Black Friday is just over two weeks away, and with the approach of the holiday shopping season you may be wondering, “What’s the best rewards program for shopping online and earning cash back or other rewards? Who has the highest cashback rates?”
This year, as in years past, I’ve put together a comprehensive analysis, comparing the everyday, non-promotional cash back rates of 12 rewards programs for 327 popular merchants.
If a rewards program pays in points, I converted them to percentage cash back. In the case of BondRewards, the rates are adjusted for the current value of the savings bond. The idea here is that we want to compare apples to apples.
You may have a favorite rewards program, but wouldn’t you shop elsewhere if you could earn 25% cashback instead of 4% cashback?
Who has the highest cashback rates? Read on!
This year’s analysis included the following rewards programs: BondRewards, Ebates, Extrabux, FatWallet, Memolink, MrRebates, MyPoints, QuickRewards.net, Best Buy’s Reward Zone Mall, Shop at Home, Sunshine Rewards, and Upromise.
A link to the comparison chart itself is at the bottom of this post, along with the methodology used in making my calculations. Because I know most people aren’t numbers geeks, I’ll jump right in here with the conclusions, and you can page down to read the disclaimers and see the raw data if you’re so inclined.
The Highest Overall Cashback Rates of 2011:
1. Extrabux. In 2008, when I last ran the numbers, Extrabux had the highest cashback rates for 39% of their merchants in my analysis. You would think that would be impossible to top, but they’ve managed to do it: In 2011, Extrabux has the highest cashback rate available anywhere for 52% of the merchants I surveyed, and the second highest rate for another 22%. And their participating merchant list is large — they offer cash back for 300 of the 327 stores I surveyed.
If you want to shop through just one rewards program, and you’re looking for the one with the most popular merchants and the highest overall rates, you can’t do better than Extrabux.
Another nice perk for Extrabux members that you won’t find anywhere else: a built-in search engine to find you the lowest prices with coupons and Extrabux cashback factored in.
Founded in 2006, Extrabux offers payment upon request, by check or PayPal, when you earnings exceed $10. The program is open to anyone 18 or older (13-17 with parental permission), but only US residents may receive payments by check.
2. Shop at Home. A newcomer to my analysis but a 10-year veteran of cashback shopping (formerly known as ShopAtHomeSelect), Shop at Home offers the highest cashback rate available 41% of the time! Another 29% of their stores offer the second highest cashback rate. They award cashback for about as many stores on my chart as Extrabux, so you’ll find almost all of your favorite stores in their program.
They have a toolbar but as always, I advise against installing these things — they could potentially interfere with your ability to receive cashback through a competing program.
Shop at Home is open to residents of the US and Canada who are 18 years or older. They send monthly rebate checks automatically two months following the month your balance hits $20+.
The site is very full-featured with printable coupons, links to sweepstakes, a daily increased cashback merchant, freebies, and more. Shop at Home is like a whole little world all unto itself, and great cashback rates at a huge variety of stores is just an added bonus!
3. MrRebates. One of the top performers every year, MrRebates has the highest cashback rate for 31% of their merchants surveyed, and the second highest rate for another 35%! Plus, they offer cashback at more of the top stores that I surveyed than anyone else: 320 out of 327 stores. Each week they feature an increased cashback merchant, and frequent cashback promotions make their already-high rates even higher.
Founded in 2002, MrRebates is open internationally to individuals 18 or older, but check payments are only available to residents of the US and Canada. Payments by check or PayPal are made on or around the first of each month upon request — they even email you a reminder to cash out — when your account balance is $10 or more.
FatWallet, Best Buy’s Reward Zone Mall, and Ebates were all very solid contenders. Reward Zone Mall doesn’t have nearly the number of stores that other rewards programs have, in part because they don’t reward for shopping at Best Buy’s competitors (including Walmart), and they have the additional drawback of only paying in Best Buy credit. FatWallet and Ebates offer frequent cashback promotions and low cashout rates (no minimum for PayPal at FatWallet, and $5.01 for PP or checks at Ebates) — both are highly competitive and excellent choices for cashback shopping.
The 2011 Lowest Cashback Rates
This “award” once again goes to MyPoints. While they do offer increased cashback promotions on occasion, and occasionally a decent lump sum of points for any order, when you work out what their points per dollar rate is worth in terms of a percent, you see they are the absolute worst.
How bad is “bad”? Here are some examples:
Earn 16% on Yves Rocher through Shop at Home vs. 5.8% (8 points per dollar) at MyPoints.
Earn 25% on Restaurant.com through MrRebates, or 3.6% (5 points per dollar) at MyPoints.
Earn 12% on ShoeMall through Extrabux or MrRebates, or 4.3% (6 points per dollar) at MyPoints.
These aren’t isolated examples. For 2/3 of their stores, MyPoints had the lowest shopping reward of any program I surveyed (all twelve of them!). With a “lowest rate” percentage of 66%, MyPoints had over three times more “lowest rates” than the next closest program.
Yes, you can earn gift cards from MyPoints without spending a dime just by clicking emails, answering questionnaires, doing searches, signing up for newsletters, and doing surveys, and this isn’t a bad deal from a consumer standpoint (although so many other sites offer the same things). Their flat rate awards can be competitive sometimes — for example their rate for the Entertainment Book right now, 1000 points ($7.25), is the highest out there. But with very few exceptions (the Gap family of stores, HP, Lancome, and Nordstrom), MyPoints shopping rates for points per dollar merchants is abyssmal and you can easily earn three times more by shopping through another rewards program.
An interesting tidbit: you can earn a higher cashback rate on FTD, owned by the same parent company as MyPoints, by shopping through Ebates or Shop at Home. Poor MyPoints is getting disrespected by its own sister company! Or, perhaps it’s just that Ebates and SAH respect their members more and are passing along more of their commission.
Current Trend: The Rise of Category-Based Cashback
If you’re not familiar with the process, cashback programs pay their members out of the sales commission they earn from directing the shopper to the store. If they earn 10% commission, they may pay the member 5% or 7.5% cash back. But the last few years have seen a growing trend of merchants offering commission rates that are dependent on the category of product purchased. How does a cashback program handle it if the store pays them 10% commission on some things and 5% on others? With an automated crediting system, they only have the ability to offer shoppers ONE cashback rate. This is something that rewards programs appear to be struggling with. Do they split the difference? Go with the lower rate? Require manual credit and do the math themselves? And to complicate things, many stores are completely excluding specific (sometimes seemingly random) lists of products from earning any commission/cashback at all. When you shop it’s important to note any category or product exclusions so you won’t be surprised when your cashback arrives…or doesn’t.
“Something is better than nothing,” they say, but a lot of something is better than a little of something. This analysis is not meant to give you a snapshot of who has the highest rates on a particular merchant at this moment, but to provide a benchmark of everyday rates to help you decide which programs to use. Knowing which programs typically pay more can mean the difference between earning 25% cashback and 4%.
While high cashback rates are important, you should also factor in other things such how often they pay, what types of redemptions they offer, how long the site’s been around, their reputation, the speed and courtesy of their customer service, and whether they provide coupon codes combineable with cashback. Does the program offer other ways for you to earn besides just shopping? If you’re going to stick with one program, does it offer cash back at most of the stores where you shop? If you’re going to “cherry-pick” and shop with the site that has the best rate, how long will it take you to reach the minimum threshold for payment at multiple sites?
The Chart and the Methodology
Cashback rates were collected in November 2011 and represent regular, non-promotional rates. These rates change frequently; some programs are currently running promotions that offer higher short-term rates. Points were converted to percentage cash back based on the cheapest $25 redemption.
Please see the details provided by your rewards program before shopping as rates may exclude certain categories of product, be limited to first time customers only, or have other restrictions.
Color coding is as follows: in each row the lowest rate for a particular merchant is highlighted in red, the highest in green, and in gold is any rate that may be highest or lowest depending on category or order total. By counting the numbers of “greens” and “reds” in each column, and the total number of non-zero merchants on the chart for each program, I calculated percentages and used these for ranking.
Thank you for reading and I hope you find this comparison useful. Please email if you have any questions or if I can provide any additional information.
Click here to view the 2011 Cashback Rate Comparison Chart.