The reward was twofold: I cleaned out my drawer and treated myself to new things. 

By Sara Austin
Updated May 23, 2017
Petar Chernaev/Getty Images

We called it the magic drawer: a spot in a bedroom bookcase where, instead of junk, my husband and I began stashing stuff that made us happy. Passports. Checkbooks. And gift cards—so many gift cards.

The cards piled up so high that we could hardly pry the drawer open. We just never seemed to use them. I had iTunes cards, but no music ever seemed worthy of cashing them in. Not even Hamilton! Call it the Lord of the Rings effect: By imbuing the drawer with magical properties, we had made its contents feel too precious to part with.

It’s a fancy problem, granted, but also a common one. One estimate found that $973 million in gift cards went unspent in 2015, and a thriving online marketplace has popped up to help people buy and sell them. In the bottom of my drawer were discounts for Gymboree classes for my now school-age kids; a pass to the President’s Club of Continental Airlines, which merged with United seven years ago; and an expired coupon for free Spanx. How could I have passed up a chance to get free Spanx? I vowed to clear the drawer out.

I started small, at Starbucks. I masked my embarrassment with a shrug and a smile—“I found this ancient gift card, and I have no idea how much is on it!”—and it turned out I had more than enough for an egg sandwich and a Venti. When I discovered $87 left on a partly used restaurant gift certificate, my husband and I booked a date night and toasted to the wine being free.

RELATED: How to Replace a Lost or Stolen Gift Card

I’m thrifty (OK, cheap), but shopping with gift cards somehow made a mini splurge easier. I pooled my iTunes cards and got a membership to Apple Music. I spent some Pottery Barn credit on a faux-fur pillow that my kindergartner promptly adopted; then I used the remaining credit on another one so we wouldn’t have to fight over it.

I got a massage (thanks to an old friend) and a pile of Sephora products (courtesy of my mother-in-law). It felt great, and not only for greedy reasons. I realized that not using my gift cards had been ungracious. Enjoying the givers’ generosity made me feel connected to them.

The magic drawer is a useful organizing technique because you never want to treat your blessings like junk. But the real magic lies in making its contents disappear.