How to Win the Rebate Game

Do you salivate over a rebate offer like a dog does over a bacon treat? I do.There's something irresistible about the idea of getting money back for something you'd buy anyway. But face facts: Do you file your rebate paperwork?

For the most part, rebates are a win for the manufacturer or store that offers them. First, rebate offers help bring in business. Second, there is always a percentage of buyers who just don't get around to mailing in the documentation. (See yourself here?) Those people are money in the bank for the seller.

Here are some tips on making the rebate process work for you.

Instant Gratification

If possible, skip the entire paper mail-in rebate hassle. Instead, focus on instant rebates, where the amount is simply deducted from the price you pay. Many online shopping sites make this an extremely easy proposition.

For instance, tech shopping site Newegg.com maintains an elaborate online Rebate Center, where you can search for products with instant rebates by brand, category, item numbers, and even the amount you want to spend. The day I searched, it had six pages of instant rebates for GPS devices, ranging from $10 to $95 deducted on products priced from $85 to $500.

Other shopping sites offer instant savings that can't be determined and deducted until you put the item in the shopping cart.

More Conveniences

While not instant, Amazon.com's rebate center lets you apply for paperless rebates and then view their status online 24 hours later--no stamps necessary. If you're not an Amazon shopper, check to see if your favorite site has something similar.

Some manufacturers, such as Canon and Nikon, hold periodic sales with good instant rebates for high-end products like DSLR cameras and lenses. Usually you have to be proactive to find such events (poking around on sites such as Nikonrumors.com is a great way to keep informed). If you can anticipate such an offer, you can give yourself time to save up to buy a product you really want.

If You Must Mail

A lot of decent bargains still require paperwork and stamps. Once you dump the completed forms into the mail, however, you often can track the progress of the rebate online. This was the case with my recent purchase of an HTC Droid Incredible smartphone from Verizon Wireless. The salesperson did all the paperwork for me, right down to the addressed envelope, but it was up to me to stamp it and get it into a mailbox.

Once it arrived at the Texas outfit that processes Verizon's rebates, I was able to see the status whenever I chose to log in. I also could see when my $100 rebate debit card was in the mail and on its way to me (although I would have preferred a check). And I could consult the site to see how much money I had left on the card as I spent the rebate. (Verizon made money on me, however: I found $99.22 worth of items to buy with the card, but didn't bother to spend that last 78 cents.)

The bigger shopping sites also try to smooth the process for you in order to win your business. For instance, at the Newegg center you can search for mail-in rebate offers before you buy, as well as for rebates offered on products you've already purchased.

At the Rebate/Discount Coupon Center for TigerDirect.com, you can search for rebate coupons by manufacturer, your TigerDirect order number, the item number, or the category.

Old-School Mail-In Rules

After you find a good mail-in rebate offer, it's up to you to follow through. Here is some advice--the tricks for ensuring that you get actually get paid don't change much over time.

* Make sure the rebate period has not expired before you buy the product.

* Fill out all the forms correctly. Photocopy everything, including the receipts, before you mail. Learn whether you need to send the original receipt or if a photocopy will do.

* Mail the items as soon as you can. Those who put it off frequently wind up not mailing anything at all.

* Meet the deadlines. They are enforced.

* Note any toll-free numbers that may be useful in the future; if an online rebate-progress site is available, note the URL.

* Check back often to see how your rebate is doing. That way, if a problem crops up, you can fix it in time.

* Mark in your calendar the approximate date the rebate is due to you, so you can spring into action if it doesn't arrive within the promised timeframe.

* Watch your mail carefully. Rebate checks can easily be overlooked as junk mail. Many manufacturers and stores seem to be turning to the rebate debit card instead of checks--but you still need to find the card to use it.

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