Mail in Rebates: What You Need to Know

With a lot of items that go on sale, they do so with a stipulation: you must send in mail in rebates. These are forms that require a copy of the receipt (or shipment paper), the original UPC code from the package, and a document that you fill out with some important information related to the purchase. These things can be awesome for getting money back on purchases, but they can also be a problem.

Why They Rock

Mail in rebates rock because you get a partial refund. Who does not like to get free money when they make a purchase? This guy does, that is for sure!

There are many times where a mail in rebate will be the difference between buying a cheaper and a more expensive version of an item. For example, you can often find new versions of things to be cheaper after the mail in rebate is all handled. Of course, whether or not this has any real value is up to each person, as some dislike dealing with filling out the paper work and everything that is associated with it, but I find that the benefit outweighs the cost in most cases. After all, you can consider it as you getting paid to fill out the paper work, as that is what is essentially happening.

Sometimes you can even find items that are not only discounted because of the rebate, but even free. This happens much less often (and is usually something that is most often seen with software purchases like tax software or anti virus) but it does offer a good way to get something for nothing. After you have made the purchase and sent off the rebate, you can even sell the item to get yourself in to a cash positive state (where you earned more from making the purchase than you spent on it, meaning you essentially got paid just to buy something).

In some extreme cases there will be rebates that are even better, in which the amount you get back from mailing it in is greater than what you paid to begin with. For an example of this, at one point (for a short while) there were optical mice on sale for $13.99 with a mail in rebate of $19.99 each and a maximum of five. Because the rebate did not say “up to,” the full thing was honored, such that purchasing all five mice not only allowed you to keep them, but also gave back a profit of $30 on top of that! What is better than free computer hardware that you can use? Getting paid to take it!

”Up To” vs. Static Amounts

This is an area where a lot of new shoppers start to get confused. Some rebates will state that you get a static amount back, such as $0.50, and others will say that you can get “up to” the amount. In the vast majority of cases where “up to” is used, this is a sign that you can not get back more than you paid for the item (and this only takes in to consideration the base price, as well, so shipping and tax are not included). If that text is not found, however, usually you will get back the full amount, regardless as to what you actually paid for the item or items.

It is also worth noting that no matter how much you are planning to get back from the rebate, the purchase amount is usually required to be circled. It really is not clear why this is needed in cases where it is not relevant, but it could be some kind of “price check” on the store themselves or something.

Normal Rebate vs. Easy Rebates

Most of the time when you get a rebate it will be a normal one. These either come already printed out or you have to print them out yourself. After this, you add in the item's UPC code, a copy of the receipt and stick it all in an envelope and send it off.

Easy rebates are much easier in that you can submit them online. These are still somewhat rare to find, but they are the best when you can do this just because it saves a lot of time and you minimize the risk of losing your rebate in the mail or the receivers losing it somehow. Anything that helps diminish this risk is a positive!

Sometimes, and appears to be getting more common, are what I would consider hybrid rebates. These are started out online (with all of the more important information submitted online), followed by printing out a paper and sending it in with a copy of the receipt and the original UPC. These still have the risk of being lost in the mail or after being received, but they are usually processed much faster than those using the normal method (which we will look at next).

Turn Around Time

The turn around time on rebates used to be quite long, with some taking as long as half a year or even more. As of lately this has been cut down dramatically, although there are likely some that can take quite a while, depending on the company that is behind the rebate processing.

The general time frame to expect a rebate from the time it is sent in, received and verified by the processors is around six to eight weeks. This usually does not depend on what type it is, either: normal, hybrid or easy rebates are all going to be about the same in terms of their payment, as it is the verification and such that makes the real difference between the rebates.

Sometimes (this may be a new thing, though, as I just started to see it about a month ago) you can get even faster rebate processing for the payment. With what I have seen so far, there is a charge for this, in that you are basically paying them to release your money sooner. I will be looking at why this is a bad thing a little later.

If a rebate you sent in has the choice of adding in an email address, do it. They will usually keep you up to date by email as to when they get your paperwork in, get it verified and get the payment sent out. This is much, much better than just sitting around hoping that nothing got lost and it also makes keeping up with the status that much easier. If you do not do this, you are only going to know when you sent it in, and then hope that at some point you get something back. You can call the rebate company for updates, though how helpful they are has been a bit iffy; sometimes you can get someone that really knows what they are doing and can give great information, but other times you will get someone that just wants to get you off the phone and will give random information. Either way, the best thing you can do is get email updates!

What if My Rebate is Lost?

Hopefully you have created copies of everything you have to send before you do. In the rare instance that a rebate is lost, this information can usually be transferred to the rebate company as verification that it was sent off. The actual methods and verification the information goes through will depend on the rebate processor, so this is really up to them how they handle your claim once you make it. Sometimes, for example, they will find that your documents were just separated and so when you submit your copies of everything it will help find what all belonged to you again.

If your rebate ends up lost and you do not have copies of everything, you are out of luck. At that point there is really nothing that can be done, as there is no way to verify that you made the purchase in question and sent in all the requested documents. As an example, a receipt alone does not help because you could have bought the item, copied the receipt and then returned it for a refund. This is why the original UPC is required, and if there is not even a copy of it once it has been removed from the package (which invalidates returns of the item), there is no way the rebate processor can tell what you did. So keep copies of absolutely everything before you send off any rebates!

Self Tracking Rebates

If you are like me and you like to keep up with all of your mail in rebates, when you sent them off, status updates and when you get the rebates back, a great idea is to start a document up. This can be a simple word document, although using something like Excel or OpenOffice Calc is better since spreadsheets allow much easier organization of data like this.

In your documentation, you will want to keep track of the following things:

  • Date sent
  • Rebate amount
  • What it was for
  • Date received

If you are dealing with the email update rebates as well, you can then add that information too. This setup allows you to quickly and easily see any outstanding rebates you have, as well as what their status is. To make things even better on a spreadsheet, you can even set up two tabs: one for completed rebates and one for incomplete ones. This lets you move items to the completed tab once you get your reward back, instead of having a single document with a ton of rebates where some are done, some are not. Really this is all just going to be up to preference, but I love having a clean and organized document!

Returned Documents

If you did not submit all of the required documents for your mail in rebate, or anything was wrong (such as they can not read something you wrote or maybe sending in the wrong receipt or UPC), the materials will usually be mailed back to you. If this happens, you should be able to clear up the problems and send them back in.

When this happens, there should be a document in the envelope that tells what you did wrong or what you need to clarify. In some cases, nothing will be sent back to you in the envelope and it will just be a notice to let you know what you still need to submit (this is usually the case when something just can not be read – if you submitted the wrong receipt or UPC this should be returned so that you can get those in for your other rebate).

This situation is pretty rare and should be avoided when possible. To avoid finding yourself caught up in something like this, simply be sure that you check and double check absolutely everything. Make sure everything you write is clear and legible, and that it is all correct as well. Anything you can do before you send the rebate to ensure everything is perfect is well worth doing, as a small mistake can cost you days or weeks of extra processing time (or even a denial), as well as the cost of having to send in corrected information (the cost of the envelope, stamp and the time). Instead of putting yourself through this, just take the time to do it all right the first time; it is well worth it!

Rebate Effective Dates

When you look at a mail in rebate, the first thing you should notice is the effective dates. These detail when the rebate period starts and ends, which is the period in which the purchase must be made. For example if the rebate period is from January 10th through the 19th and you bought an item on the 9th or the 20th, you are not in the right period and the rebate will be denied.

Even if you are in a store and see a flyer about a mail in rebate, or maybe even the rebate itself sitting next to items, be sure to check out everything carefully. Sometimes people will lay down rebates next to an item and it will not be removed for a while, so you can accidentally pick it up thinking the rebate is still good when it is not. Just be sure to check the dates every time!

The other important thing to do is to check how long you have before you have to turn in the rebate. They will state that there is a period by which it has to be postmarked, such as thirty days from the purchase. When you see this, you must adhere to it or the rebate will be denied. Knowing this date is important and you want to ensure you get the rebate out before that date. While the postmarked date is what matters, it is always better to be safe than sorry. And while a lot of mail in rebates have guidelines that say you have thirty days from the purchase, some are much smaller, such as a week or two. If you really want to be sure you are getting the rebate off on time, just get everything together as soon as you get home or get your item in the mail and send off the rebate that day or the next. This ensures that you do not end up hitting the final postmark date, and also gets your rebates in faster since they start going through processing sooner! I can not count the number of times I have delayed on a rebate and have completely forgotten about it until after it is too late to send it in, or something happens that keeps me from being able to deal with it. Do not let this happen; just get it over with while it is still fresh on your mind!

Rebate Amounts

Something you want to be extra careful about when looking at mail in rebates is what the amount of it is. There are many times that you can get a rebate that is worth so little, it is almost worth not even dealing with. For example, if you have a rebate that is only $1.00, consider that you are spending half of that on the stamp to send it in alone, plus possibly the rest of it on the paper and envelope to get it all dealt with. And none of this even takes in to consideration the amount of time you will be using to get it done, so even if you are breaking even you may be wasting time.

These will really be a situational thing, where different people have different opinions. For example, some people will go ahead and skip the $5 rebates, whereas others will go much lower than that. Regardless of your choice, however, be sure that you are taking in to consideration what your time and materials are worth to you; not just the amount of money the rebate is going to be returning. Also consider that you are looking in at a waiting time of a couple months or so before you get anything back, so even if you have deemed the amount worth going for, be sure that you can go that long without the money being readily available.

Speeding Up Rebates

This is a somewhat new thing that has started happening with some rebates recently, where you can forgo a part of your rebate amount in return for a faster processing of your rebate. As an example, you may have the chance to accept $20 in a two month period, or drop it down to $18 and get your rebate in under a week. These are vastly different amounts of time, and you may find it worth going ahead and letting them deduct a part of the rebate amount so you can get the money sooner, rather than later.

I would argue that this is really a big problem though. I can see the desire from the consumer stand point to get money faster, but I do not quite follow why there is a charge for the service. It seems like if the rebate has already been received and processed, all that is left is to release the funds. By holding them for a couple months, all the rebate processor is doing is holding the funds, and it does not seem like there is any reason to do so. When a service like letting part of the rebate go in return for faster processing comes around, this is a bad sign that there really is not a reason for the delay, and rather it is created as an inconvenience for the customer to try and get (or “gouge”) more money from them by giving them the service that should already be given by default.

Scam Rebates

It is important to note that not all rebates are good. Sometimes, usually seen in smaller businesses online, the rebates will either be sent to a center that is not known for following through on their rebates, or a company can even go out of business, rendering their rebates invalid. This is not seen often, and it is a hard thing to really avoid, except by only trusting rebates by well known stores (for example, Staples). There are great deals that can be missed by being too careful, and it really ends up just being a risk vs. reward situation, where you have to determine how much risk is too much. If you were planning to buy an item anyways, for example, then the possibility of losing out on a rebate may not be too bad. On the other hand, if you are purchasing items that you only want because of the rebate, being more careful can be a good thing.

If you are ever unsure about whether or not a rebate company is reliable, do a simple web search to see if others have given their opinions. If you look one up and find that it has a ton of bad reviews, it is probably a better idea to steer clear. If one has no reviews at all, it is a bit iffy; people may not have reviewed it because there were no problems, or it could be that they are a newer company. To play it as safe as possible, only stick with companies that have good reviews, where people are saying they got their rebate in a timely fashion and with as little trouble as possible. If most others have had a great experience, the chances are good that you will too!

What Does the Future Hold?

Considering some places will allow you to do your rebates solely online, without ever even having to mail in anything, my hope is that this will become more wide spread. This is the easiest method for submitting rebates for us, as well as easier for the rebate processor to handle all of the processing since they are not constantly having to open mail, organize the documents, etc.

On top of this, it also decreases the cost overhead of sending in rebates, meaning that smaller ones become even more valuable since you are no longer tossing half a dollar or more in to getting them sent off. This does hurt the post office, to a point, though, in that it cuts down what is probably a pretty large amount of mail that is normally sent out on a daily basis. I am sure that mail in rebates account for a large portion of the mail sent back and forth, and this could end up putting a dent in it.

It is hard to tell if the online only rebates are going to become much bigger than they are, though, due to the lack of being able to tell if a UPC has been truly removed. The entire point behind the UPC's is to show that you did not just purchase an item and then return it for a refund, and since items can not be returned without the UPC (which most rebate processors require) it keeps them safe. How this will work with large items, when there is no real way to verify that you have truly removed the UPC, is anyone's guess. It is nice to think about how the future may lead us to easier and easier rebates for everything we purchase, but due to the way they work this may still just remain being a really niche method of handling them.


Mail in rebates can be a bit daunting if you are not familiar with how they work and what to look out for. Along with this, not fully understanding what you are getting in to before you jump in can cause a lot of headaches, as well as the possible loss of finances. By better understanding what to do and not do, you minimize your chances of making mistakes and speed up the process of not only getting your rebate processed, but also getting back the rebate amount. Following the guidelines and fully understanding what is happening makes this experience much more enjoyable, can save you a lot of money in the long run, and can even help you earn extra money while taking free items! And who does not love getting paid to buy stuff?


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