Mail-in Rebates are Stupid

By | February 11, 2016

I like to think of myself as a fairly sophisticated consumer, too smart to fall for gimmicks. Luckily for me, the universe senses my thoughts and will occasionally give me a smackdown and snigger when I fall for something annoying. “Humility”, the universe whispers in my ear. Indeed.

I forget, but there are people whose entire livelihood revolve around thinking of ways to part you with your money. I don’t know which evil mastermind thought up mail-in rebates, but she is very good at her job and deserves a raise.

I bought contact lenses in October 2015 and when the salesman quoted me the final figure, he smoothly glossed over the fact that it included a $50 mail-in rebate. I did the math in my head and found the price per month acceptable and paid. But, ugh, what a pain to claim that $50 back.

In order to get $50 off, I had to:

  1. Realize that my specific lenses weren’t in stock and wait two weeks for them to come in.
  2. Tear off two specific panels from the contact lens box when they finally came in.
  3. Gather the receipt for my contacts purchase and circle the date and the contacts I purchased.
  4. Gather the receipt for my eye exam (which occurred at another date and which I had to go find) and circle the date of the exam.
  5. Gather the mail-in rebate voucher the store gave me.
  6. Go online to the website indicated on the rebate voucher and fill out my information.
  7. Print out a confirmation page from the online forray.
  8. Mail items  2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 to the manufacturer.
  9. Wait nine weeks.
  10. Receive a $50 prepaid Visa card in the mail.
  11. Call the number on the card to activate it and listen to all the restrictions.
  12. Realize that I would be charged a $3.95 monthly maintenance fee if I neglected to use it right away.
  13. Realize that it would expire in a year if I didn’t use it.
  14. Realize that the Visa card would do nothing for my credit.
  15. Realize that I couldn’t use it at the gas station pump.
  16. Realize that I couldn’t use it for purchases over $50 unless I paid the difference first.
  17. Realize that mail-in rebates are stupid and vow to not fall for them again.

Manufacturers bank on your frustration and laziness. They make it as hard as they can to redeem them and, as a result, 40-60% of mail-in rebates remain unclaimed. If you neglect to mail in any of the very specific items they require, they can and will reject your submission. If you wait longer than 90 days to mail in the required documentation, they can and will reject your submission. If you do not circle the specific items required, they can and will reject your submission.

Jazz hands! Please ignore the fact that this drawing doesn't actually have any hands.

Jazz hands! Please ignore the fact that this drawing doesn’t actually have any hands.

Then if you do jump through all the hoops and present your jazz hands with a smile on your face, the company gives you a prepaid Visa card with more restrictions than perks. They count on the complications and the hassle. They count on you forgetting you’re owed money after 9 weeks. They count on you forgetting to use the prepaid Visa card. They count on you thinking “what a great deal!” at the register and then declining to go through the entire strenuous process.

So to sum up my feelings: mail-in rebates are stupid. I’m not sure what the alternative is and I apologize for only venting and not offering a solution, but I will certainly search hard for one when someone gives me the sales pitch that includes this stupid ploy.

20 thoughts on “Mail-in Rebates are Stupid

  1. Harri

    This is by design – probably no surprise to anyone.

    I used to work for a Fortune 50 IT company in finance. We were contacted by an outfit which plans and manages such rebate programs. They specifically mention the manufactured “break points” in the rebate reclaim process in their internal marketing material you’ve identified, and how their reclaim rate is “industry leading” (read: “lowest”). That rate was much lower than 40%.

    They were very careful in their use of terminology of even their internal marketing material as to not to appear misleading the consumer. But the message was abundantly clear: rebates look like amazing discounts, but compared to a true discount they cost a fraction to the company.

    After that I started ignoring all rebates.

  2. Renee

    I too have found that purchasing with gift cards are very limiting. What I have started doing is as soon as I receive and activate the gift card I use it to purchase an Amazon give card for the exact amount. That way I can combine the gift card with other forms of payment when purchasing through Amazon.

  3. Rob

    I’ll agree they’re not great, but I still do them once in a while. I make sure to follow all the instructions and when I put the forms/barcodes in the mail, I set up a reminder in my Google calendar to check on the status. (I.e. if they promise 4-6 weeks, I’ll put something on my calendar for 4 weeks from today.) Inevitably I will not have received the rebate when the reminder pops up, I will go to the website to check the status and it will show as “in process”, and then within a week or two I’ll get the rebate in the mail.

    CompUSA used to be the worst for rebates. You always had to give them a call to follow up and “remind” them that you had a rebate coming. Now they’re out of business…

    I did the Kohl’s rebates on 3 Black Friday deals last year and got 3 separate $10 gift cards. I just made sure to use those first when buying groceries, etc. I was even able to use one to do an online donation to charity successfully. As you said, they are not usable for purchasing gas at the pump (although the gift card instructions said that you could have a gas station attendant run the card inside the store if you prepay).

  4. Marty

    As with many things, people who do the work reap the rewards. Yes, mail-in rebates require a sharp eye for following directions, and a bit of actual paperwork. But so does investing, taxes, and applying for a job. Maybe you choose not to bother with mail-in rebates, but others who do can get the equivalent value of earning $100 per hour.

    1. Thriftygal Post author

      Marty: Excellent point. I did indeed go through all the work, but I found the entire process incredibly aggravating.

  5. L. Michelle

    They could just markdown the original price and be done with it!
    I don’t by ‘apply for rebate after sale items. . . I think the company is shafting people and as you say, giving the appearance of money back but not actually directly ensuring it is so.
    They are being stink.

  6. Robert

    I agree with Marty. For people who put in a little effort, the rebate challenges you describe are not so difficult. Also many of the things you list as problems are non-problems. Do you really have to remember that you can’t spend more than $50 on a $50 card? Of course you would pay the excess with a different payment method. Maybe you can’t pay at the pump, but you can buy groceries and I bet you spend more than $50 on groceries before the one-year expiration. Of course the Visa gift card does nothing for your credit – you didn’t apply for it and it is not a credit card.

    That said, I do agree with your first comment that many many people are working in jobs designed to scam us out of money. Mail in rebates are a gimmick but hardly as bad as things like rental-car insurance scams and hotel resort fee scams, or whole life insurance.

  7. Joe

    I guess how you value your time and what you do with it makes all the difference. I personally will spend time on the frontside of a purchase to find the best value for me than to have to fuss over the backside reward…er rebate.

  8. Kapil

    I agree TG. My rule of thumb is that if I like the deal pre-rebate, then I will buy it and try to get the rebate. It is definitely a pita though!

  9. Ken

    Interesting since contact lenses are the one product where we use a mail in rebate every year. Tip- go to Walmart/sams. Cheap exams and the rebate is a check. No Visa cards, which I agree are a pain.

  10. Rob

    I love these rebates!

    I submit them right away – literally, as soon as I get home. Are they a pain? Yes. They are also a form of price differentiation. I jump through the hoops, so I can get a lower price. Just like I get a lower price by renegotiating insurance every couple years, contesting lame fees, etc. It’s another opportunity to win 😀

    If you’re not paying attention, it’s a scam. If you are, it’s an opportunity.

    Granted, this logic only applies to truly “good deals” that may be had via large rebates. If I need to jump through hoops for less than $10, I’ll probably just go with the cheapest non-rebate deal.

  11. Tissue King

    If someone tells me there is a mail in rebate, I tell them to go ahead and keep it. I then request that amount of money of the price of the item that I am purchasing. The average person has great intentions on getting the money from rebates but when we get home, it’s not worth the effort to put in for the rebate. I say just go ahead and ask for the instant rebate in the form of a lower price. Rebates are a sham.

    I do like super market rebate sites though. They do offer money back for items that I am already shopping for. To get these rebates, you just snap a picture of your receipt and its uploaded to your account within a couple of days. You don’t lose money on these because you can let the amount sit there until you desire a gift card. A lot of these sites let you instantly download the gift card so you can use it that day. Ibotta is my favorite.

  12. Vince Granacher

    The last time I qualified for a rebate through a gift card was on a tire purchase. The rebate registration was done entirely online and as long as I had my receipt in front of me, it was almost painless–definitely much easier than gathering everything needed when doing them by mail. Just enter date, retailer, model number, etc. and in a few minutes I had a confirmation number to use when following the rebate process online.

  13. Luke

    They almost always work out for me. I have a rule for myself where I do not use the product until I have submitted the rebate, it usually only takes a few minutes if you do it right after the purchase. Waiting too long will almost guarantee you will miss the deadline or loose part of the required documentation. I usually do the Amazon gift card to myself trick someone else noted, but sometimes have to “register” an address by calling the number on the back of the card. My success rate is around 90% on receiving the rebate and only consider it on $20 or more.

  14. InsiderAccountant

    While these rebates actually work for me, it doesn’t make them any less of a pain in the arse.

    I wish that they would just sell the product to the store for cheaper so that we can pay the reduced price to them directly. It’s ridiculously inefficient and they surely can’t be getting much of a financial benefit out of it after all of the messing around that it requires.

  15. FrankL

    I am organized personally. I can process and track rebates with little effort. As the years go by the rebate systems out there have been easier to navigate. A little bit saved, here and there, makes a different. However, I have find that if you can wait a little bit, a month or three, you generally can find the item or similar at the present price minus rebate.
    Rebates are stupid but I am counting on folks not following through on rebates so that more rebates will be offered.


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