Is Rakuten Worth Your Time? Our Review (and How to Make the Most of the Site)

Coffee and money
Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder
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It sure seems like there are a lot of cash-back deals on the internet. Cash-back websites, cash-back programs, cash-back apps. It’s hard to know which ones are legit and which might be scams.

Here’s one we know is for real: Rakuten. We’ve checked it out thoroughly, and it’s the closest thing to free money we’ve found. (It’ll even give you a free $10 just for signing up and shopping.)

What Is Rakuten?

Rakuten is a cash-back shopping site where you can earn 1% to 25% on purchases you make from more than 2,500 online retailers.

You earn these rebates by using Rakuten‘s online shopping portal. The part we like best is it’s super easy. You don’t have to pay any fees, mail in any forms or redeem your points to get your money.

How Does Rakuten Work?

You can sign up for Rakuten with a Facebook or Google account, or an email address.

There’s no charge, and nobody will ask for your Social Security number or anything. Make sure to pick one of two sign-up bonuses — either a $10 Walmart gift card or a $10 Rakuten cash bonus.

Boom. Now you’re a member.

Find the store where you want to shop by typing it into the search bar or by clicking on one of the shopping categories, such as “Women’s Clothing” or “Electronics and Computers.” Click through to your store, whether it’s Best Buy, eBay, Old Navy, Target or whatever.

Click the “shop now” button, and shop in that online store just like you normally would. You’ve gone through Ebates directly to the store’s regular website, so your shopping experience will be exactly the same as it normally is.

The only difference is that when you buy something, a percentage of the price will be funneled into your Rakuten account. Example: If Kohl’s is offering 5% cash back and you buy a cookware set for $100, you get $5 back.

That’s it. That’s the whole thing.

You’ll need to make your first purchase through the site within 90 days and spend at least $25 to earn the sign-up bonus.

How Does Rakuten Make Money?

We hear you asking yourself: What’s the catch? Where’s this money coming from? What’s the business model here?

It’s an affiliate marketing site. That means retailers pay Rakuten a commission for sending customers their way. So when you click on an Rakuten link to an online store, Rakuten gets a commission. Then it turns around and gives you a cut of that commission.

Easy-peasy. Rakuten is basically acting as a middleman here and cutting you in on the action.

Is Rakuten a Scam?

No, it’s legit. Believe it or not, Rakuten was launched waaaay back in 1998 by a couple of former deputy district attorneys in Silicon Valley, according to, when the internet was still a baby. Not even kidding.

Before they became cash-back-shopping digital pioneers, these deputy DAs used to prosecute online fraud and identity theft. So you could say they’re authentic law-and-order types.

You don’t have to take our word for it, though. Rakuten has an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau, the best rating possible.

Which Stores Does Rakuten Work With?

Rakuten works with lots of stores. More than 2,500. Way too many to list here.

No matter what you buy online, Rakuten probably partners with somebody who sells it. Bibles. Auto parts. Quilting supplies. Anything. You get the idea.

Here are some highlights:

Ace Hardware Belk Jet Nordstrom RiteAid
Aeropostale Cabela's JCPenney Office Depot Sam's Club
Amazon Crate & Barrel Kohl's Old Navy Sephora
Barney's Dick's Sporting Goods Lowe's Orbitz Turbotax
Bath & Body Works Expedia Macy's Priceline Walmart
Bed Bath & Beyond Gap Nike Petco

A quick word of caution here: If instant gratification is your thing, you’ll need to buckle up and be prepared to wait.

How Does Rakuten Pay You?

Once you make a purchase, your cash back should appear in your Rakuten account within five days. Then that money gets stored there for a holding period to make sure you don’t return everything you bought. Because that would be cheating.

Once your money has been in your account for 60 days, you’re entitled to a payment. Ebates pays you quarterly, in February, May, August and November.

Depending on your preference, you’ll be paid via PayPal or you’ll have a check mailed to you.

Ebates won’t bother to send you a payment for less than $5. That’s pocket change! So if you earn less than $5 in a quarter, your earnings will carry over to the next quarter.

Tips for Maximizing Your Earnings on Rakuten

Here are eight ways to make the most of your cash-back rewards:

Coupons: Before you check out, check Rakuten for coupon codes. Not only does the website get you cash back, it also has coupon codes for many of its affiliated stores. That way, you can stack your savings.

Purchase promptly: Make your purchase during the same shopping session that you started after clicking on the Rakuten link. If you visit other websites before buying something, your purchase might not get linked to Rakuten, and you won’t get your cash back.

Refer friends: If you refer friends or family to sign up with Rakuten, you get a $25 bonus. For you to qualify for the $25, they have to spend at least $25 through Rakuten during their first year of membership. That way, Rakuten knows you’re not signing up fake people.

Browser extension: If you keep forgetting to shop through Rakuten, install its browser extension. The Ebates button will perch at the top of your browser window. When you go to an eligible online store, you’ll get a pop-up message reminding you to click on your cash-back button.

Use it in a brick-and-mortar store: You can also get cash back from Rakuten when you’re shopping in a real store, not just online. Just click on “In-Store Cash Back” in your account. Link a credit card to your Rakuten account. Find a store where you want to shop and click “link offer.” When you buy something in person at the cash register, you get cash back in your Rakuten account.

Cookies: Don’t disable cookies on your browser. Web servers use cookies to authenticate users… or something like that. All I know is, if you disable cookies, you won’t get cash back.

Ad blockers: Rakuten doesn’t work too well with ad blockers. If you’re using one on your computer, make sure to whitelist Ebates for the best experience.

Rewards credit cards: If you have a rewards credit card, you can boost your cash back by using it for shopping via Rakuten. There’s no rule against this or anything. Stack those savings!

Rakuten Pros and Cons

Here are those pros boiled down:

  • It’s free.
  • It’s easy to use.
  • You can claim rebates at 2,500 stores.

On the flip side of the coin, what about the cons? Here they are:

No Apples: You won’t get cash back on Apple products. Apple used to work with Rakuten, but it doesn’t anymore.

The waiting game: You have to wait for your cash back. This is a fact of life. Rakuten itself has to wait to get paid by the retailers it’s referring customers to. If you don’t like waiting, it’s best to just use Rakuten every time you shop online. That way, you keep that money train rolling in perpetuity, with a happy bonus dropping into your PayPal account every three months.

The exclusions: Many participating retailers have products that don’t qualify for cash back. For example, on Amazon at any given time, some shopping categories will get you cash back, and some won’t. These categories change month to month.

Consumer complaints: Over the last three years, the BBB reports its gotten more than 200 complaints about Rakuten, though they’ve all been resolved. Many of the complaints involve missed payouts or cash-back rewards that got canceled for some reason. If your cash back doesn’t appear in your account, you can clear it up by reaching out to customer service through your account.

Rakuten: Note the Fine Print

In our review of Rakuten‘s practices, we read the fine print. ‘Cuz we’re thorough that way.

Here are two little things that might not be immediately apparent to an Rakuten newbie:

The maximum: There’s a cap of $50 that you can earn on any single purchase. For example, if you bought a $1,000 mattress with 6% cash back, you wouldn’t get the full $60 in cash back from that. You’d get $50.

Inactive accounts: If your account goes inactive for a year, Rakuten takes a $2 debit out of it. This pays for accounting.

Rakuten Review: Is It Right for You?

So, bottom line: Rakuten is legit. It’s not a scam.

But is it worth your time?

That depends on how much online shopping you do. If your answer is “Not very much,” this might not be for you.

If you are an online shopper, you have nothing to lose here. All you have to do is get in the habit of using Ebates. It’s relatively easy and hassle-free. The key is to avoid buying something just because you could get a rebate. Only buy what you’d normally buy.

That way, you’re making money doing something you’d do anyway.

Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. He likes cash.