Frugal NationFrugal Nation

Are rebates worth it?

A small amount of work can net big rewards. But don't set yourself up for failure.

By Donna_Freedman Nov 9, 2012 2:54PM
Logo: Woman counting money (Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc/Blend Images/Getty Images)Manufacturers rebates were hot in the 1970s because they allowed companies to "discount"  products without actually dropping their prices. I remember those days: As a young single mother I boosted my budget by getting toiletries and household items for free.

A couple of decades later consumer electronics merchants started using rebates to hype frequently upgraded products. My daughter, though impoverished by chronic illness, got a desktop computer for free that way.

How can manufacturers afford to give away big-ticket items? They relied on human nature. Specifically, on the hope that lots of people would: 
  • Misplace the rebate form (aka "shoebox effect").
  • Fill it out incorrectly/neglect to include proof of purchase.
  • Forget to mail it on time (or at all).
  • Lose/fail to cash the check.
And they were right, because most of us aren't as organized as Jonathan Hood, a PhD student at Auburn University who used rebates to pay for almost an entire semester of study.  

He pays his phone bill that way, too. Showoff.

In an interview with Business Insider, Hood explained his process:
  • The average rebate is for $40 and takes 11 minutes to fill out and cash.
  • He buys the products online with a 2% cash-back credit card and, often, cash-back shopping.
  • He then sells the items on eBay for an average profit of $11.91 after taxes and shipping.

We can't all be as fiendishly frugal as the soon-to-be-Dr. Hood. Does that mean we should give up on rebates?

Personally, I say no. I love rebates.

For the rest of you, I say it depends.

Worth the time?

There's no question that rebates are frugal -- if you keep track of them, if you do them correctly and if you feel they're worth your time. (More on that below.) How else could you get things like new computer software and external hard drives for free?

"Obviously free is better," says Dan de Grandpre, the CEO of dealnews.com, which recently published an analysis of two years' worth of rebates

 

While the overall number of mail-in rebate deals has decreased, they're appearing in greater numbers in the "Editor's Choice" section. In 2010 only 599 Editor's Choice deals included rebates. In the first eight months of 2012 the site designated 455 rebate offers as top deals.

But applying for rebates is only half the battle. Hood, the rebater extraordinaire, designed a computer program to keep track of his offers -- and, more importantly, to let him know if they were past due. The check/prepaid card that never arrives is the bane of the rebater's existence. That problem reached its peak back in the mid-2000s, when some state attorneys general filed lawsuits against manufacturers and rebate-redemption houses.

For example, Samsung was found to have denied rebates to 4,100 consumers because they lived in apartment buildings. The rule was "one offer per address" but the rebate form did not have space for apartment numbers.

The process is more straightforward now; in fact, sometimes you can file the form online. But human nature is still human nature, especially when it comes to fine print.

"Some (consumers) fail to meet one of the terms: postmark on time, include the barcode from the box, etc.," says Brent Shelton of FatWallet.com.

The deal hounds who frequent the FatWallet forums -- which is where Hood finds his offers -- recognize that rebates are a big part of the lowest-price puzzle. They're motivated. Not everyone is.

Get real

If you're not very organized, if you're extremely busy or if you have ADD or ADHD, then I'd suggest that you not set yourself up for failure. When the screamin' deal involves filling out a rebate form, be honest with yourself: Are you really going to do that?

You could make it a condition of the purchase, i.e., you can't boot up the computer/turn on the TV/use the camera until after you've filled out (and double-checked) the rebate form and dropped it into a mailbox. Ask your partner or a close friend to hold you accountable.

Pick your spots, too. When you're looking at $2.50 for a bottle of shampoo, don't put yourself through the stress of not-doing it and then beating yourself up. For an expensive item, though, the value can be worth the hassle.

Of course, if finances are tight then a free bottle of shampoo or package of cold medicine really can make a difference.

And then there are those of us who simply like to stretch our dollars. Rebates are just another way to do that. Plus, it's fun getting money in the mail.

Readers:
Do you send away for rebates? What's the minimum amount you'll consider?

More on MSN Money:

5Comments
Nov 10, 2012 11:39AM
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I love rebates. I know the company thinks I will be lazy and disorganized and forgot to do it. Ha, I do it every time. It's my way of stickin' it to the man!
Nov 12, 2012 8:08PM
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I love, love, love rebates. When I first started I didn't get every one exactly right.  I think I got 2 wrong in the past 4 years. That's not too bad considering how many I got right.

I have a spreadsheet that I track my rebates. I've gotten over $1,600 this year in rebates and the year's not over yet.

Oct 22, 2013 8:54AM
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I think rebates are totally worth it. It is annoying sometimes to keep track of things but if you do, its worth it. I love office supplies, I know thats weird, but I do. I found a great company, CMF, that has a whole page dedicated to office supplies & rebates. Love it. Check them out! http://www.cmfsupplies.com/NJ-PA/office-supplies/rebates.php
Nov 9, 2012 6:10PM
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No, just make the rebate price everyday.  OMG!  That would hurt print media an advertising.
Nov 11, 2012 2:35PM
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I agree with this especially when it comes to computers and tablets! For many years I was dead set against Apple/Mac computers because they were more expensive.  I have probably gone through 30 or more Windows PC's in the last 30 years and now know that the latest Apple/Mac computers are still more expensive than ordinary PC's but they are much better made and just do not seem to jam up, crash, slow down and suffer from all the spam and viruses like all of the Windows PC's.
If you have grown up and are not a "Gamer" on a PC, spend the money, get a Mac and make life easier for yourself!

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Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.

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