Blinded By the Savings: 7 Tips to Make You a Savvier Rebate App Shopper

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I had a come-to-Jesus moment in the grocery store a few weeks ago.

As I peered into my cart, I noticed some items that screamed, “Put me back!”

Two bottles of a sparkling probiotic drink. A cup of “just add water!” oatmeal. A box of frozen fruit snacks. A case of Bud Light.

These items might seem a bit haphazard, but they all currently fit offers on Ibotta, one of the many cash-back rebate apps. Collectively, I could earn $5 back from these purchases. The money would get added to my lifetime earnings, increasing my rank and inching me closer to a $1 bonus.

As I was busy convincing myself I needed the items, the Penny Hoarder side of me considered how much the items cost in total, something close to $28 — or $23 if you want to count the rebate I’d receive.

That’s a good chunk of money — especially for items that didn’t even make up a meal. I’d recently become hooked on the probiotic drink after getting sucked in through Ibotta. It wasn’t integral to my livelihood, though blogs have told me probiotics are good for you.

The oatmeal was a total experiment. I don’t even enjoy oatmeal that much. The fruit snacks were just like the probiotic drink: I’d gotten hooked. Those were something like $5 — but organic.

And the Bud Light? That was for my dad. I volunteered to buy it because, well, cash back.

I decided to go on my merry way but to consider my shopping habits more carefully next time.

7 Ways to Make the Most of Your Rebate Apps

I needed help, so I reached out to my cohorts at The Penny Hoarder and polled our Facebook community group: What are your strategies to avoid cash-back temptations?

Here are a few tips that’ll help you — and me — stay on track.

1. Make a Shopping List First

Before I head to the grocery store, Target or even the bar, I check Ibotta to see which cash-back deals are available.

I scroll through the categories, adding unneeded temptations into my queue, then ogling over the cash-back total. As we established above, I’m really not saving.

Rather than building my shopping list around products featured on Ibotta, I’d be better off making my list first.

That’s what Alicia Hopkins from our Facebook community group suggested.

Once you have your grocery list, then peruse Ibotta to see if, say, paper towels, are on there.

(Side note: Hopkins also admits she finds receipts in the parking lot and will sometimes get cash back that way. Not a bad strategy!)

2. Check the Store’s Coupons First

Publix is my go-to spot. Although I love Ibotta, I tend to find some better deals on my Publix coupon app for items — and brands — I’m more likely to buy.

Be sure you’re considering the store’s coupons after making your grocery list. Then, compare it with the Ibotta deal and see what’s best.

Also, take note that with the store coupons, you’ll immediately end up paying less. With Ibotta, you’ll earn cash back only after your purchase. If you’re in a tight spot, this could make a world of difference.

3. Compare Prices of Different Brands

This one requires some more math, but don’t panic.

If you’re feeling tempted by the cash-back offer, at least calculate the rebate into the price and compare it to different brands. Perhaps the store brand is still cheaper than the other item — even with the cash back.

4. Shop the “Any Brand” Category

Ibotta has a cash-back category called “Any Brand.” This allows you to earn cash back on a product — no matter the brand.

For example, right now you can earn 25 cents back on any brand of a salad kit. This includes pre-packaged salads with toppings and dressings already in there. You don’t have to buy the most expensive, promoted brand in this case. You can opt for the store-brand kit and save.

In the same vein, Ibotta has deals on produce. Typically, you don’t have to buy a certain brand of kale, for example. If you want to go organic, do it. If not, get the cheapest stuff, and still score that money back.

5. Read the Fine Print

One of the biggest “derp” moments I had while using Ibotta was when I purchased dish soap — the kind that was actually about 30 cents more expensive than the brand I normally buy. I’d get something like 50 cents back. I’d done the math. Earning 20 cents was better than nothing, right?

Well, I didn’t read the fine print, and I didn’t notice I had to buy two lots of dish soap to earn the rebate.

This happened to my editor, Matt Wiley, too. He bought batteries thinking he’d get some money back on the staple. Nope — he had to buy two packs.

Moral of the story? Read the fine print. If it requires you to buy multiples to earn the cash back, factor that into your calculations. Is it really worth it?

6. Acknowledge Your Indulgences

If you have items you like to buy — but don’t necessarily need — consider only splurging when it comes with a cash-back opportunity.

For example, that sparkling probiotic drink I mentioned earlier? I’m hooked on it. However, I can’t justify paying $3 a bottle, so when the item is offered on Ibotta, that’s when I allow myself to splurge.

I’ve found that even when your favorite product is no longer listed on the app, that doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. You’ll likely see it again in a few weeks.

7. Don’t Open the App Until After Your Spree

If you can resist the temptation, wait to check for rebates after your grocery run.

“I do my shopping, then check for possible rebates after, so I’m not tempted to buy stuff I don’t need,” our Facebook community group member Kelly Trevithick says.

However, you must be prepared to acknowledge that you might miss out on deals you could have gotten.

Say you bought Charmin toilet paper, but the Scott brand had a cash-back offer. You could have probably saved more just by switching up brands — unless you’re a toilet-paper loyalist.

But this really is the best way to avoid temptation — just know you might miss out. For a full rundown of how to use the Ibotta app, read our ultimate guide.  

So Will I Keep Using My Cash-Back Rebate Apps?

Of course I will. I’m hooked.

But I’ll consider my purchases more closely now — and maybe even break out a calculator every now and then to do some math.

It’s important for me to remember the immediate savings is more beneficial than delayed cash back.

I’ve earned something like $45 back in about three months, but it would have been more helpful to just immediately save — because I likely won’t cash out anytime soon. I like to accumulate my prize, just like that kid who goes to Chuck E. Cheese’s and takes her tickets home with her. 

“Next time I’ll stack up even more for the BIG prize,” she thinks. (Yeah, that was totally me.)

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s sippin’ on that probiotic drink as she types this.