congress passed legislation to extend the effective date for the disclosure requirement until January 31, 2011, for cards issued prior to April 1, 2010.

Yet, as always, what are the unintended consequences?

As reported in The Atlantic behavioral economists offer clues

In an experiment, Shu and Gneezy first surveyed 80 undergraduates, asking how they would feel about a gift certificate for a slice of cake and a beverage at a local café and how likely they were to use it. Forty-two survey participants were asked to consider a certificate good for three weeks, and 38 were asked about a two-month certificate. More than two-thirds of the group with the longer deadline said they would use such a coupon; only half of the group with the shorter deadline said they would.

Shu and Gneezy then ran the experiment in real life, with a different group of 64 undergraduates. Half the participants got certificates good for three weeks and half for two months. Both groups were far less likely to cash in their cake coupons than predicted. And contrary to predictions, the shorter deadline encouraged more indulgence. Ten out of 32 people redeemed the three-week certificate; only two of 32 used the two-month pass. Those who redeemed their certificates said they’d enjoyed themselves, while those who didn’t said they regretted letting the deadline slip. They gave reasons like “I was too busy and ran out of time” or “I kept thinking I could do it later.” The pressure of a shorter deadline encouraged people to stop procrastinating and enjoy themselves.

Similarly, Shu and Gneezy found in surveys (as we all know from our own experiences) that tourists with limited time are more likely to visit local attractions than are residents, who presumably can go whenever they want. In fact, residents tend to make their tourist-like visits when they have out-of-town guests or when they’re about to move away. With no immediate reason to hit nearby landmarks, locals put off for tomorrow what they might enjoy today.

“What I think is happening,” Shu told me, “is that when people think about the future, they’re very focused on the gains and the positive outcomes. The benefits are really appealing when they’re far off in the future, and people just don’t see the costs at all. Whereas if it’s tomorrow, the benefits are similar but the costs are huge and in their face.” A Saturday at the museum sounds great until you have to leave your errands undone and find a place to park. You wind up sticking to your routine, even though you’d be happier breaking it.

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