I’m a big fan of saving money, and any experienced shopper knows rebates can offer real savings.
I’m not a big fan of rebates that seem impossible to claim or rebate checks you never cash because they look like junk mail.
Let’s take a look at why this happens and how you can prevent missing out on savings. After all, you probably factored in the rebate when you decided to buy the product.
What’s the Logic Behind Rebates, Anyway?
Rebates are a marketing tool companies use to increase sales. In a free market economy we are conditioned to consider the price of goods and services as we weigh our purchasing options.
Naturally, a product with a lower price draws our attention as shoppers. Lower prices, however, mean lower profits for retailers and manufacturers.
Rebates offer an in-between: A company can show us a lower price, triggering our built-in motivation to buy their product, without actually lowering the price.
Automobiles, appliances, furniture, lawn care equipment — a wide variety of products use this marketing strategy.
And it’s not just retailers. The government uses tax rebates to motivate us to buy energy efficient appliances. Back during the Great Recession Uncle Sam used incentives to encourage people to buy more real estate.
Rebates put the burden on the consumer to claim the lower price. Traditionally, in the retail and manufacturing sector, this burden includes filling out and mailing in a rebate card and waiting for the check to arrive.
Why the Rebate Process Doesn’t Always Work
Mailing an info card doesn’t sound like an overwhelming burden, but if something goes wrong and you need to spend 30 minutes on the phone to get your rebate back on track, you might feel otherwise.
Or, if you misplace the rebate card or forget about it for a few months, you may decide the rebate isn’t worth all the effort, or you may realize the rebate offer has expired.
And, sometimes, after you’ve gone through all the effort of claiming your rebate, the company sends a check you never cash.
Why would you not cash a rebate check? Most likely because you didn’t know you’d received it. Rebate checks often look like junk mail.
Unless you’re the kind of person who goes through your junk mail piece by piece, evaluating the contents of each envelope, there’s a chance you may toss out a rebate check.
Is Rebate Check Confusion Intentional?
There is a legitimate reason why a company would disguise a check. A nondescript envelope makes it less likely someone will steal your rebate check before it arrives in your mailbox.
Also, companies often contract with third-party services to process and send rebate checks. The return address won’t look familiar.
Still, the cynic in me tends to think companies disguise rebate checks and make the process of claiming a rebate as difficult as they can on purpose.
Think about it: Over the past couple decades, customer service has made huge strides, thanks largely to the Internet.
You can buy just about anything and have it shipped to your house. If the shoes don’t fit or the chainsaw didn’t include oil, even online retailers can fix the problem within a couple days.
You can search the inventory of almost any sizeable car dealership in the country and have the car you like shipped to your region.
Yet the process of claiming a rebate still requires ink, snail mail, lots of waiting, and possibly even a trip to your bank since rebate checks can’t always be deposited with your bank’s mobile deposit app.
Would a manufacturer really go to all this trouble to keep you from getting your rebate? Even if it’s just $20 or so which wouldn’t even dent the bottom line?
Yes. Companies count on you not sending in your rebate form, filling it out incorrectly, throwing the check away, or simply not cashing the check once you receive it (due to forgetfulness or inconvenience).
Sure, $20 won’t break the bank at a manufacturing company or big-box retailer, but multiply that figure by every unit sold, and you’ll see the incentive to make rebates hard to claim.
Some states have fielded enough complaints about rebate checks that they had to enact legislation to govern how they are processed in their state.
Would You Recognize This as a Rebate Check?
This rebate check I received takes the cake – it was a postcard size check sent directly through the mail with no envelope.
I had to do a double take to realize it was in fact a rebate check. (Sorry for the blurry image; I used my cell phone instead of my scanner).
This check had my name and address on the front, as well as the routing and account number (all of which are redacted).
This doesn’t seem like a safe way to send a check in my opinion, but I’m sure they have safeguards in place, and I am guessing the company has done some market testing to see how many people actually recognize the check for what it is.
Before cashing the rebate check, I had to detach the bottom section of the check along the perforated line.
To top it off, the section for signing the check featured a very large security warning stating that positive identification is required (along with six lines of instructions), and a very small signature line, making it impossible for me to deposit this remotely as I normally do.
(I don’t have a local bank for personal use – I deposit all checks via mail or via a [email protected] with USAA).
The small amount of the rebate (only $20) means I can try sending this in the mail, and if it doesn’t work, I’m not out much money. But I hate that I need to take a chance with something like this.
Alternatives to Rebates When Shopping
I’m not against rebates in general. They are a great way to save money, even if they can be a hassle.
When possible I prefer automated rebates or cash back services like Ebates, which is an online shopping portal which gives you cash back on purchases without you taking action other than clicking a box or two.
I also think a cash back credit card can take a lot of the effort out of rebates. The rebates automatically get credited to your account.
If you really get into it, you can combine services like Ebates and cash-back cards to maximize your savings.
How to Increase Success Getting Rebates
There will be times, though, when you need to claim an old-fashioned mail-in rebate. Here are some strategies to increase your likelihood of success.
Pay Attention to the Details
When you fill out your rebate card, make sure you fill in all the information, including harder-to-find details such as serial numbers and the date of purchase.
It can be tempting to skip these more challenging blanks on the form, but doing so gives the rebate issuer a reason to ignore your claim. Also, be sure to include any documentation the company requests.
Make Yourself a Copy
Before mailing in your rebate card and any documentation requested, be sure to make a copy of everything you’re sending.
If your request gets lost or misplaced, you can simply send in another copy, eliminating a common reason companies deny rebate requests.
Mark Your Calendar
It’s easy enough to forget about a rebate once you’ve sent in the request. When this happens you may not notice you didn’t receive the check.
If the company says you should get the rebate check within 90 days, mark your calendar for 90 days from when you sent in the request. That way you’ll know when to start contacting the company if the check doesn’t show up.
Contact the Authorities
Consider Certified Mail
It sounds extreme, but if you send your rebate request by certified mail, you’ll know whether and when the company receives your documentation.
This can give you more control over the process. Your local Post Office can make this happen. Naturally, it’ll cost more than a normal stamp.
Too Much Trouble? Best to Ignore Rebates
Life seems to get busier every year. If you know you won’t have time to chase down a mail-in rebate, consider only the pre-rebate price.
This way you won’t factor the lower, after-rebate price as you shop and will make your buying decision based on accurate prices.
The Wall Street Journal reports about $50 million per year in rebates goes unclaimed.
You can keep from adding to this number by using only instant or electronic rebates or being prepared to follow up to make sure you receive your mail-in rebate.