The Key to Free

By Andrea Karim on 7 February 2007 (Updated 10 June 2007) 8 comments

I love mail-in rebates, because I have perfected the art of receiving them. It can be a royal pain-in-the-ear, but if you are willing to do a little extra work, you too can get save a remarkable amount of money on rebates.

I came across Free After Rebate, a great site that posts deals in which you get stuff for free, after rebates (hence the name, see?). Now, rebates can be tricky, but I have faith that we can all fight the Man and wrench our hard-earned money back from those big, faceless corporations.

The idea behind a rebate is that if the company can make it as hard as possible for you to claim your money back in a reasonable amount of time, eventually you will give up, and they will keep the full price that you paid for whatever it was that you bought. This works really well - rebate redemption rates are very, very low. You can read about some rebate nightmares at Consumerist (and, keep in mind, we're lucky to have Consumerist so that we can shame companies into giving us our damn rebates).

A lot of people are hatin' on rebates lately, or at least, hatin' on the companies that offer them. Well, maybe "lately" is a bit of a stretch, but rebates do get a bad rap, that's for sure. Most people who write on the subject will admit that they've had rebate nightmares that prompted the article in the first place. There are a myriad of helpful sites that discuss tips on getting your rebate.

So in the interest of full disclosure, I'll mention that I've never had a problem with a rebate, because it is the one area of my life in which I am totally and utterly meticulous. I'm not trying to be smug, because I'm sure that other people were meticulous as well. However, I don't jump at every rebate offer - I often pass up a rebate offer after considering the time involved or other similar products with a less convoluted purchasing process.

How do you know when to go for or forego a rebate offer? Here are some tips to help you get your time and money's worth out of an offer. Some of these tips are well-known - others are common sense things that people forget in the heat of the retail moment.


  1. Take a really deep breath and assess if you need the product. Can you get by with a lesser model? You probably can. It is really, really easy to get sucked into the bottom line on a rebate, thinking it's a great deal. It may be a good deal, but do you even need it? I know this seems obvious, but the power of the rebate is a powerful, dark, evil force that science has yet to fully comprehend.
  2. Make sure you know where the rebate form is. Ask an associate to provide you with the form. If they say, "It's online" ask them to provide you with the URL. If they don't know what a URL is, and they probably won't, don't take the offer. If the form is in the box, make sure that the store has a fair return policy, should you find the rebate terms too onerous.
  3. Read the fine print. There are all kinds of stupid restrictions on rebates. You sometimes have to wait for a while before you can send in the rebate, or send in several copies of it, or send them your phone bill for the next three months. Know this BEFORE you take the offer and decide if you can accept it or not. Keep in mind that sending copies of your phone bill is sending your very personal information to complete strangers who may turn around and sell it.
  4. Assess the time it will take to do what they want and figure out if your time is worth it. An hour? Two hours? How much money are you saving? If I was saving $150 for an hour's worth of work, I'd totally go for the rebate. If it was $30 for 1.5 hours, I just might not. Also, if you don't have your own photocopier, then it's probably not worth your effort to go to Kinko's and try to do the work there. Know how much your time and effort are worth. In fact, I almost never take an offer for a rebate that is less than $100.
  5. Don't throw out the box. Duh. Actually, don't throw out anything. Until you see that the rebate check has cleared in your bank account.
  6. Don't be lazy. This is your money, and you should get it back. My mother bought two sets of cell phones over the past 5 years or so. For the first round, my boyfriend and I handled everything - ordered, received, photocopied, filed, even addressed, sealed, and stamped the items that needed to be sent out - taking maybe 25 minutes of our time. Mom got all of her money back, although she complained bitterly about having to send them certified (hey - $150 is 150, the way I see it). The next time she bought phones, she filed nothing and still blames the phone company for not giving her her rebate. The rebate she never asked for, because it was a hassle.



  1. Fill out everything as soon as you get home. Right away. ASAP. They companies want you to forget, so don't do what they want.
  2. Make photocopies of everything. Sometimes the company wants a photocopy, sometimes they want the original. Follow the instructions carefully, but regardless of what you need to send them, make extra photocopies for yourself. Digitally photograph the product and product packaging, as well. Every form, every receipt, every UPC symbol must be copied. Twice. Document, document, document. Put together a file folder called "Rebates" and keep all the info stored properly in there.
  3. Send everything certified mail, so that a signature is required for the company to accept the package. Consumerist thinks you should get your photocopies or forms notarized.


Follow-up - for when the check is clearly not in the mail

  1. Large companies will do all they can to pretend that they have no idea what you are talking about - that's why you kept photocopies of everything. E-mail is a great way to keep a written record (avoid web forms, if possible, since you don't get to keep a copy and it might disappear into the void), although phone calls are faster. As with all CSR-related phone calls, make sure to ge the name and ID number of your representative right off the bat.
  2. Complain with class. Screaming gets you nowhere, and I definitely speak from experience on this. Hanging up also doesn't help much - the resounding smack of the handset slamming into in the cradle is just the sound of your rebate disappearing into a void.
  3. Threaten, but nicely. The Better Business Bureau, your state's Attorney General, and all love to hear about this kind of stuff, and companies don't really want these groups looking into their lousy customer service. I have a feeling that a lot of CSRs have heard of Consumerist now and REALLY don't want their name up on a web site like that. Let them know that you understand how difficult the process can be, but after a fair warning, you are going to do your mostest to besmirch their name.


And that about covers it. Your greatest asset in the Great Rebate War is your common sense - you'll save yourself time and money if you choose your rebate-oriented purchases wisely. I know that not getting a rebate can be frustrating, but don't go wasting your time and effort on $20. IT just eats at your soul.

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Guest's picture

I appreciate the tips but how come so many of your links point to the naag?

Andrea Karim's picture

I'm having a LOT of scripting errors on my end - chances are that something odd just slipped in when I was cutting and pasting URLs. Thanks for pointing that out - I wouldn't have noticed, and my original text had all the correct links. I think I've fixed most of it now.

Lynn Truong's picture

picked up a 2gb flash drive for $8.00.  just what i was looking for.  i remember when i bought my desktop ($100) and laptop ($300) - yes at the same time because i couldn't choose, and really, at those prices i didn't have to - i had to fill out about 20 rebate forms.  but they all came in so it all worked out.  awesome site - thanks for the tip!

Guest's picture

I wish had an RSS feed.

Chris Johnson's picture

The Day after Thanksgiving is rebate heaven.  The last couple of years I have gotten my fill of tech goodies.  Hard drives on the cheap and lots of free gadgets or other crap that I might never use but all I paid was the tax.  Best Buy and Office Max go crazy.  I'm sure there is a lot of other non-tech stuff too.

Filling out all those forms is a pain though.  I also recently had a letter sent to me about a rebate saying there was an error processing.  So I had to call them and they told me it would be another 3-4 weeks...  For all I know they send that letter out to everyone just to try and weed out a few more slackers.   

Guest's picture

Here's another tip, NEVER BUY ANYTHING from US Modular. Their rebate history is so bad (look at their Better Business Bearow score), that you shouldn't buy from them even if it's without a rebate- if they're that unethical with rebates, don't buy anything from them period.

Guest's picture

Keeping copies on which the bar codes and information can be read after it's faxed for the 3rd time is the key, and so is patience. I just got $450 worth of rebates back on my computer. Took 2 months, and 3 hours of my time when one of the rebates screwed up. I don't make $150 an hour, so I'm good with it.

I worked for a rebate place. Not many people realize the enormous volume: Your carefully prepared envelope of receipts, UPCs and forms is ripped open, scanned/data entered by someone making 6 cents per envelope, then it hits file 13 -- it isn't kept. I worked missing rebate inquiries via email from home, and only had what came up on my computer to show whether proper documentation was received. To generate a rebate a page of fields is filled out: Valid dates, valid UPC codes, valid store name/ID numbers, etc. The codes are like those encrypted credit card numbers; you can't force through a random number in a field (we all tried).

However, I did have a small amount of discretion to force through a transaction (from $2 to $150) if something went wrong. Some companies would even allow us to reimburse under another of their promotions if we felt the person got screwed over somehow (the product company's choice, not a rebate center decision).

I made 15 cents per email inquiry no matter how long the research or reply took. If the person got nasty it took an incredible Zen-like effort not to enter the "did not meet terms of promotion" code, hit reply, move along. For reasonable people, I and my fellow rebaters would take time to force through a transaction if it seemed the person tried to comply and/or we lost something. When I asked for backup documentation I wasn't stalling, I was trying to get the proper codes to make the computer in Maryland spit out a check. When people refused because they "shouldn't have to do all that again" there was nothing I could do but auto reply.

Some people misunderstood or missed the terms of the rebate, or their documentation got lost in the enormous opened envelope pile. (Purchased too few, past date due to post office, lost the UPC, spilled coffee on the receipt, couldn't read the copy you sent -- not your fault, I know, but I can't help you.) The rebate center doesn't get to "keep" money they don't send out. They just administer the terms of the promotion for the company that sells the product, and that company determines who gets through the golden gates.

Politeness goes a long way in the rebating world. My coworkers and I enjoyed our slave labor job when it let us send money out to frugal people. Be kind to your rebate contact; chances are that person is sitting at their computer at 2 a.m. drinking cheap store brand coffee and thinking "Hey, this guy is cool and he kept his sense of humor. Let's see if I can force this through somehow." When you resubmit 4 pages of copies for your Athelon MD Processor and get a check for the right amount with the odd notation "Promotion closed, CSR applied Energizer Bunny Clock 369D $150," just smile and head for the bank :)