March 10, 2013

Online Rebate Programs

Discount shopping is hard these days. I do my best with automated systems to alert me to sales, but I often find myself needing something and unable to wait until a good deal comes along. Like this weekend. A heat wave is hitting (yes, it’s only early March), the temperature upstairs is hovering around 75 °F, and the fan in the office died. I keep 20% bed bath and beyond coupons well stocked, but they weren’t selling any fans yet. Still, I hate the idea of not saving anything, so I thought I’d look into various cash back programs. I spent the afternoon researching the three main online rebate programs: Ebates, UPromise and Swagbucks.

I ultimately decided to go with Ebates (disclaimer: that’s a referral link). Ebates pays you cash back to shop online at BestBuy, Target, Amazon, Carters, JCPenney, Bed Bath and Beyond, Babies R Us, Buy Buy Baby and many, many, many more. You click their affiliate link to visit the store you want to shop from and ebates splits the referral bonus with you. I signed up and used the link to buy a new fan. What else can you save with Ebates just in time for tax season? TurboxTax and H&R Block! The more time I spent on their website the more I kicked myself for not joining Ebates sooner.

I was instantly drawn to uPromise. Easy college savings? What’s not to love?! I had the impression that uPromise accounts were special high yield savings with tax benefits (like a 529 plan) backed by Sallie Mae. Not quite. While uPromise provide easy access to 529 plans, and is owned by Sallie Mae, it is basically just a loyalty program. The funds don’t even need to be spent on educational expenses. If uPromise can’t offer me a better savings plan than I can get on my own, there doesn’t seem to be any additional benefit to uPromise instead of Ebates. What uPromise does have going for it, is slightly higher cashback rates.

As I dug a little deeper I read that uPromise’s business model is primarily in profiling their customers for marketing purposes and were criticized as having some deceptive practices. I was beginning to feel more like the product being sold than the customer.

Then there was SwagBucks (also a referral link.) SwagBucks has a cash back system like ebates, with slightly lower rates. But that’s not the only way you can earn money with SwagBucks. Their pitch: earn money for doing things you already do online – surf the web, watch videos, play games. The reality: earn money by subjecting yourself to marketing pitches. Each poll is associated with some product. “Do you have amazon prime?”. (Guess what ad pops up if you answer ‘no’.) You can also participate in activities which, in my admittedly limited experience, have all been soft ball type pitches for products disguised as marketing research. “Which feature of my product do you like the most” Guess which ad then pops up. I earned 7 points by in 4 minutes. At 450 points for a $5 Amazon gift card that’s an effective rate of $1.16 per hour. At least in this business model products are being sold to me, rather than data about me being sold to other companies.

The Verdict: EBates for the win, followed by SwagBucks. I plan to do my shopping through Ebates, but will likely continue to do some searching through SwagBucks. It’s only a few extra ads on each search result page, after all. We’ll see if anything actually pans out.

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