Rebate Survival Guide

How to play and win the rebate game

Updated October 22, 2022
Wooden cubes spelling the word 'rebate'

While many retailers have phased out rebates over the past 15 years, lots of rebate deals can still be found whether you're shopping online or in-store. Knowing how to take advantage of rebates (and not the other way around) may help you save money on the products you need.

The idea behind rebates

Companies use rebates to help promote and sell merchandise. It's not uncommon for some products to even be free after rebate.

But how can companies afford to offer products free or dirt cheap? One reason is that offering deals is a cost of doing business and can help build brand loyalty. Another is that people often forget or don't bother to submit a rebate claim. Consumer Affairs estimates rebate redemption rates at between 5% and 80%, depending on the value of the rebate. And consumers who do submit a claim might never get paid, either due to a mistake they made or shady practices on the part of companies.

Nonetheless, the rebate game isn't completely fraught with peril, and you can make it work for you if you know how to play the game right.

Rebate 101

There are instant rebates which are applied at the time of purchase, i.e. an instant discount. The rest of this article will focus on rebates that require making a claim in order to get money back.

Rebates come in one of two types: manufacturer's or retailer's. The type should be inferable from the claim form. A manufacturer's rebate is issued and paid by the manufacturer of the item, whereas a retailer's rebate is covered by the store or website that sells the item. The distinction matters little, but it's always good to know which party you're dealing with.

Mail-in rebates typically require you to print and complete a claim form and mail it in, though companies now often use online submission for all or part of the claim process. In the case of mail-in rebates, you are usually required to include a copy of the receipt or the original, and the UPC cut from the packaging. Removing the UPC also prevents you from being able to return the product, much to the retailer's delight.

The turnaround time to receive payment for a mail-in rebate can be 6-8 weeks or more, and payment is typically made in the form of a check or a prepaid debit card.

Fulfillment houses

Though a few retailers/manufacturers process their own rebate claims, most hand the work off to what are called fulfillment houses, companies that specialize in handling rebate claims. These guys are big-time players in the rebate game and handle millions of claims every year. The fulfillment house will be where you are sending the claim to and receiving payment from.

The large volume of submissions the fulfillment houses process is one reason they cite for the long turnaround time. The fulfillment house is also unable to issue payment until they receive the funds from the rebate issuer, which adds another layer of delay.

So are rebates worth it?

Are the hassles of rebates worth the money you save? That depends on how important the savings are to you and how much work you're willing to do. Rebate claims do require some attention to detail. In another article, I highlight the top 10 pitfalls to avoid when you're looking to get paid from your rebate claim.