Updated, November 2011
This question can be answered in a lot of different ways. It all really comes down to what’s most important to you:
- Which programs pay the most for shopping?
- Which programs pay their shopping rebates in cashback percentages (easy to understand and to compare between programs), and which pay in points (hard to convert to cashback percentages, and can be devalued if they raise the number of points it takes to buy their gift cards)?
- Which programs will cut you a check, and which pay by PayPal (typically faster)? Would you rather have your earnings in a gift card?
- How long does it take to access your rebate earnings? Days? Months?
- Are you a resident of the U.S.? Of Canada?
- Which sites have bad reputations — for instance, bad reports with the Better Business Bureau?
All of these factors are important, but you may value one aspect of a rewards program more than another, which is why there is no one clear answer to, “What’s the best rewards program?”
In terms of cash back for online shopping, I do an analysis of cashback rates offered by many of the popular rewards programs each fall. The 2011 Cashback Rates Comparison Chart shows how 12 of the most popular rewards programs compare for 327 top online retailers. (To help you compare apples to apples, if a program pays in “points per dollar,” I converted those to what they’re really worth in percent cash back.) In 2011, the highest cash back rates were offered by:
- Extrabux – founded in 2006, their cash back rates were the highest available anywhere for half of their merchants in the review, and the second highest for another quarter of their merchants. They pay by check (to US residents only) or PayPal, upon request, when your balance exceeds $10. They also have a unique built-in price comparison search engine to help you find the lowest price on a particular item with cashback and any available coupons factored in.
- ShopAtHome – a ten year veteran of cashback shopping, they offered the highest or second-highest cashback rates available for 70% of their merchants. They also offer frequent increased cashback promotions to improve upon their already fantastic everyday cashback rates. Open to residents of the US and Canada, they send monthly rebate checks the month after you’ve earned $20 or more.
- MrRebates – offering more of the retailers in my top stores comparison, they offered the highest or second-highest cashback rate for a full 2/3 of their retailers. Like Extrabux, they have a $10 minimum to request your cash back payment and they also offer your choice of PayPal or payment by check. And like ShopAtHome, they have frequent increased cashback promotions. MrRebates was founded in 2002.
In terms of offering opportunities to earn cash or free gift cards without shopping online, you may want to consider these programs:
- QuickRewards.net – founded in 2002, they offer fast (usually 24-hour) PayPal payments with no minimum required to cash out, or members can save up for emailed or postal-mailed gift cards. Earn for reading emails, completing surveys, printing coupons, visiting websites, answering a daily trivia question, playing games, signing up for offers, or completing other tasks.
- Swagbucks – members request gift cards or merchandise prizes when they cash out the points they’re awarded randomly for using their search engine, from fun free Swagcodes given away, and from watching videos, printing coupons, answering polls, signing up for offers, or for completing surveys and other tasks. Gift cards start at $5.
- MyPoints – while their shopping rates are very low, members are able to earn enough points to redeem for gift cards by reading emails, answering polls, completing surveys, printing coupons, and using their search engine. Owned by United Online (the parent company of FTD, Classmates.com, and NetZero), MyPoints has been around for over ten years.
- Freeride – also with low cashback rates, members may opt instead to earn points by watching videos, completing surveys and offers, and by random “Grab a Cab” points awarded as you use the site (up to three wins daily). Open to US residents only; gift cards start at $10.
- PCHSearch.com – Publisher’s Clearing House’s search and win website, members use their search engine for a chance to win one of 45 daily prizes of $5, $10, or $25. Only the first 25 searches a day are eligible, and nonsense or repetitive searches, or those obviously done only for contest entries, may be ineligible.
There are also a number of survey-only websites which pay in cash or points redeemable for gift cards, including:
- MySurvey – email for invitation
- ClickIQ – email for invitation