The saying goes that the best way to make money is to save money. No matter what your current financial situation is, it’s always wise to start saving more funds if you can. If you learn how to earn cash back on purchases you would make anyway, that’s money in your pocket that wouldn’t be there. That’s a win-win situation any way you look at it.
The best cash-back services offer a better way to save each time you shop, by helping you earn rewards with each penny you spend. However, these services sound too good to be true, right? You get money back when you shop online at many, if not most, stores without strings attached? Yeah, right.
Yeah, right! These are the real deal, and in fact if you’re not using a cash-back service every time you shop, you’re leaving money on the table. And you can beef up those earnings by referring your friends, too. Here’s everything you need to know about cash-back services and some popular ones you can choose from.
These services work like this: Suppose you’re looking to replace your favorite running shoes, which happen to come from, for example, Nike. Normally you’d just go to Nike’s site, choose your preferred pair and check out.
To score extra cash back (and I say “extra” because I’m assuming you’re already using a cash-back rewards credit card), you simply detour to a cash-back service’s site — let’s say Rakuten — and then proceed to Nike via that site. Choose your shoes, check out like normal and you’re done.
If you happened to do that at the time of this writing, you’d have scored a cash rebate of 8%. On a $100 pair of shoes, that means $8 back in your pocket. Not a fortune, but also not nothing.
Rakuten (formerly Ebates) often runs cash-back specials with higher rates than normal, like this 2x multiplier at some stores.
That’s just one example. Cash-back rates vary from service to service, store to store and sometimes even week to week, but the end result is the same: extra money you wouldn’t have saved otherwise. And just as the reward points you get from your credit card add up over time, so does this.
Speaking of extra money, some cash-back services offer a sign-up bonus, and you can often get referral bonuses for encouraging friends and family members to sign up as well. Right now, for example, Rakuten will give you $10 when you sign up and make a purchase of at least $25 within 90 days. You can also earn $30 for each person who signs up with your referral ID code (and spends at least $30). If you manage to sign up just one person per month, you’d make $360 over the course of a year. That’s a pretty easy way to earn some cash.
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There must be a catch, right? You must be throwing open the gates on your privacy and agreeing to all kinds of spam, telemarketing and other evils. Otherwise, how do these services make money?
Here’s how: Using the aforementioned example, when Rakuten sends you to Nike and you buy something, Rakuten earns a cut of that purchase — and gives you a cut of that cut. This is called affiliate marketing, and it’s extremely common on the interwebs these days. (Case in point: CNET may earn commission when you use our links to buy certain products and services.)
Here’s my thinking: So what? There is so much tracking of your browsing and purchase activity already — think Amazon, Facebook, Google — who cares if Rakuten tells some marketing company you bought a Keurig at Target or a laptop from Lenovo?
I personally don’t care. I’d just as soon save money, thanks. Obviously if you prefer to keep your online activities as private as possible, cash-back services may not be for you. I’ll simply say that my use of them hasn’t resulted in an increase in spam, junk mail, telemarketing calls or anything like that. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I have zero qualms about recommending these services.
OK, but which ones? What qualifies as “best” in my book? I prize simplicity above all else. I don’t want to have to jump through hoops like completing special offers, scanning receipts, watching videos or building a pyramid of friends. I just want to shop like I normally do and score cash rebates along the way.
Then there’s longevity. There are lots of cash-back services out there; I look for those that have at least a few years under their belt. To me that satisfies the trustworthiness question: If a service hasn’t been good to its users, chances are it won’t be able to keep them.
With that in mind, I’ve listed my favorites below. This is by no means a comprehensive list — I definitely recommend looking into others as well.
App-based Dosh works a little differently: You link one or more credit or debit cards to it (all of them fully encrypted), then use the app to see what stores (including local and online ones) are offering cash-back deals. You might find anything from, say, 7% at your favorite local taco place to 5% at Sam’s Club.
Then just use one of your linked cards at one of those places to score that extra cash back — and I say “extra” because this works even if that same card is already giving you cash back. It’s a double-dip!
I’ll sometimes forget about Dosh and then get notified that I got a rebate from a restaurant or store, when I wasn’t even expecting it. That feels gloriously like found money. Your payout options include direct deposit, PayPal and donating to charity.
I like Honey, which is owned by PayPal, because it does way more than just give cash back. In fact, it started out as an online coupon finder, a browser plug-in that looks up codes for you at checkout. It still does that, but also provides product price histories at stores like Amazon, Best Buy, Target and Walmart. That means you can easily determine if something has been on sale for less than the current price — and create an alert to get notified when there’s a price drop.
Honey’s cash-back component, Honey Gold, is one of the best cash-back services, but works differently than most: Instead of a fixed rebate rate at each store, you get a randomized one. You’ll see what the range can be, then find out after the purchase how it ended up. It might turn out to be higher than you could get elsewhere, or it might end up lower.
The “gold” you earn can be redeemed only for cold, hard cash or gift cards at the likes of Amazon, Macy’s, Target and Walmart. Typically, every 1,000 gold points is worth $10.
Mr. Rebates can be a little off-putting at first thanks to its cartoonish logo. Where my money is concerned, I prefer a site that looks a little more professional.
However, the service has competitive rates and, for the avid referrer, one of the most potentially profitable options anywhere: Instead of earning a flat rate for each person you refer, you earn an ongoing percentage of their rebates. Build up a large enough network of active shoppers and you could really start to enjoy some extra cash.
Beyond that, Mr. Rebates compares favorably with the likes of Rakuten, with tools like a browser plug-in and mobile apps. You can cash out via gift card, PayPal or check, though you do have to wait 90 days to take your payout. I have the least amount of experience with this service, but the referral option alone makes it worth a look.
The great-granddaddy of the best cash-back services, Rakuten (formerly known as Ebates) is probably my favorite. Although its rates aren’t always the highest, it offers some key benefits: shopping via mobile app, in-store and restaurant rebates in addition to online ones and, at this writing, a considerable $30 bonus for each person who signs up using your referral link (and spends at least $30).
I also like Rakuten’s browser plug-in, which immediately alerts you when cash-back savings are available and also gives you an at-a-glance account overview. It saves you having to detour to the Rakuten site when activating purchase tracking. It sometimes finds coupon codes for you as well.
You’ll have to be patient, though: Rakuten pays out quarterly, and your two payment options are mailed check and PayPal. Those minor quibbles aside, this is the service I typically recommend for anyone new to cash-back services.
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