Don't let rebate cards pick your pocket

Rebate cards can be a challengeIn Canada you can't even call them rebates. But in the U.S., rebate cards are becoming more the norm than the checks that had long been the standard.

But this isn't just a switch to a more modern method; it's a way companies can make more money from you because many people leave balances on them or forget to use them at all. In addition, some expire in just a few months and/or begin draining down the balance if they aren't used. Those are not problems you'll have after cashing a check.

And even though the cards carry the logo of a major credit card, that doesn't mean they enjoy the protections afforded credit cards. They don't. They're not credit cards. They're not even gift cards, which also are afforded some protection.

Just because using these cards isn't as simple as having cash in your pocket (some cards even prevent you from withdrawing cash from them) there are strategies you can employ so you use every penny that you're due from that rebate.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you get one these:
  • Use it right away so you don't forget about it.
  • If the card has a credit card logo on it, take it to the bank and try to turn the balance into cash.
  • If you can't convert it to cash, find something you were going to buy anyhow and spend the entire amount.
If you fail to spend the full amount, you'll have the added burden of having to find out how much is left on the card. Unlike a store gift card, you're not going to get a balance on your receipt at checkout. If you don't know how much is left on the card you could have big problems using it because the charges will be rejected if they're even one cent more than the price. And, if you use them in restaurants or at gas stations, a hold for additional money can be placed on the card -- preventing you from spending the balance.

The easiest thing to do is to go to a major retailer such as a Target or Walmart, where so-called split-tender transactions are done regularly. All that means is you can use more than one method of payment. So, if you have a $50 rebate card and your bill is $70, you can pay the extra $20 by some other means.

Consumer advocates also complain that it is disingenuous to call these cards rebates (as Canada has decided), since a rebate implies a return of money.

In Massachusetts recently, the state's Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation won the support of major retailers including Staples to disclose in promotional material when the rebate will actually be in the form of a rebate card.

That's still short of what should be the ultimate goal of consumers: get retailers to offer instant rebates that are paid at the register.
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