Rewards credit cards have become so ubiquitous -- and their cash-back rewards so lucrative -- that it's become a common refrain that you're leaving money on the table if you don't have one. But amid all the talk of rotating categories, double rewards and sign-up bonuses, it's easy to forget a simple truth about rewards cards: Many people can't get them.
The truly premium credit cards -- those that provide solid cash-back rewards without an annual fees -- are typically reserved for those with very good credit, which leaves many people without an invitation to the cash-back party. And even if you've got good enough credit to qualify, you might decide you don't want to incur the temporary hit to your credit score caused by opening a new account.
Here's the good news, though: You don't need a credit card to get cash-back rewards. There are a couple of other options.
It Pays to Be Loyal
One is to join store loyalty programs, which usually provide combinations of members-only markdowns and cash-back benefits. CVS (CVS), for instance, has its ExtraCare card, which in addition to discounts also offers 2 percent cash back on most purchases, with the rewards disbursed on a quarterly basis. Safeway (SWY) offers 1 percent cash back on groceries, which can then be used to get as much as a dollar a gallon off your gas purchases. Neither requires you to sign up for a store credit card, so you can get these rewards regardless of your credit situation.
The downside is that retailers like Safeway and CVS are exceptions, not the rule: In general, if you want store-specific rewards, you have to sign up for a store credit card, which can be dangerous to your financial health, especially if you carry a balance.
Cutting Yourself in on the Commission
The other way to get rewards is to go through a website that offers cash-back deals.
These websites aren't selling products directly; instead, they're referring you to products sold on e-commerce sites. One example is FatWallet, which aggregates deals, sales and discounts. If you click on a deal or sale, you're first taken to an interstitial page informing you that you can get cash-back from FatWallet if you make a purchase at the retailer's site.
There's no credit check or extensive registration process: Just create an account with a username and password, and henceforth you'll get varying levels of cash-back when you buy something after following a link from FatWallet. How varying? Anywhere from 1 percent to 40 percent, depending on the destination site and what you're buying there. Most merchants offer between 1 percent and 5 percent; visiting Amazon via FatWallet, for instance, will get you 3 percent cash back, but only if you're buying from the shoe, automotive or Amazon Local departments.
A Win-Win Arrangement
It might sound too good to be true, but it makes perfect business sense for all involved. Online retailers want to encourage other sites to link to their products, so they give out referral commissions -- a cut of the sale to whichever site referred the customer. Sites like FatWallet take a percentage of that commission and give it back to the customer, and everyone wins: The online store gets a sale, the referring site gets a commission, and the customer gets some cash back.
(Rewards cards operate on a similar principle: Stores get a sale, banks get a portion of that sale in the form of a swipe fee, and customers get a cut of that fee.)
FatWallet isn't alone in providing cash-back rewards. There's ExtraBux, which promises up to 30 percent in cash-back deals; current deals include 8 percent cash back from GNC, which is on top of a 15 percent discount offered via coupon code. There's eBates, which says that it has earned members more than $100 million in cash back. Another is ShopAtHome, which currently offers 7 percent cash-back for select deals from Walmart. TopCashback, meanwhile, has a slightly different business model: It says that it passes 100 percent of its sales commission on to the user, instead making its money through Google ads.
These sites can offer even better cash-back rewards than credit cards, which usually offer a standard 1 percent cash-back across the board and 5 percent on certain rotating categories. The downside is that you're a lot more limited on where you can get that cash -- only certain online retailers participate, and those that do may restrict the offer to certain products.
Still, it's nice to know that people with poor or even nonexistent credit can still score cash back just by shopping via one of these sites. And keep in mind that they aren't just for the credit-challenged: If you use a rewards card to shop through a cash-back site, you're getting rewards from both parties.
Isn't it nice to get paid to shop?
It's Time for a Shoppers' Bill of Rights
How to Get Cash Back on Purchases - Without a Credit Card
In the wake of a number of high-profile cruise ship disasters, the cruise industry announced this week that it had approved a passengers' bill of rights. The document, which the industry says will be legally binding, mainly concerns passengers' rights in instances where a ship has become disabled.
It resembles a similar bill of rights for airline passengers that the Department of Transportation drew up in 2011. Those rules concerned procedures for dealing with lengthy tarmac delays, lost baggage, and similar issues.
That got us thinking: If cruise ship passengers and air travelers have their own bills of rights, why shouldn't shoppers?
Sure, visitors to retail stores typically don't encounter situations as maddening as being stranded on a floating hotel where the bathrooms don't work, or trapped in a cramped coach-class seat while their flight sits on a tarmac for hours. But the shopping experience is still riddled with frustrations, and less-savvy shoppers are often taken advantage of by dodgy pricing, pushy salespeople and inconsistent policies.
We'd love to see a self-policing effort by the industry to assure shoppers that they can expect certain standards of treatment when they walk into a store. Here are a few things we would include in a shopper's bill of rights.
When retailers run sales and coupons, they include fine print that limits what the deal actually applies to. In most cases, it's relatively harmless -- it defines the effective dates of the promotion, and may exclude select items like gift cards and jewelry.
But problems arise when retailers go totally overboard and try to exclude half the store. Department stores like Sears (SHLD) and Macy's (M) tend to hold sales that exclude dozens of brands from the discount, and earlier this year Guitar Center took some heat for a coupon that excluded more than 300 brands.
Sure, in a perfect world everyone would read and understand the fine print. But it's not unreasonable for someone to see "20 percent off everything" and assume that it applies to most of the merchandise in the store.
It's bad enough when there's a ton of fine print in the ad. It's even worse when store employees are inconsistent about applying those terms.
The other day I was shopping at Banana Republic (GPS), which was having a 40 percent off sale. I found an item I liked and confirmed that it wasn't excluded in the fine print, but a cashier insisted that the discount did not apply. Only when I threatened to leave empty-handed did she check with a manager and apply the discount.
It's understandable that the price of certain big-ticket purchases -- cars, TVs, and so on -- will depend in part on your ability to successfully haggle down the price. But whether or not a store fairly applies the terms of a deal should not be contingent on your willingness to make a scene.
It's not just the fine print on coupons that's often left to the interpretative whims of cashiers and associates. Corporate policies on everything from returns to price-matching are often poorly understood or selectively applied by front-line employees.
In our review of store price-match policies, we noted a report from Cheapism that found that some stores were inconsistent in their application of those policies. At Walmart (WMT), for instance, cashiers insisted on seeing competitors' ads to perform a price-match, despite a company policy that explicitly says that you don't need to show them.
We know it's not easy to educate every last employee about every last policy, especially at an enormous company like Walmart. But those policies don't mean much if the people who have to follow them haven't read them. Which segues nicely into ...
Retail employees also need to be informed about the products they're selling, so that they can give accurate advice to shoppers.
That means if you're buying a TV, you have the right to an employee who can tell you the difference between plasma and LED. If you're buying a bra, you have the right to a saleswoman who can properly fit you. If you're buying a computer, you have the right to a salesperson who can tell you whether or not you really need to pay for an antivirus program.
Having smart salespeople makes good business sense for retailers -- Best Buy (BBY), for instance, has realized that well-informed customer service is one of the few advantages it can wield over online competitors. But it's also a matter of consumer rights: If you're misled into buying the wrong TV, bra or software product and then find that you can't return it, that's money out of your pocket.
"Is there anything I can help you find?" is no longer the only question you're asked at a retail store. Store associates and cashiers may ask you to sign up for store credit cards and rewards programs; upon checkout, they might also ask for your zip code and email address.
Of course, you have every right to say no to these questions. But sometimes they won't take no for an answer -- I have dealt with pushy associates eager to get commissions on credit card applications, as well as cashiers insisting that I reveal my email address.
But giving them your email address invariably means getting marketing emails, and your zip code can be used to locate you and send you catalogs. Meanwhile applying for a store credit card can temporarily lower your credit score. Shoppers should be notified of the downsides involved with saying "yes" to any of these questions. And salespeople shouldn't be allowed to pressure you after you've said "no."
You're legally entitled to the price on the price tag. But there are still plenty of shenanigans happening in the background.
One trick: Creating the illusion of a discount by touting a high "original price" next to the ticket price. Kohl's (KSS) is dealing with a lawsuit claiming that it misled customers in this way, while J.C. Penney (JCP) was recently accused of fabricating prices to make its discounts look better.
And while we're at it, let's keep barcodes honest, too. Some retailers have dealt with barcode-scanning shoppers by covering the barcode on the box with one of their own creation; the custom code will confuse any price-comparison app. Retailers don't have to tell you all about the lower price you can get from a competitor, but they shouldn't actively hinder you from making an informed purchase.
There are a lot of things we wish retailers would do better. We hate having to wait in long lines at checkout, for instance. We hate that every retailer has its own return policy to pore through, with various exclusions and time limits. And we wish retailers didn't feel the need to hand us a mile-long receipt covered in promotions and surveys when we're just buying a pack of gum.
We left those grievances out of our proposed bill of rights, because this isn't meant to be a shopping wish list -- the focus here is on basic standards of fairness and honesty that will protect the shopper.
Still, we may have missed a few. If there are certain rights that you feel every shopper should be guaranteed, we'd love to hear about it. Give us a shout in the comments or send an email to Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.These websites aren't selling products directly; instead, they're referring you to products sold on e-commerce sites. One example is FatWallet, which aggregates deals, sales and discounts. If you click on a deal or sale, you're first taken to an interstitial page informing you that you can get cash-back from FatWallet while shopping on the site. There's no credit check or extensive registation process: Just create an account with a username and password, and henceforth you'll get varying levels of cash-back when you buy something after following a link from FatWallet.
It might sound too good to be true, but as with rewards cards, it makes perfect business sense for all involved. Online retailers want to incentivize sites to link to them, so they give out referral commissions, basically giving a cut of the sales to whoever referred the customer. Sites like FatWallet take a percentage of that commission and give it back to the customer, so everyone wins: The online store gets a sale, the referring site gets a commission, and the customer gets some cash-back.
(Rewards cards operate on a similar principle: Stores get a sale, banks get a portion of that sale in the form a swipe fee, and customers get a cut of that fee.)