Ultimate Guide to Cash Back Shopping
In the past 15 years, cash back sites have paid their customers hundreds of millions of dollars. Those customers shopped the same kinds of stores that you do: department stores, toy stores, pet stores, etc. The difference is that they stopped by a cash back site first and clicked a link. That one step — one that added only a few seconds to the shopping process — meant they were paid for their purchases.
Too Good to Be True?
Some people think that cash back shopping can't be real, that it must be some sort of a scam. I'm here to tell you that it's a legitimate way to get more bang for your shopping buck.
It's all thanks to the wonder of affiliate marketing.
Cash back sites have affiliate relationships with the stores they list. The stores provide special links for each affiliate, so that they can track the origin of a purchase. Whichever site generated the order receives a commission.
It's important to note that rebate sites aren't stores' only affiliate partners. Most deal and coupon sites, many bloggers, and even some search engine results use affiliate links. Many product reviews also contain them.
The difference is cash back sites share a cut of their commission with you.
Intrigued? Then it's time to open an account.
The process is very quick. You provide your name, email address, and create a password. Most sites will also ask for a physical address and/or a PayPal address. Without that information, they can't pay you.
During the signup process, you should never be asked to divulge credit card information, your PayPal password, or anything else that would put your financial security at risk.
Top 8 Cash Back Shopping Sites Reviewed
Which site you should sign up for? With so many choices, it can be a tough road to navigate. To help, I've reviewed the top eight cash back sites.
This one is so comprehensive as to be rather complex and, yes, a little overwhelming. So be prepared for a lot of bullet points. You'll thank me later.
First, a little backstory. Upromise has been around since 2001. It has millions of members, although it doesn't disclose how many. The company has paid out nearly $800 million to customers. About $14 million of that was from the 2012 holiday season alone.
Upromise has over 950 stores. Of those, 850 offer 5% cash back. The rest of the stores' rates vary. The site offers both a Daily Deal (one store with increased cash back) and a Daily Double (one store with double cash back). Currently, there are 24 stores offering extra cash back during the holidays.
You can also earn cash back offline if you link credit/debit cards to your account. When you use those cards, you'll get cash back on:
- Gas: One cent per gallon from Exxon or Mobil when you buy 20 or more gallons in a month.
- Grocery coupons: Load coupons directly onto your shopper's cards. Each one redeemed will earn you cash back. The amount varies per coupon.
- Dining: You'll earn between 2%-8% cash back at eligible restaurants, including tax and tip. The rate increases as your year-to-date spending increases.
- Life insurance: Get 5% back on your policy's cash value, as well as a portion of your premiums.
- Buying/selling a home: Use Century 21 and get $3,000 if you buy or sell your house. Get $6,000 if you buy and sell with Century 21.
Want to increase your cash back even more? Get the Upromise Mastercard for even more cash back.
Rebates generally post between 10-45 days. If one doesn't appear, you can make an inquiry on the 46th day after receiving your items. Once they do post, your rebates will become available between 45-90 days.
Once you have a $10 available balance, you have four options to redeem the cash back:
- Check: You can have a check mailed to you.
- 529 plan: Your cash back can be deposited into a 529 college savings plan. Friends and family can sign up as guests on your account to pitch in, too.
- Savings account: Open a Sallie Mae high yield savings account. You'll get a 10% annual match for all Upromise earnings.
- Loan payoff: Already have a Sallie Mae loan? Apply your rebates to your repayment. You can get a 2% match.
The sheer breadth of options on this site is staggering. That said, even the best programs have small issues. Here are the ones I noticed:
- 950 online stores is significantly fewer than most sites.
- You don't get a registration bonus.
- Its referral program is the worst I've seen, offering only 25 cents per referral.
- The wait for an inquiry is far longer than any other site. Compare 45 days after you receive the items to 7-30 days after the order date for other cash back sites.
ShopAtHome began in 1986 as a printed "Catalog of catalogs" run by a husband and wife team. Today the site has 60 million customers and has paid out over $50 million in rebates. That number will jump during the holiday season, when a large number of stores will offer increased cash back rates.
It lists 200,000-300,000 coupons from 50,000 stores. Of those, 5,000 stores offer cash back. The site also has a "Shopping News" section with articles about holiday deals, crafts, personal finance, and more.
New customers get a $5 registration bonus. Refer people to get a $5 bonus, as long as your referral makes a purchase within 30 days. There is no minimum amount for the qualifying purchase.
If your rebate doesn't post within 30 days, you have one month to open an inquiry.
Rebates become available after 30-60 days, depending on when in the month they post. For example, both a November 1st and a November 30th purchase would be available on January 31st. Your account needs to have $20 in available rebates to receive payment. Referral bonuses and other site rewards don't count toward that amount. Checks are sent at the end of the month.
Here are the issues I found for the site:
- $20 is at least twice what most sites require for payout.
- Checks are the only way to receive payment. I prefer PayPal.
- 30 days is a very short period for a referral to make a purchase. The next lowest is 90 days.
- It doesn't offer Amazon. (My purchases are never in qualifying categories anyway, but it might be an issue for some of you.)
FatWallet began as a coupon site in 1999. Two years later, it began to offer cash back shopping. Today it lists more than 1,600 stores and about 20,000 coupons. It has paid out nearly $45 million to its three million customers.
While there is no registration bonus, referrals will net you $5. To be a valid referral, the person must make $25 of purchases within a year of signing up.
FatWallet has a forum with an extensive set of subject threads. You can find information on credit card offers, store rewards programs, technology, grocery coupons, and travel. There's even a coupon trading thread.
Each day, one store will have double cash back. It is for 24 hours only, so it's probably best to sign up for email alerts. Currently, the site has more than 100 stores offering extra cash back for the holidays.
One thing I like about the site is its attention to stores' gift card policies. Most stores won't commission orders that use GCs. However, FatWallet tries to make notes about these policies on the merchant pages. You can click "Cash Back Details" and be shown whether cash back is available for purchase or redemption of gift cards.
Perhaps the most exciting innovation, though, is the Black Friday deal finder. This tool is available on the site but also as an iOS or Android app. It lets customers prepare for the big day by reviewing leaked Black Friday ads and comparing prices across different stores. Customers will even able to sort by price range to help them stay under budget.
The deal finder also offers two-click shopping for many of the advertised deals. In those cases, customers can purchase items without having to visit the merchant's site. Instead, they click on the deal, input their payment information, and then click to confirm the purchase. The transactions will still be tracked, even without the usual click-through.
FatWallet asks customers to wait two weeks after the shipping date before reporting a missing order. Customers need to open an inquiry within 60 days.
Rebates take up to 90 days to become available, depending on how long it takes FatWallet to get its commissions from the store. The payout threshold is $10. Referral bonuses do count toward the minimum.
Once you have enough to request payment, you can choose check or PayPal. Payment is issued within 30 days of your request.
The only real negative here is that Fat Wallet doesn't offer a registration bonus.
Ebates has offered cash back since 1998. It has more than 1,600 stores listed for its 12 million members. It has paid out $85 million in the last 15 years.
You'll get $5 for signing up. You can get another $5 for referrals, as long as they make $25 of purchases within 90 days.
The site also has frequent bonus offers for referrals. Usually, it's double the referral bonus if you get three or more qualifying signups. However, it's doing something a little different this holiday season. If you refer two people, you will get a $40 bonus, for a total of $50. For the more ambitious among you, you can get a $100 bonus for five referrals, a $250 bonus for 25 referrals, and so on. The catch? The purchases must be made by the end of the year.
Normally, Ebates features two stores with double cash back. In addition, it has a few stores each week offering higher rebates. During holidays, you will see quite a few stores offering extra cash back. The site is currently having its "November Kickoff Sale" for the holidays, with 21 stores offering double cash back.
Ebates offers a unique feature called the Cash Back Button, which you install on your browser. It will alert you to stores that offer cash back when you do product or store searches in search engines. In some cases, it allows you to skip actually clicking through to Ebates.
The site also has a blog. It features posts on deals, coupons, fashion, and the plentiful Ebates contests. Recent giveaways include a Keurig coffee maker and a $150 Crate & Barrel gift card.
If your rebate does not appear within a week, Ebates lets you open a claim. This ties Extrabux for the earliest possible inquiries. If you're not quite that on the ball, just make sure you report it within 90 days.
Ebates pays quarterly, so rebates become available anywhere from 30-120 days after the purchase. Payments are sent out 15 days after the quarter ends. For example, orders made between October 1st and December 31st will be mailed February 15th.
You need to have $5.01 in rebates to be eligible for a payment. This does not include referral, registration, or other bonuses. If you have enough in your account, the system will automatically send you a check.
A couple items of concern:
- It pays only four times a year. All of the other sites I've seen offer the option of monthly payment.
- I'm not a fan of automatic payment. I like the option of letting my rebates grow. (On the other hand, this way you never forget to request a payment.)
- The site's cash back rates tend to be on the lower side.
Extrabux has been around since 2006. It has more than 2,500 stores, which have generated over $4 million in rebates for the site's customers. As of January 2012, the site had 150,000 customers. Apparently, it has been growing exponentially in the past year.
Extrabux seems fond of the number five. You'll receive a $5 bonus when you open an account. You'll get a $5 bonus once a referral has made a $5 purchase. You'll also get 5% of any bonuses your referral makes for the first year.
As with Ebates, Extrabux will consider missing rebate inquiries after just one week, and the inquiry period is also 90 days.
Once a rebate has posted, it will become available after 90 days. The payment threshold is $10. Referral bonuses do count, but you must have at least $1 in actual rebates.
You can receive funds by check, PayPal, or as a credit on your debit or credit card. You have to request payment, and the funds will be sent within five business days. Allow an extra five for payments to credit cards.
I can't find any fault with this site.
Mr. Rebates was founded in 2002. It has more than 2,500 stores and a million members.
Normally, the registration bonus is $5. Wise Bread readers, however, get a $7.50 registration bonus by signing up through the link above.
Mr. Rebates features a Store of the Week with extra cash back. The site offers extra cash back at many merchants for holidays throughout the year. Currently, more than 500 stores have increased cash back rates for early holiday shoppers.
Also during some holidays, the site offers daily giveaways. This fall, Mr. Rebates gave out several iPad Minis for back-to-school season. Between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, it will give away five $100 bonuses each day.
Rather than a set dollar amount for referrals, Mr. Rebates offers customers 20% of their referrals' rebates for the life of the account. I think this system is far more profitable for us referrers. Despite a relatively modest readership, I've earned over $650 in referral bonuses in the last four years.
Customers can inquire about missing orders 30-90 days after the order date. Customers can inquire about discrepancies in the rebate amounts after seven days.
Rebates take 90 days to become pending. Once you have $10 available, you can request payment by check or PayPal. Referral bonuses do count toward the minimum. In fact, the entire payment can be from referral bonuses.
Payments are processed on the first of the month following your payment request.
I only found two potential issues:
- It doesn't offer Amazon. Again, not something that I'm affected by, but you may feel differently.
- It has one of the longer waits to open a rebate Inquiry.
BigCrumbs started in 2005. Of the 9,300 stores listed on its site, more than 1,300 offer cash back.
Like FatWallet, the site has its own forum. Frankly, the one on BigCrumbs seems less substantive. Still, it appears to be used relatively regularly, so some customers must find it helpful.
BigCrumbs boasts that its rates are higher than Ebates'. It didn't seem to compare itself to any other cash back shopping sites.
There is no registration bonus, but it does have a unique referral system. Bonuses extend to the second generation. This means that you receive bonuses for purchases your referrals make and for purchases their referrals make.
Unfortunately, the deal isn't necessarily as good as it sounds. Unlike Extrabux and Mr. Rebates, BigCrumbs doesn't have a set percentage for referral bonuses. The bonuses vary by merchant, with some stores (like Macy's or The Body Shop) not offering any bonus at all.
If a purchase is missing, you can open an inquiry after two weeks. Rebates become available between 30-60 days after they post.
The payout threshold is $1 and payments are sent automatically. Customers can only receive cash back by PayPal. There is a 2% processing fee, up to $1. Payments are sent out in the middle of the month. This means that purchases made in November would be paid on January 15th.
My issues with the site:
- There's once again no registration bonus.
- The referral system is confusing and difficult to track.
- The referral rates are low. However, it may be that the second generation of referrals helps this. It's hard to say for sure.
- There's only one method of payment. I'm sure cutting out the check option saves money, but it can also alienate some would-be customers.
- This is the only site I've seen with payment processing fees.
BeFrugal began as a coupon site in 2009 and branched out into cash back in 2011. It lists more than 3,000 stores. You get $5 for each referral that has made $25 or more in purchases.
BeFrugal has a couple of notable highlights:
First, it has a coupon guarantee. If you make an order with a non-working coupon, your account will be credited $5.
You have to contact customer service within 24 hours, and it has to be an order that actually qualifies for the discount. (Read carefully, folks.) A customer can only get one adjustment for a given store each year, so no getting greedy.
More notably, BeFrugal has a 125% cash back rate guarantee. If you make a purchase through the site and then discover a higher rate on elsewhere, that rate will be matched 125%.
As with the other guarantee, you need to notify customer service within 24 hours and supply the receipt. You need to provide a link to the other, higher rate. You also need to supply your order receipt and the other cash back site's link.
There is a maximum adjustment of $25, and only one adjustment per member per store. Notice that it doesn't say per member per store per year. It just says per store. It seems that you only get one shot at that higher rate.
If your BeFrugal.com rebate doesn't post, you can make an inquiry 10-60 days after the order date.
Your rebates become available after 90 days. Once you have $25 of rebates — registration and referral bonuses don't count — you can request payment by check or PayPal.
A few issues I have:
- This is the highest payout threshold I've seen.
- The guarantees are interesting features, but I feel like they're misleading.
Which One's Best?
None of them.
Stores and rates both vary by site. If you try to use just one site, there's a good chance you'll be cheating yourself. For the best deals, it's best to use at least two cash back websites.
Some people are hesitant to do this. They think the comparisons would become dizzying or would take too long. Bookmarking the sites can help, especially if you can put them in your bookmarks toolbar. Then comparing cash back rates just requires a couple of quick clicks.
If that still seems like too much, just use two or three. Based on cash back rates and stores offered, Extrabux, ShopAtHome, and Mr. Rebates are your best bets. If you want more earning options, substitute Upromise for one of the three.
Tips for Avoiding Cash Back Newbie Mistakes
Like everything in life, cash back shopping comes with caveats. There are things that can negate your cash back.
Remember, cash back sites fund customer rebates with merchant commissions. If a store won't compensate the site, the site can't compensate you. So you need to make sure your purchase is credited to the rebate site.
Unfortunately, there are a few things that can interfere with the tracking and crediting of orders. I've listed the issues in descending order of likelihood.
1. Accept Cookies
First and foremost, make sure you have cookies enabled! Merchants need those cookies, or they can't track where the order originated. If they can't track it, they won't commission the site, which then can't give you a rebate. Remember: no cookies, no credit.
2. Avoid Outside Coupons
This restriction is probably the most confusing because it's not a hard and fast rule. If you use coupons from outside the cash back site, you may void your rebate. Note the "may."
Offers listed on the cash back site itself are fine. Ones listed on the store's main site shouldn't interfere with the rebate. They need to be available to anyone who visits the website, though.
Beyond that, you're getting into murky areas. If you use a coupon you found on the Internet, it may be exclusive to a specific affiliate partner. You can click through any cash back site you want, but the coupon will credit your order to the other affiliate.
Oh, and those special offers the store sends you directly? That's a minefield, too. Some of those are just notifications of great offers. Others are exclusive specials that will credit your order to a marketing campaign instead of the cash back site.
I think the best solution is to hope for the best but accept the worst. Most of the time, the coupon is going to be better than the cash back rate. In that case, try to use both, but be prepared to lose out on cash back.
On the other hand, if the rebate is better than the coupon, err on the side of caution and just stick with the rebate. Otherwise, you're jeopardizing more money than you're saving.
3. Don't Surf
Savvy shoppers love to compare prices and cash back rates. It's a great idea — as long as you do it before you hit the cash back site.
The rebates site you use needs to be your last click in any tab or window. Anything else may credit your order to another site. It's best to figure out what you want, close other tabs/windows, and then click through the cash back site, completing your purchase in a quick and orderly fashion.
If you do accidentally click another link, go back and click the cash back site's link again. That should override any new cookies.
4. Don't Count on Gift Cards
This one's a doozy. Most stores won't offer rebates for orders that involve buying or using gift cards. Then again, some will.
As I mentioned earlier, FatWallet is an excellent guide for navigating these waters. Mr. Rebates has a "Gift Cards" section that includes stores who accept the purchase of gift cards.
It's worth mentioning that FatWallet and Ebates have a rather unique policy for gift cards. They will commission you for however much of the order wasn't paid for with a GC.
5. Don't Count on Store Credit/Rewards, Either
Store credit is sort of, kind of the same as a gift card. In general, it's best to assume they'll mess up your rebate. Store rewards are similar, in that merchants usually consider the orders to be generated by their loyalty or rewards programs.
As with outside coupons, you can always try to stack cash back and store rewards. Just don't use $1 of store rewards that might negate a $20 rebate, OK?
6. Cash Back Site First, Shopping Cart Second
Some people find it easiest to load up their cart and then click through the cash back site. Bad idea.
For most stores, it's perfectly fine. However, there are some stores that are more finicky. They'll only credit the cash back site for items placed in the cart after the affiliate link is clicked. Staples is especially bad about that, but there are others
It's best to err on the side of caution, no matter which merchant you use, and just make sure your cart is empty.
Last word: cash back shopping is worth the effort.
You're now armed with knowledge that most new cash back shoppers don't know. They have to learn it over time and endure the headache of "missing" rebates. Reading through all these tips is going to save you a lot of hassle.
Also, cash back sites know there's a learning curve to the process. They'll try to give you the benefit of the doubt (read: courtesy credits) when possible (read: a finite number of smaller rebates) while you learn the ropes.
At the end of the day, you still have the opportunity to earn money for just visiting one extra site. Isn't that worth a little trial and error?
Do you shop via a cash back rebate site? Which one? What tricks do you use to get the most back from your purchases?
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