Rakuten (formerly Ebates) often runs cash-back specials with higher rates than normal, like this 2x multiplier at some stores.
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.
Read more: 4 surprising ways to get cash back
Cash back 101
They work like this: Suppose you’re looking to replace your favorite running shoes, which just happen to come from Nike. Normally you’d go to Nike’s site, choose your preferred pair 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 rewards credit card), you simply detour to a cash-back service — let’s say Rakuten — and then proceed to Nike. Choose your shoes, check out like normal and you’re done.
If you happened to do that at the time of this writing, you’d have scored a cash rebate of 7%. On a $100 pair of shoes, that means $7 back in your pocket. Not a fortune, but also not nothing.
That’s just one example. Cash-back rates vary from service to service, store to store and sometimes even week to week, but the end result is the same: extra money you wouldn’t have saved otherwise. And just as the reward points you get from your credit card add up over time, so does this.
Speaking of extra money, some cash-back services offer a sign-up bonus, and you can often get referral bonuses for encouraging friends and family members to sign up as well. Right now, for example, Rakuten will give you $10 when you sign up and make a purchase of at least $25 within 90 days. You can also earn $25 for each person who signs up with your referral ID code (and spends at least $25). If you manage to sign up just one person per month, you’d make $300 over the course of a year. That’s a pretty easy way to earn some cash.
Read more: The best travel credit cards of 2020
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 Rakuten sends you to Nike and you buy something, Rakuten 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 when you use our links to buy certain products and services.)
Now, is there also some tracking and data-gathering involved? No question. These sites use browser cookies to track your purchases, which is necessary to confirm those purchases and give you your rebate. (That’s why it’s important you don’t use an ad-blocker while taking advantage of these services, as those tools can interfere with proper tracking.) Do cash-back services also aggregate and sell this data? If you peruse their 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 Rakuten tells some marketing company you bought a Keurig at Target? Or a laptop from Lenovo?
I don’t. I’d just as soon save money, thanks. Obviously if you prefer to keep your online activities as private as possible, cash-back services may not be for you. I’ll simply say that my use of them 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 are the best cash-back services?
OK, but which ones? What qualifies as “best” in my book? I prize simplicity above all else. I don’t want to have to jump through hoops like completing special offers, scanning receipts, watching videos 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.
With that in mind, I’ve listed my favorites below. This is by no means a comprehensive list — I definitely recommend looking into others as well.
App-based Dosh works a little differently: 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, 7% at your favorite local taco place to 5% at Sam’s Club (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.
Founded: 2017Sign-up bonus: $0Referral bonus: $5Mobile app: Yes
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 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’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.
Founded: 2012Sign-up bonus: $0Referral bonus: $10 (per two referred users)Mobile app: Yes
Mr. Rebates 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.
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 Rakuten, 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.
Founded: 2002Sign-up bonus: $0Referral bonus: 20 percent of friends’ rebatesMobile app: Yes
The great-granddaddy of cash-back services, Rakuten (formerly known by its much better name, Ebates) is probably my favorite. Although its rates aren’t always the highest, it offers some key benefits: shopping via mobile app; in-store and restaurant rebates in addition to online ones; and, at this writing, a considerable $25 bonus for each person who signs up using your referral link.
I also like Rakuten’s browser plug-in, which immediately alerts you when cash-back savings are available and also gives you an at-a-glance account overview. It saves you having to detour to the Rakuten site when activating purchase-tracking. It sometimes finds coupon codes for you as well.
You’ll have to be patient, though: Rakuten pays out quarterly, and your two payment options are mailed check and PayPal. Those minor quibbles aside, this is the service I typically recommend for anyone new to cash back.
Founded: 1998Sign-up bonus: $10Referral bonus: $25Mobile 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. I often find that TopCashback beats Rakuten — and offers savings at more stores as well.
At this writing, for example, TopCashback is offering up to 2% at Lowe’s, while Rakuten is offering zero. And 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. There are also 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.
Founded: 2011Sign-up bonus: $0Referral bonus: $10Mobile app: Yes
Have you found a cash-back service you like better than these? Tell me about it in the comments!
Originally published last year. Updated to include more current information.
Double-dip on your cashback credit card
THE CHEAPSKATE NEWSLETTERAll the latest deals delivered to your inbox. It’s FREE!
CNET’s Cheapskate scours the web for great deals on tech products and much more. For the latest deals and updates, follow the Cheapskate on Facebook and Twitter. Find more great buys on the CNET Deals page and check out our CNET Coupons page for the latest promo codes from Best Buy, Walmart, Amazon and more. Questions about the Cheapskate blog? Find the answers on our FAQ page.