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The 5 best cash-back services right now

It's not a question of if you should use one of these services, it's a question of which one.

ebates-3x-cash-back

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

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Cash-back services sound too good to be true. You get money back when you shop online at many, if not most, stores? And there are no strings attached? Yeah, right.

Yeah, right! These are the real deal, and in fact if you're not using a cash back service every time you shop, you're leaving money on the table.

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Cash back 101

They work like this: Suppose you're shopping for a laptop and eyeballing a Lenovo. Normally you'd go to Lenovo's site, choose your model and check out -- same as you would for any other product at any other store.

To score extra cash back (and I say "extra" because I'm assuming you're already using a cash-back credit card), you simply detour to a cash-back service -- let's say Ebates -- and then proceed to Lenovo. Choose your model, check out like normal and you're done.

If you happened to do that today, you'd have scored not only a coupon code good for 20 percent off, but also a cash rebate of 7 percent. So, for example, a Yoga Flex 14 priced at $850 would have dropped to around $720 post-coupon, and then to around $670 post-rebate.

That's just one example. Cash-back rates vary from service to service, store to store and sometimes even week to week -- but so what? It's extra money you wouldn't have saved otherwise, and just as the percentage points you get from your credit card add up over time, so does this.

What's the cash-back catch?

There must be a catch, right? You must be opening a veritable vein in your privacy and agreeing to all kinds of spam, telemarketing and other evils. Otherwise, how do these services make money?

Here's how: Using the aforementioned example, when Ebates sends you to Lenovo and you buy something, Ebates earns a cut of that purchase -- and gives you a cut of that cut. This is called affiliate marketing, and it's extremely common on the interwebs these days. Case in point: CNET may earn commission from the services featured below.

Now, is there also some tracking and data-gathering involved? No question. These sites use browser cookies to track your purchase, which is necessary to confirm that purchase and give you your rebate. Do cash-back services also aggregate and sell this data? If you peruse the terms and conditions and privacy-policy pages, you'll see that most of them say they reserve the right to do so.

Here's my thinking: So what? There is so much tracking of your browsing and purchase activity already -- think Amazon, Facebook, Google -- who cares if Ebates tells some marketing company you bought a Keurig at Target? Or a laptop from Lenovo?

I don't. I'd just as soon have the money, thanks. Obviously if you prefer to keep your online activities as private as possible, maybe cash-back services aren't for you. That's cool, they're optional. I'll simply say that my use of cash-back services hasn't resulted in an increase in spam, junk mail, telemarketing calls or anything like that. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I have zero qualms about recommending these services.

What's the best cash-back service?

OK, but which ones? What qualifies as a "best" in my book? I prize simplicity above all else. I don't want to have to jump through hoops like completing special offers, watching videos, earning points or building a pyramid of friends. I just want to shop like I normally do and score cash rebates along the way.

Then there's longevity: There are lots of cash-back services out there. I look for those that have at least a few years under their belts. To me that satisfies the "trustworthiness" question: If a service hasn't been good to its users, chances are it won't be able to keep any. The exception I'm making here is for Dosh, which is relatively new -- but I've found it to be excellent.

Most cash back services offer a sign-up bonus, and of course it makes sense to look for the largest bonus you can get. Likewise, you can usually get referral bonuses for encouraging friends and family members to sign up, and those can add up. Right now, for example, Ebates pays a $25 bounty for each person who signs up with your referral ID code (and spends at least $25 using the service). If you manage to sign up just one person per month, you'd pocket $300 over the course of a year.

Finally, circling back to the question of privacy, of course it's natural to be concerned about it. Be sure to peruse the privacy-policy pages and look for sections with titles like, "Use of information we collect." If something jumps out as suspicious or just plain unacceptable, consider a different service instead.

Below I've chosen my five favorites. This is by no means a comprehensive list -- I definitely recommend looking into others as well. But I've used all of them, and they all have at least one stand-out feature.

Ebates

  • Founded: 1998
  • Sign-up bonus: $10
  • Referral bonus: $25
  • Mobile app: Yes

The great-granddaddy of cash-back services, Ebates is arguably the best of them all right now. Although its rates aren't always the highest, it offers some key benefits: shopping via mobile app (many services limit you to desktop browsers); in-store rebates in addition to online ones; and, at this writing, a considerable $25 bonus for easy person who signs up using your referral link. 

The in-store option in particular is matched by few other services. If you enjoy the occasional trip to the mall, you can score cash-back savings by linking a credit card to your Ebates account, then activating in-store offers before you shop. At this writing, for example, you can get 2 percent back at Bed Bath & Beyond and 4 percent at Sephora.

I also like Ebates' browser plug-in, which immediately alerts you when cash-back savings are available and even gives you an at-a-glance account overview. It saves you having to detour to the Ebates sites when activating purchase-tracking. It sometimes finds coupon codes for you as well -- much like Honey (see below).

You'll have to be patient, though: Ebates pays out quarterly, and your two payment options are mailed check and PayPal. Those minor limitations aside, this is the service I typically recommend for anyone new to cash back.

Honey

  • Founded: 2012
  • Sign-up bonus: $0
  • Referral bonus: $5
  • Mobile app: Coming in 2019

I like Honey because it does way more than just cash back. In fact, it started out as an online coupon-finder, a browser plug-in that looks up codes for you at checkout. It still does that, but now also provides product price histories at stores like Amazon, Best Buy, Target and Walmart. That means you can easily determine if something has been on sale for less than the current price -- and create an alert to get notified when there's a price drop.

honey-cashback

Feel like rolling the dice? Honey gives you a random cash-back percentage when you shop at certain stores.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Honey's cash-back component, Honey Gold, works differently than most: Instead of a fixed rebate rate at each store, you get a randomized one. You'll see what the range can be, then find out after the purchase how it ended up. It might turn out to be higher than you could get elsewhere, or it might end up lower.

The other key difference: The "gold" you earn can be redeemed only for gift cards at the likes of Amazon, Macy's, Target and Walmart. Typically, every 1,000 gold points is worth $10 at any given store. Obviously I'd prefer a straight-up cash option, but Honey is so useful in other ways, it's worth having even if it just scores you gift cards.

Dosh links to your credit card to automatically score you savings -- not just from online stores, but local ones as well.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Dosh

  • Founded: 2017
  • Sign-up bonus: $5
  • Referral bonus: $5
  • Mobile app: Yes

Dosh is strictly an app-powered service, but not in the way you think. You link one or more credit or debit cards to it (all of them fully encrypted), then use the app to see what stores (including local and online ones) are offering cash-back deals. You might find anything from, say, 5 percent at your favorite local taco place to 3 percent at Chevron gas stations (the latter an actual current Dosh offer).

Then just use one of your linked cards at one of those places to score that extra cash back -- and I say "extra" because this works even if that same card is already giving you cash back. It's a double-dip!

I'll sometimes forget about Dosh and then get notified that I got a rebate from a restaurant or store, when I wasn't even expecting it. That feels gloriously like found money. Your payout options include direct deposit, PayPal and donating to charity.

Mr. Rebates

  • Founded: 2002
  • Sign-up bonus: $5
  • Referral bonus: 20 percent of friends' rebates
  • Mobile app: Yes

I'm fairly new to Mr. Rebates, which can be a little off-putting at first thanks to its cartoonish logo. Where my money is concerned, I prefer a site that looks a little more professional.

mr-rebates

Mr. Rebates has the potential to earn you a decent chunk of referral fees, to say nothing of cash back.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

However, the service has competitive rates and, for the avid referrer, one of the most potentially profitable options anywhere: Instead of earning a flat rate for each person you refer, you earn an ongoing percentage of their rebates. Build up a large enough network of active shoppers and you could really start to enjoy some extra cash.

Beyond that, Mr. Rebates compares favorably with the likes of Ebates, with tools like a browser plug-in and mobile apps. You can cash out via gift card, PayPal or check, though you do have to wait 90 days to take your payout. I have the least amount of experience with this service, but the referral option alone makes it worth a look.

TopCashback

  • Founded: 2011
  • Sign-up bonus: $0
  • Referral bonus: $10
  • Mobile app: Yes

Just as it makes sense to comparison-shop to make sure you're getting the lowest price, it pays to compare cash-back services to see if you're getting the highest rate. More often than not, I find that TopCashback beats Ebates -- and offers savings at more stores as well.

topcashback-top-offers

TopCashback often has some of the best cash-back rates. Check out the 10 percent at Fitbit!

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

At this writing, for example, TopCashback is offering up to 8 percent at Home Depot. Ebates doesn't have that store in its roster. In the market for a Fitbit? You'll save 10 percent via TopCashback and just 4 percent via Ebates. At Macy's, it's 8 percent versus 6 percent.

There's another big TopCashback advantage: Once cash gets added to your account, you can get your payout anytime, not just on a 90-day schedule. TopCashback also offers a lot more payout options, including gift cards -- with bonuses if you choose that option -- prepaid virtual credit cards and direct deposit. You can't do a check by mail, however.

Although the service does offer mobile apps, it lacks a browser plug-in -- meaning when you're shopping via your PC, you'll have to visit the TopCashback site and then click through to the store. It's a minor hassle, but a hassle all the same.


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