Gift cards can be a present for your budget, too

Gift card pricing is more flexible than you might think.

Cards have been the most popular holiday gift for eight years running, a streak that's expected to trigger record spending of $31.74 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation. The average shopper will buy $172.74 worth of cards, about $10 more than last year.

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Part of the surge stems from a growing segment of card-buyers angling for practicality, said Teri Llach, chief marketing officer of Blackhawk Network, a prepaid card company that works with more than 650 brands. "They're saying, 'I don't want to waste my money,'" she said. "'I don't want to see the sweater I bought, with the tags still on it, in my kid's closet.' They'd rather see the recipient get something they really want."

Fair enough, but just like other holiday purchases, it's important to get what you want, too—a good deal. There's no need to pay face value. (Check out the video above for some savings strategies.)

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Card promotions like discounted bundles and bonuses with gift card purchases are up 20 percent compared with last year, Llach said. You'll find deals at providers directly, as well as third parties selling other brands' cards, like supermarkets, drugstores and even Amazon.com. The deals can add up. At BedandBreakfast.com, for example, there's a free $75 gift card with the purchase of one worth $250 or more. Outback Steakhouse offers a $20 bonus with $100 in gift cards.

Check the terms before you rejoice in that extra cash, though. Many of the bonuses are coupons rather than gift cards, meaning they don't have to hold to consumer-friendly terms of the federal CARD Act. The big catch: Bonuses may expire, in a matter of weeks.