Are rebates worth it?
A small amount of work can net big rewards. But don't set yourself up for failure.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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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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