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Are rebates worthy of you?

Companies love them, but for consumers they're less than attractive.

By Karen Datko Feb 10, 2010 12:31PM

This post comes from Tisha Tolar at partner blog Wise Bread.


With a new year, many of us may have the illusion that time management can be increased in our lives. Time management, weight management and money management are likely the three most popular resolutions that return to the scene year after year. It makes sense. But what doesn’t make sense are the little things in life that we continue to do even though they violate the promise we made to ourselves to do better.


One such item that can be a strain on both time- and money- management skills is the rebate. Sure, it sounds like a good deal to get $5 back on a $5 purchase, but, like most things in life, rebates are not that simple. In fact, after credit card shenanigans, more consumers complain about rebate hassles than anything else -- and rightly so. Have you ever tried getting money from a big corporation? Not so easy, is it?

Of course it’s not easy. Companies make it hard for anyone to cut into their profit margin. If rebates were easy, then everyone would be pursuing them. From the company’s perspective, offering customers money back makes them look good. With nearly everyone struggling to make ends meet or at least have enough cash put aside for the future, people will continue to flock to the places that give them the best deals. However, wise consumers remember what their mother told them: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.


Rebates are not the best incentive. Companies are making rebates more attractive so they can trounce the competition. Rebates are very popular in the cell phone industry. But for the consumer, the process of actually getting a rebate can be tough.


In most cases, you have to pay full price at the time of purchase and log on later to the company’s Web site to follow through the process of claiming the rebate. Those without Internet access will have to spend even more money on the cost of postage for mailing in receipts and rebate forms.


The forms, electronic and paper, usually take some time to complete. Then, after completing all the paperwork, you will likely find yourself waiting at the mailbox for six to eight weeks, if not longer, to secure that $2 rebate check. Worth it? Perhaps, if you have nothing else going on in your life.


Rebate debit cards are failing. A newer tactic companies are using is giving customers the rebate amount in the form of a debit card. Sounds convenient enough, but there are many consumer complaints about the debit cards not working past a certain amount. For instance, you get a rebate card of $30. You charge $27.98 on the card, and the next time you try to use it, it isn’t accepted. Oftentimes stores won’t let you use a debit card unless the total on the card exceeds the amount due.


Rebate trickery. Some companies not only make it hard to get the rebate, they make it easy to get one over on the consumer. Imagine going to a store to make a purchase and  anticipating an instant $20 rebate, only to discover after looking at your receipt at home that the company actually charged you an additional $20. It happens more than consumers realize. Failure to check receipts or rebate requirements leaves many consumers not only out the rebate amount but paying more for the item out of their own pockets.

Rebate scams. Sadly, there are still those who profit off consumers' trust. "Rebate" checks are sent to unsuspecting consumers that, once cashed, actually trigger additional charges on consumer bank accounts. Consumers are often surprised to find that the fine print actually states that cashing the check is an agreement to enroll in some kind of program that costs them ridiculous amounts of money each month. Rebate checks have a history of taking a long time to arrive, so if your rebate pops up in the mail in a day or two, it may be a clue that something is not on the up and up.


To rebate or not to rebate. Depending on your experience with rebates and retailers, there may still be a few good rebates out there that are worth your time and effort. Instead, why not search out legitimate money-saving offers that aren’t dependent on a rebate. Pay attention to the regular price of the item when you are shopping or comparing goods. Consider that there is never any guarantee you’ll get your money back.


What are your experiences with rebates?


Related reading at Wise Bread:

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