I’m fed up with Swagbucks, Ibotta, and other “cash back” apps

I have a, um, limited income. Comes with being a writer and working in the non-profit world. I have enough, but I’m always looking for ways to save money here and there. I compare price per-ounce at the grocery store, take advantage of BOGO deals when they come around for my usual purchases, and have cash back rewards on my credit card. I’m obsessed with Thred Up, a website that carries secondhand designer clothes (and if you click that link, you will get a $10 credit, and if you spend that credit I will get a $10 credit. Just a disclaimer. Be warned, though, it’s addictive!).

I started using Ibotta sometime last year, and signed up for Swagbucks a few months ago. For those of you not familiar with these apps, Ibotta partners with companies to give you a “rebate” when you buy specific items and scan your receipt to prove your purchase. The rebate varies from $0.25 to $10.00, depending on the cost of the item, and once you reach $20.00 in rebates you can get the money sent to your PayPal, Venmo, or purchase a gift card.

Swagbucks has a similar system, but beyond just purchases they have surveys and “content” (i.e. ads) that you can participate in for “Swagbucks,” points that add up to cash. The nice thing about Swagbucks is you don’t have to reach $20 to redeem your points. You can get a gift card as low as $3.00.

Ibotta and Swagbucks have helped with my Amazon addiction. Also known as my ebook and music addiction. Between the two of them I’ve probably gotten close to $75 in Amazon credit (and used it all, alas).

But I think for me they have outlived their usefulness, and are now time-wasters and money-wasters. Let me tell you why.

You get the most bang for your buck with Ibotta if you refer friends, because with your referral code they get $10 in credit, and when they redeem their first rebate you get $5 in credit. I guess if you have a ton of friends you can keep this going for a while, but I’m kind of tapped out. What the hell, though, if you want to try it here’s my referral link and yes I will get credit if you use it.

Here’s how Ibotta can actually cost you money, though. It’s great if they are featuring rebates on items you normally buy at stores where you normally shop. The pitfall is if you buy an item or choose a store just because of the rebate. This is an old, old marketing trick. “Filet Mignon is 20% off today? I must buy Filet Mignon!” Did you intend to buy Filet when you went to the store today? No? Well now you just spent money you didn’t need to, even if you spent less thank you would have if you’d bought full price Filet Mignon.

Or, and this is what I realized I’d been doing, you pay more for an item by purchasing it at a store with rebates rather than going to a store with overall cheaper prices. For example, I might look at the current rebates featured and see that a specific brand of chicken breast has a $1.00 rebate at my favorite nice grocery store. “Hooray!” I think to myself, and go spend $6.00 on chicken breast for a $1.00 rebate instead of going to Aldi across the street and paying $3.00 for the same amount of chicken breast.

(Side note, if there is an Aldi in your town you should be shopping there.)

I can’t believe I’ve allowed myself to be taken in this way. Ibotta can be useful, and you CAN make money on it, but if you truly want to to be frugal, it’s worth doing your research and having some self-control.

I’ll probably keep using Ibotta, sparingly, but what really bugs me is Swagbucks. The only way to make any money there is to spend money. Buy this $14/month luxury subscription and get $15 in Swagbucks! Donate $40.00 to this charity and get $40.00 in Swagbucks! Most of the time you’re breaking even, or getting on another company’s mailing list for a few bucks.

Then there’s the surveys. Hundreds of marketing research surveys, they say. What they don’t say is the surveys are often looking for very specific candidates and if you don’t fit you waste 5 minutes answering their qualifying questions and earn 1 swagbuck as reward. You know how much 1 swagbuck is? $0.01. If you do qualify, you are very lucky to get a 30 minute survey that rewards you 100 swagbucks, or $1.00. Best case scenario, you are earning a couple bucks an hour.

If you have that much time to waste, you could get a job that pays at least minimum wage.

The time when Ibotta and Swagbucks are going to work for you – and ThredUp, for that matter, and any sale or discount – is when they give you the opportunity to gain or spend less on something you were already going to buy at the cheapest price anyway. Cash back apps are not evil, but I’ve found they waste my time (especially Swagbucks) for little reward, or at worst encourage me to spend when I don’t need to.

P.S. This video from Bite Size Psych explains why we fall for marketing tricks!

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