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

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

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 8-12 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 "cashback," 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 cashback 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.

Cashback credit cards

citi-cash-back-card.jpg

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 cashback 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 cashback card, pay attention to the percentages you'll get back -- and the annual fees. For example, I recently wrote about Uber's new 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.

Get cash back for online purchases

befrugal-amazon-8-percent

BeFrugal can score you some very decent cashback rates.

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 cashback 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 cashback 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 cashback, but also printable grocery and restaurant coupons and a listing of daily deals. Of particular interest: The rotating Bonus Cash Back selection, which today includes up to 10 percent at Amazon! For example: At time of writing you can get 8 percent back on Amazon Echo and Fire TV devices while Ebates offers just 3 percent. That's significant.
  • 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 cashback option for any given store, and to view my cashback status, history, etc. 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 cashback percentage falls within a range you won't be aware of until after the purchase. It could be, say, 1-5 percent at Ebay, 1-10 percent at Walmart, and so forth. This isn't straight-up cashback, 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 cashback 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 credit or cashback for your purchase.

Cashback services for credit card purchases

Here's one of the more surprising ways to get cash back. New services that link directly with your credit card, requiring little or no action on your part. Just go to restaurants, book hotels and buy stuff like you normally would, 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.

groupon-plus-example

Would I like to score 30-percent cashback savings when I dine out? Absolutely. Would I like more than one participating restaurant? Definitely.

Groupon

Here's a look at four of these services. This is fairly new territory, and I haven't yet tried all of them -- but an extra layer of cash back on top of my cashback credit card sounds awfully good.

  • Dosh: Currently in public beta, Dosh delivers payouts for both local and online purchases, hotels included. Just link one or more credit cards to your account, then browse the available offers. Such as? At press time, the service was giving 10 percent back on your entire order at Denny's, 5 percent back at Forever 21, a $25 bonus for your first hotel stay booked through the app and so on. Payouts can be donated to charity or routed directly to your bank or a PayPal account.
  • Drop: Billed as a "millennial rewards app," Drop works on combination of ongoing and one-time offers. You can pick up to five of the former from a small but interesting selection of stores: Starbucks, Walmart, Whole Foods, Uber, etc. As for one-time offers, they're for things like "Spend at least $20 at Amazon" or "Spend at least $15 at CVS." Everything nets you points. Points can be redeemed for gift cards (but not cash, alas). Drop is a little confusing at first, but it does provide offers you don't typically find elsewhere. 
drop-ongoing-offers

Drop will automatically award you points when you patronize five brands.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET
  • Groupon+: Definitely a work in progress, Groupon+ says it's "the easiest way to save at restaurants." This was hard to verify. At press time, there were exactly two Groupon+ deals in my area. One was for Dunkin' Donuts: 100 percent cash back when you spend up to $3 (coffee and a donut, anyone?), then 20 percent on subsequent purchases (but again up to $3 max). The other was a chicken-and-waffles restaurant offering 30 percent back on the first purchase and then 10 percent on subsequent ones. You don't need vouchers, as you do with other Groupon deals, but you do need to "claim" any given deal -- and of course there are restrictions. File this under "one to watch."
  • 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, which 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 cashback 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.

So you've got two big names and two new names getting in on the tied-to-your-credit-card cashback idea. You won't save on everything, but you can definitely save on some things -- with very little effort. 

Post-purchase cashback services

walmart-savings-catcher

Walmart Savings Catcher will automatically refund you the difference if it finds a lower advertised price on something you've purchased.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

There's one last option for dipping into the cashback till. Post-purchase services provide rebates after the fact -- usually by looking at your receipts. And if that raises privacy concerns, I'm surprised you've read this far. Many of the aforementioned services require your credit-card number!

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

  • Paribus: Many, if not most, 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. To learn more, read my story on getting price-drop refunds without even trying. (There's a similar tool, Earny, but it takes 25 percent of the cash it recoups.)
  • Receipt Hog: Mind sharing your 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 cashback, and therefore worth a mention.
  • Walmart Savings Catcher: If you're a Walmart regular, this is kind of a no-brainer. Scan your receipts using the Walmart app (an easy process because it doesn't require the full, crumpled-in-your-pocket receipt, but just the QR code at the bottom), then tap to submit those receipts to Savings Catcher. It 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 or a Bluebird card credit.

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. For one offer I tried to claim, the question appeared but no answers did -- a (rather frustrating) bug in the app. 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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