The Pros and Cons of Cash Back from Ebates

The site promises to pay you big for buying things you need anyway. How well does it work?

By Liane Cassavoy

Getting paid to shop sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? That’s exactly the proposition that Ebates lays out to consumers—promising you cash back for purchases you make online. The company’s ads tout offers of 40 percent cash back and promises that you can earn money simply by purchasing your daily necessities. With those claims in mind, I did some digging to find out if Ebates lives up to its promises.

The verdict? Yes. And no.

Ebates isn’t an online retailer; instead, it calls itself a "cash back" website. A more apt description would be "affiliate marketer": Ebates makes its money by referring you to other online stores. And you make money because Ebates shares those profits with you.

The site is pretty straightforward: You simply create an account and begin shopping. The key is that you have to begin your shopping journey at Ebates.com, which makes sense because referring people to other sites is how Ebates makes money.

Luckily, Ebates makes shopping easy. The site highlights online retailers that are offering the best deals, and it makes it clear just how much cash back each one is offering. Ebates also lets you drill down to online retailers by category, and its listings look pretty comprehensive, linking you to a vast array of sites, including ones that aren't offering any cash back at all.

Ebates also lists coupon codes that can help you save more money, and offers a free gift card when you sign up. The site gave me the choice of a $10 Walmart card or an extra $10 cash back from Ebates; I chose the $10, and it arrived in the mail as part of my first “Big Fat Check,” which is what Ebates calls its quarterly payouts. I earned another $7.50 for buying items I would have purchased anyway, not exactly enough to make ends meet, as some of Ebates’ ads imply. While a check for $17.50 isn’t a major windfall, I wouldn't throw it away either. And if I had remembered to start my shopping at Ebates more often, I would have earned a lot more.

But to build up a really significant Ebates check, I would have had to buy more than my daily necessities. None of the retailers that I wanted to shop at offered 40 percent cash back. Instead, they tended to offer around 3 percent cash back, so the money grew more like a coral reef than like an active volcano. That said, if I had wanted to buy a big-ticket item, like a computer or TV from a more generous retailer, my payouts would have been considerably higher—something I’ll keep in mind as I begin my holiday shopping.

Another downside: you may have to wait a while for your checks to arrive. Ebates doesn’t pay you until retailers pay them, and the company mails checks (or makes PayPal deposits) quarterly, so it can take a few months to get your cash in hand.

That said, Ebates did deliver on its fundamental promise: It paid me actual cash for buying items I would have purchased anyway. The amount wasn’t as large as I would have liked, but, hey, it’s something!

The Bottom Line

So is ebates right for you? Here's what you need to know:

Pros:

- You really do get cash back--anywhere from 3 to 40 percent per purchase.

- The site makes it easy to search for items you'd buy anyway.

- They send you a payout every quarter with all of your savings.

Cons:

- You need to remember to start shopping at ebates, so you might need to break old shopping habits.

- Many sites offer a relatively puny rebate, so the money won't pile up quickly.

Main image: Pexels