Get Paid to Shop This Season: Really!

Photo (cc) by 401(K) 2013

Attention, online shoppers: You can get money back on just about anything you buy over the Internet. Cash-back shopping sites such as Ebates, Extrabux, FatWallet, ShopAtHome, Big Crumbs and Mr. Rebates offer rebates of up to 20 percent on a huge variety of goods and services.

Sound like a scam? It isn’t. These sites get paid to send buyers to online merchants, and then share a piece of that fee with their customers. All you have to do is start your online shopping trip at the cash-back site vs. going directly to the retailer. After clicking on the site’s link to Target, Drugstore.com or wherever, you’ll be sent directly to that company to shop.

Failing to use cash-back is “money left on the table – and all it takes is one extra step,” says Craig Cassata of Mr. Rebates. Put another way: If the cashier at a brick-and-mortar store offered you a cash rebate, who would say “no”?

Deals available year-round

Holidays are a particularly fruitful time, as hundreds of retailers amp up their rebate rates for Christmas, Easter or Valentine’s Day.

Special promotional rates exist during some non-holiday times, too, such as back to school in late summer and the March Madness college hoops tournament. But special occasions aren’t the only times to look for rebates. Smart shoppers use cash back all year long to take care of everyday wants and needs.

You can get rebates for buying computers, vitamins, diapers, gift cards, contact lenses, paper goods, pet supplies, books, wine, furniture, craft items and home-improvement items. Or get cash back for sending flowers, booking plane tickets, renting a car, buying concert tickets, doing genealogical research, subscribing to magazines, using tax-prep software, registering a domain name, filtering your water and even joining a dating service.

A simple way to save

“Almost everything except houses, cars and boats” is eligible for cash back, according to Brent Shelton, a spokesman for FatWallet and Ebates. If you’re already sold on the convenience of online commerce – no lines, no traffic and no limits on when you can shop – then why not add another layer of savings?

The process is pretty simple: Sign up, sign in and start shopping. You can search by retailer or by product – and ditching store loyalties can often save you money. Suppose you wanted to buy a weed trimmer and you usually shop at Retailer X. Doing a search for “weed trimmer” at the site might turn up double cash back and a 20 percent-off coupon at Retailer Z.

In fact, cash-back sites almost always have coupon codes, including ones for free shipping. Sometimes those codes are exclusive, i.e., a little higher than you’d find at an online coupon site. (Tip: Enhance the discount by paying with a rewards credit card.)

How much can you earn?

If you’re a diehard deal hound, start your search at an online price comparison website like PriceGrabber.com or FindersCheapers.com, to find the retailer with the lowest price. Then head over to CashbackMonitor.com, which compares rebate rates from some of the better-known cash-back sites.

Be sure to recheck the rates before buying because they sometimes change without warning. That might be to your advantage, however; see “double cash back,” above. Although those rates tend to range from 2 percent to 8 percent, they can be considerably higher.

However, you won’t get the money right away. It takes up to three months for the rebate to become available, because it can take retailers that long to report cancellations or returns. The sites pay via check or PayPal, usually monthly or quarterly once you reach a certain amount in cash back (usually $10).

Since you begin with a signing bonus of at least $5, it doesn’t take as long to hit the cash-out mark as you might think. You’ll also get bonuses by referring new members. Don’t spam your family and friends mercilessly, but if cash back works well for you it might also be a great frugal hack for them. Note: You won’t get paid until they’ve actually started buying.

Buy online, retrieve locally

Two other money-saving options are in-store pickup and ship-to-store.

The first one means that you order online for the cash-back rebate plus any available coupons, then go to the local brick-and-mortar to collect your purchase. At least 30 stores offer this service, according to this post on the FatWallet blog. Generally you can pick up the goods the same day, or even within an hour. Bonus: You’re less likely to overspend because the order is waiting for you, i.e., you won’t wander through the store being distracted by bright shiny objects.

If there’s an item on the retailer’s website that you can’t find in your local store, choose the ship-to-store option. My daughter did this to get some curtains and scored not just a rebate but also an additional $20 in savings. (More on that in a minute.) Why not just have it shipped directly to you? Because free delivery isn’t always available, that’s why. It’s hard to say how many retailers offer the ship-to-store option. But given that many customer service departments do special orders, start online and see if they’ll ship it to your neighborhood store. My daughter wanted $50 worth of drapery panels for a large picture window. The kind she wanted weren’t in stock at the local JCPenney, so she went through Mr. Rebates – which happened to have a coupon for $10 off any $25 purchase. You guessed it: She bought the panels in two separate orders, thus paying $30 instead of $50, and she also got a 5 percent rebate. That’s my girl!

More tips from the pros

Here’s how to make the most of your cash-back experiences:

  • Buy socially. Are you a fan of social buying vouchers? Companies like Groupon, LivingSocial and DealChicken are available through some cash-back sites, some of which also offer rebates on Amazon Local daily deals.
  • Read those e-mails. Cash-back sites will let you know about hot deals and special sales. When I planned to start my own website, a cash-back communiqué steered me toward a $10 bonus and a higher-than-usual rebate on domain names.
  • Read the fine print, too. Certain items may be excluded, so watch for fine print along the lines of “cash back not available on all items.” You might be surprised at what is included, however; Cassata says he’s had people get 5 percent rebates on $10,000 cruise bookings.
  • Buy gift cards. Some secondary-market resellers like Cardpool and Raise can be accessed through cash-back sites. You may also be eligible for rebates when you buy new gift cards through a retailer’s website. Not all stores offer cash back on cards, however, so do read that fine print.
  • Ask for help. Some cash-back sites host forums where shoppers can highlight mega-hot deals and help newcomers learn the ropes. If you’re looking for advice, start there.
  • Take it to work. Small or startup businesses can get rebates on paper, ink, software, furniture, cleaning supplies, computer services and online file backup.
  • Be careful with coupons. Online discount codes are specific to each site, so using a code you found elsewhere may void the cash back. It may be possible to use a coupon code that the merchant mailed to you; ask on the cash-back site’s forum.
  • Don’t forget to log in! Failing to go through the cash-back site means no rebate. Period.
  • Use your head. Rebates are not an excuse to overspend during the holidays, or at any other time. If you don’t need it or you can’t afford it, don’t go shopping – either online or in person.

Do you have any other online shopping tips to add? Share below or on our Facebook page.

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