Are Cash Back Sites Sketchy, or an Underrated Way to Save Money?

Are Cash Back Sites Sketchy, or an Underrated Way to Save Money?

Call me late to the game, but I used to dismiss cash back sites. Answering endless surveys and playing games to earn $5? No thank you. Somehow getting “free money” back to online shop? Yeah right.

Rakuten, Swagbucks, Upromise. I’m sure you’ve heard of some of these names. Somehow they reward you with cash back or points “just by shopping online.”

Sounds sketchy, right?

I could wax poetic about travel hacking all day long, and even though I love to find ways to save money, something about cash back sites just didn’t connect with me.

I’d seen blog posts where people posted how much money they had earned by shopping these sites.

My friend e-mailed me referral links to earn $10 bonuses at a few sites. I ignored the links for months (sorry, Alice!).

The problem was, no one ever explained to me what I’d get with these cash back sites. I knew what cash back was. I shop and then I’d earn back a certain percentage of what I spent.

But how much exactly? And does it work at stores I’d shop at?

I’d log in to investigate myself and see websites that looked like they stepped out of the 90s–cluttered with banners done up in primary colors. Surely, it was all a ruse. It probably would be a total time suck. And definitely not something that could earn me more than miles to redeem for flights. Wouldn’t I be giving up my previous miles in favor of cash back? I’d ‘x’ out of the tab.

What I needed to do was just try it myself.

I was still skeptical until I tested out a couple purchases, logged into my accounts, and saw money sitting there. IT WORKED.

So I’m writing the post that I wish someone had written for me. I’ve seen some deals recently, and I wanted to tell you about them. I’ll also show you some real-life examples of stuff you’d actually buy, and how much you could earn by taking advantage of these cash back offers.

Spoiler: I’m definitely into it.

NOTE: If you have consumer debt, it’s probably better for you to check out the #debtfreecommunity on Instagram instead of shopping.

*Affiliate links below

How I Got Sucked Into Cash Back Sites

It all started because I wanted to buy Sunday Riley’s Good Genes face serum. There was only one problem. It cost $105.

I waited to pull the trigger until Sephora’s 10% off Beauty Insider sale, which brought the price down to $94.50. But I still didn’t like that price, so I started looking around at other discounts I could stack on top of the coupon.

Enter the cash-back sites. To see which sites were offering the most cash back, I searched for Sephora on Cashbackholic.

BeFrugal was offering 7% cash back of the total purchase price, plus a $10 bonus for new members. I created a BeFrugal account, searched for Sephora on their site, and clicked the ‘Shop Now’ link that appeared. Then I was kicked over to the Sephora site and browsed and checked out like I normally would. That same night, BeFrugal sent me an e-mail saying that “cash back is on its way,” which was super reassuring, because I wasn’t sure if I clicked everything correctly.

A few days later, I logged in again and saw the cash back sitting in my account:
How Much I've Made on BeFrugal, a Cash Back Site
Stacking the new member bonus and the 7% cash back onto Sephora’s sale, I was able to bring down the price of the serum from $105 to about $78!

Since Rakuten is the most popular cash-back site, I tested it out for my next purchase, an order from Paula’s Choice. While Rakuten wasn’t offering the highest cash back rate, only 3.5%, I wanted to try a second cash-back site and see how it compared to BeFrugal. Rakuten was also seamless, letting me know right away that they tracked my purchase and to check my account for the money to appear in a few days.
How Much I've Made on eBates, a Cash Back Site

There are dozens of cash back sites, but since those are the only two cash-back sites I’ve tried so far, I’m going to focus on just those for the rest of the post, particularly Rakuten.

Why Cashback Sites Pay You to Shop

Over the weekend, I asked three of my friends what they thought about Rakuten, and they all asked the same questions:

Is it a scam? And why would they give me money for free?

Here’s how it works: The cash back sites have affiliate relationships with certain retailers. If someone is on the cash back site, clicks through to their retailer site and completes a purchase, the cash back site gets a commission. It’s like a finder’s fee for sending a customer to the retailer site. Then the cash back sites split their commission with you. So that’s where the money comes from.

The Basics–How It Works

Here are all the questions I had about using cash back sites, and what I found out.

Do I Have to Jump Through Hoops to Get Measly Cash Back?
I assumed I’d have to complete, like 10 steps, before I could earn cash back, but I didn’t find this to be the case at all. Here’s what you have to make sure you do:

  • Sign up for an account with the cash back site.
  • Instead of shopping directly with the retailer, make sure you go to the cash-back site first, search for the store you want, then click the corresponding ‘shop’ link.

Clicking that link will track your purchase on the retailer. If you don’t click the link on the cash-back site, then you won’t get credit for the purchase.

Exactly How Much Cash Back Can I Get?
You can get anywhere from 1% for certain purchases from Target to 45% for purchases from Note that the cash back rates change pretty frequently. For example, last week I saw Moda Operandi was 8% at Rakuten; today it’s 3.5%.

Does It Work at Stores I’d Shop At?
This was far and away my biggest question. Is this even relevant to me??? I wasn’t sure if the best deals were only for obscure stores like Golf Warehouse (I made that up), a place I’d never shop at. It turns out that my biggest surprise was the variety of stores available. For example, Rakuten has over 2,000 participating stores, and BeFrugal has over 5,000. Here are the places I thought were pretty relevant:

Everyday Staples

  • Walmart
  • Target
  • Amazon

Makeup & Skincare

  • Sephora
  • Ulta
  • Dozens of makeup brands, like Bobbi Brown, Kiehl’s, NARS, Tatcha, Sulwhasoo, YSL Beauty, etc.

Everyday Clothing

  • Gap
  • J. Crew
  • Macy’s
  • Madewell
  • Old Navy

Luxury Clothing

  • Barneys
  • Matchesfashion
  • Moda Operandi
  • Nordstrom
  • Opening Ceremony
  • Shopbop


  • Priceline

Do I Have to Use Certain Credit Cards?
You don’t have to connect any credit cards to these sites at all, since you pay on the retailer site. And the cool thing is, you can use whichever credit card you want.

How and When Do I Get Paid?
You’re not going to get paid immediately. Most cash back sites have a payment calendar, like this:

You usually decide between a paper check mailed to you, or PayPal. In some cases, you can use the money for discounted gift cards, sent to your bank through direct deposit, or even donated to charity.

Real-Life Example Deals (How to Get Sunday Riley for 30% Off)

All the cash back rates below are accurate as of the publish date of this post, but they’re subject to change.

If you’re planning a trip:

Book hotels using and get up to 9% after your completed stays.

Cashback site to use: BeFrugal – Get 9% off, plus a $10 new-member bonus

If you like luxury skincare and makeup:

Macy’s is having a friends and family sale right now (and ends tonight, 5/7!) where you get 30% off storewide selections and 15% off beauty. Guess who they carry in beauty? That’s right–Sunday Riley.

Cashback site to use: Rakuten – Get 15% off, plus a $10 new-member bonus after spending $25

Then once you click through to the Macy’s site, use code FRIEND to get another 15% off.

If ShopBop is your jam:

Get an extra 15% off of these sale items from ShopBop:

Fjallraven Mini Kanken Backpack – Was $120, now $84
Hat Attack Basket Bag – Was $104, now $73.50
Ella Moon Floral Tie Dress (great for summer wedding guest attire) – Was $84.50, now $54.15
Kate Spade Scalloped Teal Bikini Top – Was $70, now $49
Kate Spade Scalloped Hipster Bottoms – Was $57, now $39.90

Cashback site to use: Rakuten – Get 15% off, plus a $10 new-member bonus after spending $25

If you dream about $600 vintage-y dresses…

Um, HVN dresses are so adorable, and they rarely go on sale. If you’ve been meaning to pick up one of these expensive dresses up, wait for a coupon code to appear on Moda Operandi (NEW10 currently works for 10% off), and use BeFrugal to get an extra 8% off.

Cashback site to use: BeFrugal – Get 8% off, plus a $10 new-member bonus

Special Deal Alert–15% Off at Rakuten

I somehow planned this post at just the right time, because as I was writing this, I got an e-mail from Rakuten saying they’re offering 15% cash back at select stores to celebrate their birthday. Check this out:

It doesn’t say how long the elevated cash back lasts, but I noticed the stores I’m more likely to shop at (Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue) all say “Limited Time Only,” so I imagine you’d have to get in there quick if you want to take advantage of this promo.

Over 400 stores are included in this promo, but here are my picks for stores I think you’d be interested in:

Women’s Clothing & Accessories

  • Barneys Warehouse
  • Kate Spade New York
  • Lou & Grey
  • Macy’s
  • Madewell
  • Neiman Marcus
  • Saks Fifth Avenue
  • Shopbop
  • Sunglass Hut

Health & Beauty

  • Blue Mercury
  • DermStore

Home & Garden

  • Ace Hardware
  • The Container Store
  • Macy’s

Tips and Shortcuts

  1. There are literally dozens of cash back sites. How do you know which one is offering the highest cash back at the store you’re eyeing without having to manually check each site (ugh)? Use aggregator websites like Cashbackholic and Cashback Monitor to research the best cash back offerings.
  2. Rakuten and BeFrugal both have toolbars that you can install on your Google Chrome. If you’re on a store’s site and there’s cash back available, the toolbar will pop in from the side. This is literally the most hassle-free way to learn about deals.
    Barney's Warehouse - Ebates3. Whenever a store is having a storewide sale or friends and family sale, look for cash back site offerings to see if you can reduce costs even more.


  1. Don’t buy something JUST to get the cash back. If you see yourself making a move to buy something online, it can pay to take the extra step and check the cash-back sites.
  2. Make sure you read the terms on cash back sites carefully. If you use a coupon that’s not listed on the cash-back site, your cash-back may not go through: “If you choose to use coupons and specials that are not listed on Rakuten, we cannot guarantee that you will be eligible to receive an Rakuten cash back reward on your purchases.”
    Also, lots of the ‘coupon codes’ listed are on the sites are outdated.
  3. Assess whether it’s a better strategy to get airline points or cash back. Do the math! If you need an extra thousand points to redeem for a flight, then forget about the cash back.

Are Cash Back Sites Going to Make You Rich?

No, they definitely won’t, but small amounts can add up to some fun money later on. And as someone who almost exclusively shops online, I learned that by ignoring these cash-back sites I was missing out on opportunities to pay LESS on items I would be buying anyway.

A while back, I wrote about how I got discounts on a Canada Goose jacket by taking advantage of sales and credit card shopping portals. Well, using cash back sites is yet another way to offset costs on those popular items that never get marked down. Remember that idea of creating your own sale on stuff that never goes on sale?

Instead of seeing cashback sites as a competitor for earning airline miles, I now see them as a supplement. There’s little reason why you can’t do both.

New to cash back sites? Sign up and receive new-member bonuses:

  • Rakuten – Get a $10 new-member bonus after spending $25
  • BeFrugal – Get a $10 new-member bonus

Do you use cash-back sites? If so, which are your favorite sites, and what have been your best deals?

Feature Image: The Luxe Strategist

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