How to use cash back portals to make money while you shop

Rebates average 7 percent, but many online retailers boost cash back savings for holiday shoppers.
Image: Credit
Rebates are offered on all sorts of merchandise, including food, clothing, cosmetics, household goods, automotive parts, pet supplies and jewelry.filadendron / Getty Images
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By Herb Weisbaum

You try to be a savvy shopper; you watch for sales and look for coupons. Cash back rebates are another way to save when you shop online.

That’s right, thousands of online stores, from Amazon to Zale’s, will pay you to buy from them.

To claim your cash, you need to become a member of a cash back portal site, such as BeFrugal, CouponCabin, Mr. Rebates, Rakuten or RetailMeNot, and make that purchase using the portal. You can join for free and in most cases, you’ll get a sign-up bonus, typically $5-$10, for doing that.

“If you aren’t using one of these portals, you’re really leaving money on the table,” said Nick Ewen, senior editor at The Points Guy, who has a blog post on how to maximize your rebates. “For those making purchases online for the holidays this is a no-brainer way to increase the rewards and the savings that you can get on those purchases.”

A cashback portal gets paid a commission from an affiliated retailer every time a member clicks through an offer on its site and makes a purchase. The portal splits its commission — paid on the final price, excluding shipping, taxes, gift-wrapping or any other fees — with the member.

“We're giving away free money, I don’t understand why everyone doesn't do this,” said Kristen Gall, president of Rakuten (formerly eBates), a well-known shopping portal with about 13 million members.

The average cash back rebate on Rakuten is between 4 and 6 percent, Gall told NBC News BETTER. She expects to see some retailers offer 15-20 percent cash back this week, as they try to drive traffic to their websites heading into Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

“The deals are getting really aggressive right now, so the next three weeks are going to be huge,” Gall said.

Most airlines, many credit cards and some hotels have shopping portals that provide extra value to those who’ve joined their loyalty programs, but the cash back portals typically have a wider variety of merchants.

ONLINE SHOPPING PORTALS: THE BASICS

Rebates are offered on all sorts of merchandise, including food, clothing, cosmetics, household goods, automotive parts, pet supplies and jewelry. Some portals feature cash back offers for travel, mobile phone service, gift cards and movie tickets.

You won’t find some big-name retailers on these portals. The rebates from Amazon and other major stores (such as Target and Walmart) are typically limited to certain departments, and the rebates may vary (e.g., 5 percent on clothing, 1 percent on makeup).

Deals and affiliated retailers will vary from portal to portal. So if you’re really into stretching your budget, you’ll want to join a few of cash back sites. Then visit CashbackMonitor.com to compare all of your options — cash back, travel miles/points, credit card points and other rewards — offered by dozens of sites for that particular purchase.

The well-known portals have mobile apps and offer browser extensions that make it easy to spot the deals. You just shop online as your normally would, and get notified automatically when coupons or cashback offers are available on that site.

Using the portal will not affect any discounts or sales promotions being offered on the retailer’s website. The retailer may limit what merchandise it sells through the portal, but if the link is there, it’s the same deal offered on the store’s website.

And yes, you can also stack the deals and use coupon codes. You’ll also get any rewards offered by your credit card. In other words, you can buy something on sale, use a coupon code, get a cash rebate and pay with a loyalty card that earns you points or miles.

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“Online shoppers want to get maximum discounts, and we let you do that,” said John Lal, founder of the BeFrugal. “You get upfront savings from any online coupons and then the cash back rewards after shopping.”

Since its launch in 2009, the BeFrugal portal has saved shoppers more than $200 million dollars on more than $2 billion worth of shopping, the company told us.

THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF HOW CASH BACK PORTALS WORK

Q: How often will I get paid?

It’s different at every site, but typically monthly or quarterly, if you’ve reached the minimum amount required to get paid.

Q: How will I get my money?

The options vary by site, but include a check in the mail, direct deposit to a checking account or PayPal account or e-gift card. With Rakuten, you can get your rewards paid in American Express points.

Q: Can I use any coupon?

Most portals only guarantee cash back when you use the coupons on their site.

Q: What if I return the item?

The cash you earned on that purchase will be deducted from your account. This is to prevent return fraud.

Q: Can I expect to get more advertising spam?

You should expect to get regular emails from the sites, featuring special discounts, but they all promise you won’t get spammed by the participating retailers.

A REVIEW OF FOUR CASH BACK PIGGY BANKS

The super shoppers at Checkbook.org, an independent, nonprofit consumer organization, recently test drove four cash back portals.

Rakuten was their favorite. It’s well-designed, easy to use and Checkbook found that it “offered the best yields the most often.” It pays out quarterly, slower than most other cash back sites, and you must earn more than $5 during the quarter to receive a payment.

  • Mr. Rebates features a “store of the week” that’s offering extra cash back. While most portals give a referral bonus when a friend joins, Checkbook found that Mr. Rebates seemed the most generous.” Once you recruit members, you’ll receive 20 percent of their earnings for as long as they use the site.
  • BeFrugal guarantees that if you make a cash back-eligible purchase with them and find a better rebate elsewhere within 24 hours, it will match its competitor’s offer plus 25 percent.
  • CouponCabin is one of Checkbook’s favorite online-shopping sites because of its cache of promo codes. It has added cash back offers and pays faster than the others. While Checkbook recommends using these sites, Executive Editor Kevin Brasler cautions that rebate programs are designed to get you to spend more than you might otherwise do.

“The retailers and rebate companies know that if you think you're saving money, you're likely to spend more because it feels like you can afford more,” he said.

A FEW THINGS TO CONSIDER

To sign up for the sites, you’ll need to provide your name and email address.

If you want your rebates credited to a PayPal or bank account, you’ll need to provide that information. To get a physical rebate check, you’ll need to provide a mailing address.

You can expect this information to be shared with affiliates and business partners.

Shopping portals use cookies to track your transactions, so you must agree to accept them. What will the portal do with the shopping information it collects on you? Many of the well-known sites say they don’t share or sell this information with third-party companies.

For specifics about what personal information is shared and with whom, check the company’s privacy policy.

DON'T MISS: What to buy and what to skip on Black Friday

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