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Free money: 4 ways to get cash back without even trying

You already know about cash-back credit cards, but if you're not using these other options, you're missing out on extra savings.

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Getting cash back on your purchases can be easier than ever.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Remember rebates? To get, say, a $20 savings on, say, a new monitor, you had to fill out a form (sometimes more than one), cut out a UPC, send everything in the mail, wait eight to 12 weeks and hope that maybe, just maybe, that rebate check might show up.

The horror. The horror.

These days, it's a lot easier to get rebates -- except the language has changed a bit. Now it's called "cash back," and it's almost entirely automated. So automated, in fact, that it can seem almost too good to be true.

Good news: It's not. By leveraging one or more cash-back services, you can save money and/or earn rewards. Let's take a look at the various options for much of what you buy online and a lot of what you buy elsewhere.

Cash-back credit cards

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Use a cash-back credit card on your purchases to double up on rebate savings.

Citi

I'm not going to spend a lot of time here, other than to say that if you're not using a cash-back card, you're literally throwing money away. It's the easiest and most straightforward way to recoup a percentage of nearly everything you buy.

Let's say you use a card that awards you one point for every dollar you spend. In most cases you can redeem those points for travel, goods, services or the like. You can also convert them to "cash," which usually takes the form of statement credit. You won't get a check in the mail, but you will get credit applied to your account -- which is kind of the same thing. It's money, however you choose to look at it.

When looking for a cash-back card, pay attention to the percentages you'll get back -- and the annual fees. For example, there's the Uber Visa card, which pays you back 4 percent on restaurant and bar purchases, 3 percent on hotels and airfare, 2 percent on online purchases (including Uber rides) and 1 percent for everything else. It has no annual fee.

Those points may not sound like a lot, but it adds up. Let's say your monthly credit card bill is $2,000. Assuming you always pay it off in full, and you get just 1 percent back, that's an extra $20 in your pocket every month -- or an extra $240 per year. For doing nothing.

Cash back for online purchases

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Ebates often runs cash-back specials with higher rates than normal, like this one day 3X multiplier promotion at some stores.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Here's a hypothetical: You need a new fridge. You do some research, find a model you like, then proceed to shop around online for the lowest price on that model. Turns out it's at JCPenney.

Then, remembering the sage advice of one Mr. Broida, you head to cash-back service Ebates, where you discover you can get a 3 percent rebate on JCPenney purchases. So you click through from Ebates to the JCPenney store and order your fridge like you normally would.

Not long after, you get a $51.42 credit. After that, you receive an actual check (or PayPal deposit). For doing almost nothing.

Full disclosure: That wasn't a hypothetical. It happened to me. And it's why I've been championing online cash-back services for years. They're easy to use, with no strings attached. (Actually, I guess there's one string: They collect data about where you shop and what you buy. Some people are bothered by that. I'm not.)

Over time I've recouped hundreds of dollars I'd have otherwise forfeited. Little purchases here, big ones there. It adds up.

Here are three services I recommend checking out:

  • BeFrugal: Kind of a one-stop discount destination, BeFrugal serves up not only cash back, but also printable grocery and restaurant coupons and a listing of daily deals.  
  • Ebates: Owned by Rakuten, Ebates is arguably the best-known service of its kind -- but it doesn't always have the best rates. (As with anything, it pays to shop around.) I will say its browser plug-in makes it easy for me to check if there's a cash-back option for any given store, and its mobile apps now support mobile cash-back shopping. (Many, if not most, cash-back services require a desktop browser.) Every 90 days, the service pays out your rebates (er, "ebates") in the form of a check or PayPal deposit.
  • Honey Gold: Built around a browser plug-in that also plugs in discount codes at store checkout pages and tracks Amazon price drops, Honey Gold works a little differently. "Each reward is a surprise," it says, meaning the cash-back percentage falls within a range you won't be aware of until after the purchase. It could be, say, 1 to 5 percent at Ebay, 1 to 10 percent at Walmart, and so forth. This isn't straight-up cash back, either. Points can be redeemed only for gift cards, and only at about a dozen stores. Use Honey Gold only if you can't find a cash-back option from one of the other services.
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One important thing to note: If you use any of these tools in a desktop browser, be sure to deactivate any ad blocker you might be using -- at least for the service itself and the store you're visiting. Using an ad-blocker can interfere with the necessary tracking, meaning you won't get your cash.

Cash-back services for credit card purchases

A growing number of services offer a computer-free way to score cash back. By linking your credit card, you can nab those extra savings just by shopping like you normally do. Just go to restaurants, book hotels and buy stuff like usual, and presto: cash back. And, yes, they work even if you're already getting cash back from the card provider. Double-dip, anyone? 

The only catch is that you don't get rewards everywhere, only from stores that participate in the given program. So you may have to do a little advance recon.

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Dosh and Yelp Cash Back link to your credit card to automatically give you extra cash-back savings at participating stores, restaurants and services.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Here's a look at three of these services, all of which I've tried and can definitely recommend.

  • Dosh: Launched in 2017, Dosh has evolved into one of my favorite cash-back services. Just link one or more credit cards to your account, then browse the available offers. At press time, those included various local businesses, national chains (such as 2 percent at Sam's Club) and online stores (8 percent at Sephora, for example). Payouts can be donated to charity or routed directly to your bank or a PayPal account.
  • Drop: Similar to Dosh, but with a points-for-gift-cards system in place of actual cash, Drop works on a combination of ongoing and one-time offers. You can pick up to five "favorites" that earn you points with every purchase, from places like Starbucks, Walmart, Whole Foods and Uber. As for the one-time offers, they're for things like "Subscribe to Hulu, earn 25,000 points," and "20 points per $1 spent at Apple." Generally speaking, I don't love this kind of structure, but it's so easy to automatically earn points (and therefore rewards) by shopping at your favorite stores, you're crazy not to use Drop. 
  • Yelp Cash Back: I'd call this "Dosh for restaurants," because it works much the same way: Link a credit card, dine out at selected restaurants, earn cash back. Unfortunately, a single credit card can't be linked with both Dosh and Yelp, because both leverage third-party ecommerce company Empyr for the actual payments. And that explains why I noticed a lot of overlap between the two, both in restaurants and cash-back percentages. Consequently, you stand to save more overall by using Dosh, but if restaurants are your focus, Yelp Cash Back is certainly worth a look.

If you're not wild about giving your credit card number(s) to services like these, I can certainly understand that. I'll just note that your numbers are encrypted; all credit cards have protections in place to safeguard you against fraud; and, lest you forget, your card is already on file at any number of stores and services -- so what's one more, especially if there's money in it for you?

Post-purchase cash-back services

There's one last option for dipping into the cash-back till. Post-purchase services provide rebates after the fact -- usually by looking at your receipts. (And if that raises privacy concerns, well, I'm kind of surprised you even made it this far. But keep reading.)

Let's take a look at three notable options, starting with one that can score you price-match refunds without you lifting a finger.

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You can use an app like Receipt Hog to turn your receipts into cold, hard cash (or gift cards).

Receipt Hog
  • Paribus: Many online stores offer price-matching and purchase protection. So if you buy something and then the price drops, you can get a refund for the difference. Paribus tracks your purchases and, when a lower price is found, contacts customer services on your behalf to get that refund. There's no charge to use the service, but you do need to let it monitor your email so it can automatically locate receipts. Fortunately, there's this big disclaimer right up front: "We don't sell or share your data to third parties."
  • Receipt Hog: Mind sharing your paper receipts for market-research purposes? If not, scan them with Receipt Hog. Each one nets you coins you can eventually redeem for cash or gift cards. You can also earn coins by completing surveys, connecting email and Amazon accounts and playing the "hog slots." Honestly, I don't love this app, largely because it requires full-time location access. There are similar apps, such as ReceiptPal, that can also work with electronic receipts. Even so, I feel it's too much work for too little reward. But it's another form of cash back, and therefore worth a mention.
  • Walmart Savings Catcher: If you're a Walmart regular, and you use Walmart Pay, this is kind of a no-brainer. Just submit your e-receipts via the Walmart app; Savings Catcher compares your purchases with the advertised prices of local competitors. If it finds a lower one, you get the difference in the form of a Walmart e-gift card.

If you're wondering why I didn't include the popular Ibotta in this story, it's because the app requires a fair bit of hoop-jumping. For example, to get cash back on grocery-store purchases, you have to claim offers before you shop, then remember to submit your receipt after. And to claim offers, you have to answer questions about your household, education and so on. You can definitely save money with Ibotta, it just requires more effort.

Likewise, there are lots of other tools and services I didn't cover here. If you're using one of them and think it merits a mention, by all means do so in the comments!

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