Smart Ways to Use Cash-Back Websites

Max Out the Advantages and Avoid the Disadvantages of Cash-Back Websites

Businessman looking up at hand emerging from computer screen holding dollar bills
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Cash-back websites have grown in popularity over the last few years, even though they have been around since the late 1990s. If you have yet to take the cash-back shopping plunge, it may be beneficial to know how cash-back websites work, including the pros and cons of using them, and how to avoid what shoppers find are some of the most common problems.

What is a Cash-Back Website?

Cash-back websites earn commission fees when members navigate directly from their sites to specific online retail stores or services and make purchases.The cash-back website then rewards the members by giving them back a percentage of the commission that was made.

How Much of A Percentage of the Sale Will You Earn?

Each cash-back website is set up with different agreements with different online stores or services. Generally, two percent to 10 percent is rewarded for retail purchases, up to 20 percent for travel purchases and 30-40 percent for magazines. Also, some of the more established sites run special promotions or daily deals that boost the percentage of various online stores for a limited time.

How Long Will It Take to Get the Cash Back?

All cash-back sites have different policies for determining when members actually get back the cash, but generally it takes up to 90 days and only after certain terms are met.

Most of the cash-back sites have a threshold that members have to meet before they get the cash. Usually the threshold amount is $5 to $20 in earned cash rewards. A few (but only a very few) cash-back sites give the cash back regardless of how much the member has accumulated in cash rewards.

The common 90-day waiting period is so that tracking of the sale can be verified, the payment can be confirmed and any returns made on the purchase can be accounted for and deducted. Once that is completed, the cash becomes available to the member.

Tips on Using Cash-Back Websites

Here are some of the ways you can decipher between good cash-back sites and those to stay away from.

  1. If a cash-back site charges a fee to join, consider this to be a big red "scam" flag and do not join it. There is no reason that you should have to pay to shop, nor is there any incentive to do it.
  2. Before signing up, do a search with the word "Reviews" or "Complaints" along with the name of the site. If the search results return pages of complaints, this could be a good indicator that the cash-back site has failed in maintaining good standards.
  3. Even the most reputable cash-back sites will have complaints. By taking time to read the complaints, it can help you decide to join or not. 
  4. By being selective and joining just a handful (a good number is under five) of the cash-back websites, you will be able to keep your end more manageable, yet still have enough sites to compare store selection, cash-back percentages, other discounts and sites' terms, to help you get the very best deal.
  5. There are monitoring websites that can help you compare the different percentage rates being offered at several cash-back sites at a glance. In fact, it would be very time-consuming to do it without using the monitoring services. Popular monitoring sites include Cashback Monitor, Cashback Holic and Evreward.

Common Problems With Cash-Back Sites

Making certain that members' purchases are properly accounted for involves tracking systems that are not foolproof, and problems can arise, even with highly reputable sites. It can be caused by a number of factors including:

Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware Programs

Anti-spyware, anti-virus or other protection on the member's computer can prevent proper tracking of the purchase. Eventually, this kind of problem can be resolved, but it may delay the cash-back payment to the member by three or four months. When shopping through a cash-back website, it might be helpful to temporarily turn off your anti-virus/spyware programs.


Another problem that can occur with proper tracking is when the member goes from the cash-back website to the online store, then browses away from the store and visits other sites, especially other affiliate-type sites that could place a "cookie" onto the member's computer. When the member returns to the online store and makes a purchase, the site that the member browsed to could have received credit for the sale.

To avoid this from happening, it is best to stay on the store website until the purchase it made. Even opening another window and going to another site could interrupt tracking. If you do decide to browse other sites, return to the cash-back site and click on the link to the online store again, before you make your purchase.

Deductions Made From the Total Purchase Amount

Cash-back websites will show you how much is pending in your account. New purchases will show up in the pending account usually within a few days after the purchase. This does not mean that the actual money can be deducted yet, but it does allow members to make sure everything has been properly credited.

Unfortunately, there are times when the cash rewards that are pending show deductions that do not reconcile with what the member's record. This can happen for various reasons and usually are explained in the virtual "small print" areas of the site, and can include the following:

  • The most obvious reason and also the easiest for members to understand, is when they return some or all of the purchase. The amount returned will be deducted from the original cash-back rewards that showed as pending. This is fair game.
  • The member finalized the purchase over the phone or by using the online store's live chat feature. Since the person on the other end of the phone or chat line is also usually working on some kind of commission, they will likely claim credit for the sale. This bumps out any commission that would have been paid to the cash-back website, and the member.
  • Changes to the purchase were made directly through the online store instead of the member going through the cash-back store to the online store. When this happens, the entire purchase is often treated as a return, even when an exchange takes place. That is why, before making any changes to a purchase, it is important to go use the link to the online store that is posted on the cash-back website so that the changes can be tracked and properly tallied.
  • The member used an online coupon code that was not published on the cash-back website, which resulted in disqualifying the purchase for cash-back rewards. Using coupon codes from any site other than those published on the cash-back site is almost always against the policy and will result in either partial or full deductions in cash-back rewards.
  • During checkout, the member applied a Groupon voucher or Google offer which was deducted from the purchase amount. Whatever site supplies the voucher earns the referral and voids out the commission that would have gone to the cash-back site and to the member. Like it or not, that is usually what will happen.

The Biggest Cash-Back Websites

To get you started, some of the biggest names among cash-back websites include eBates, MrRebates, ShopAtHome, SavingStar, SunshineRewards, BeFrugal, Ibotta, FatWallet, Shop Discover and Swagbucks. Remember to check out the stores or services that each site is affiliated with, the payout terms and the pesky "small print" on each of the sites.

If you want to start slowly and just go with one site, my vote is for eBates.