When I cash out my reward points, it's generally for a $50 Gap or Home Depot gift card. I don't have the patience to let it build up for years and years -- I want it now. Since I do almost all of my banking and bill paying online, I keep pretty close tabs on my credit card balance and rewards. Since I don't carry a balance, I love getting something for free for myself with the points that I've earned.

Like many personal finance writers, I'm a bit nosy with my family and close friends, asking them about which credit cards they have and whether or not they like them. So imagine my surprise when, during a visit with my mother, I asked her about her current credit rewards program and she said, "Oh, I don't know. I don't really get it. They sent me some kind of gift card. I threw it in a file folder, but I think it expired."

My cry of pain and confusion was likely heard in neighboring counties. I lunged for a laptop, shoving it onto her lap and begging her to log in to her account. After a few minutes of navigating through her account and trying to make sense of the rewards program, I was stuck. The rewards program was confusing and restrictive. I couldn't blame her for ignoring the program. This card, associated with a well-known theme park, was not making a great first impression on me.

Finally, we found the page that showed redeemed rewards.

You know that feeling you get when you look in your wallet and your debit card is gone? Or when you're positive you threw your keys in your purse but you can't find them? That same smack of panic hit me when I read a line that ended with "redeemed for $640."

*Gulp* "Mom," I breathed, "where is that gift card?"

She had it in a file folder, just as she said, and right on the gift card was an expiration date glaring back at us. It had expired five days ago.

"OK, we can do this!" I leapt into her face like a boxing coach, grabbing her shoulders. "You're gonna call them, and ask to speak with a manager. Don't stop until you get to a manager."

I was frantic with frugal desires. The look on my mom's face said, "It hasn't hit me yet what's going on, but I'll do what you ask since you're so worked up about it."

On the call, my mom spoke with a customer service manager and explained her situation. What we discovered was this: Using the card occasionally, she had been amassing rewards points on this card for 10 years and had never redeemed them. After 10 years, they were automatically redeemed onto a "redemption gift card," which expired after one year from the date of issue. A letter detailing this had accompanied the gift card, but since she was not familiar with the rewards program in general, she filed it, intending to look into it later and didn't remember to pursue it.

She calmly yet firmly gave the customer service manager her feedback: she did not like the rewards being automatically redeemed, nor did she like that the gift card had an expiration date, and she requested that either the gift card be reissued or the reward points be reapplied to her account. The manager did not give an answer to her request over the phone, and he instead told her that a letter would be issued to her with a reply after a review of her account. There really wasn't much more she could do over the phone.

Fortunately, she didn't have to. About seven business days later, she received a letter from the issuer stating that, as a courtesy, they would reinstate her rewards amount in full. My mother called me, tickled to share the news.

"And you know what," she continued, "I have another $120 ready to be redeemed! You'll have to help me spend it!"

Two things you should do

"Rewards chasers" follow the fine print of programs to eke out every point, but the average cardholder shouldn't have to eat, sleep and breathe rewards programs. If you're new to rewards programs, you should at least do these two things:

  1. Assess if your card is the right card for you. My mom learned that this card really wasn't meeting her needs to begin with. She's not taking trips to theme parks or staying in resort hotels, but she does fly a few times a year to visit family. Now she has switched to a travel card that will earn her free airfare every other year if she uses her same spending pattern.
  2. Take the time to learn your rewards program. If you like your current card, make sure you know what it can do for you. What are your options for redeeming points -- a statement credit? Gift card? Check? If you haven't already, take a few minutes to create your online login for your credit card account and learn everything you can about your card perks and its rewards program. You should also sign up for email alerts for specials, such as extra points earned at specific retailers during a set time period. You may be surprised by what you're leaving on the table.

In the end, it really wasn't difficult for my mom to get back the lost reward dollars, but it was awfully stressful to find out that she'd lost them to begin with. I'm sure it was for her, as well.