Take the time to get cash back
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A good rebate can spur sales, encouraging you to choose one brand over another -- or even make an unplanned purchase. Parago, a rebate fulfillment company, estimates that the typical U.S. household averages $150 yearly in rebates. According to their survey, 47% of consumers submitted a rebate within 12 months prior to February 2011.
Why are they so effective? "(Stores) can advertise a lower price, but not 100% of the people respond," says Hal Stinchfield, CEO and founder of Promotional Marketing Insights. "If they want to give everyone a discount, that lowers the value of the brand. Rebates are an efficient tool for the manufacturer to give discounts only to those who choose to go through the extra steps."
Knowing how to find the best rebates and submit them properly makes for a savvy shopper. Look for more rebates toward the end of the calendar year, says Stinchfield, though timing varies on the company's promotional plans. Here are five times where you can maximize your rebates.
These big-ticket items sometimes come with big-ticket rebates from the manufacturer or the government. Rebates range from $25 to $1,000, depending on the appliance and your state, says Courtnay Greenberg, digital Web manager of GEAppliances.com. Your best bet is to do your rebate research before heading to the store.
Manufacturer websites usually carry rebate and promotion sections, and you'll find the options when plugging in the appliance type and your ZIP code. Some sites also offer rebate information from federal and state governments, as well as local utility companies.
Greenberg recommends checking with your local utility provider's website or customer service phone line to see if they list rebates for energy-efficient products. In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy's Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency has a search tool. Click on your state, and then scroll to the Utility Rebate Program list.
Another way to find an energy-efficient appliance rebate is through EnergyStar.gov, says consumer expert Andrea Woroch.
Even if you don't research before shopping, stores usually post rebate program information in the showroom, and salespeople should be knowledgeable about what's available, says Greenberg.
Installation of solar panels isn't cheap, but with the right incentives, it can pay off over the long run in decreased electrical bills. "The goal of most solar (panel) systems is to get as close to eliminating a company or family's electric usage as possible," says Brian Kelly, president of Sea Bright Solar in New Jersey.
A 30% dollar-for-dollar federal tax credit is available nationally for residences installing solar panel systems through 2016, says Kelly. State and local incentives, including rebates, can lower installation costs even further. Kelly recommends checking the Department of Energy's website to find solar rebates in your area.
State incentives vary from outright rebates to sales tax exemptions or abatements. Some states offer a solar renewable energy certificate, or SREC, program where power producers (including homeowners) can sell excess solar energy to utility companies.
Kelly says the state usually has a fixed pool of available money if it offers cash back. "If you pre-qualify, you know what you're going to get back," he says. Typically an installer applies for the rebate on behalf of the customer. "You get approved prior to installation," Kelly says, and then you'll have a certain amount of time to install. Kelly says some states only pay the rebate after the full installation, and others pay a portion when the materials arrive and the rest after completion.
When shopping with a credit card in a store or online, the financial company shouldn't be the only one profiting. Choose a cash-back credit card, and count up the savings.
"Cash-back credit cards offer tremendous value to consumers in the form of rebates that can be accumulated and redeemed in many ways" such as through statement credits, direct deposits to another account, merchandise and gift cards, says Laura Gingiss, spokeswoman for Discover.
Choose a card based on your needs and interests, says Woroch, noting that cards offering higher rewards for gas, hotel or airline purchases can benefit those who travel a lot. Plus, you can easily earn a free flight or hotel nights by signing up for a new credit card when that's an offered perk. "If you prefer cash back, look for a card that offers bonus categories," she says.
Watch out though, as some cards charge an annual fee. "Their perks will pay for themselves as long as you use the card," says Woroch.
Cash-back offers are common with cars, especially new ones. Woroch recommends checking with a brand's website to see what they're offering, and following your favorite brands or dealerships on Facebook or Twitter to get updates on their promotions and rebates.
Also, search the Internet for rebate information by ZIP code. "Keep in mind the different types of rebates available when purchasing a car and which is more valuable to you," she says.
Stinchfield says the term rebate is not always used properly. "The majority of the car rebates that I've seen are automatic. It's a discount, not a rebate," says Stinchfield. "Anytime you hear the term 'instant rebate,' that, too, is not a rebate; it's a price cut."
If the auto dealer offers a choice between low-interest financing or a manufacturer's rebate, a car rebate calculator such as Bankrate's can help you determine which is the better option.
Cashing in rebates
For some, snagging the rebate deal isn't the hardest part of saving -- it's submitting the rebate form. Failure to respond to rebate offers is usually due to consumer forgetfulness, says Stinchfield. "They bought it and forgot to respond," he says, adding that the longer the time limit to submit the receipt, the more likely the consumer will forget.
He recommends mailing in the response the same day you purchase the item, and cash the check the day it arrives.
After mailing it, mark the date you're supposed to receive the check. Before dropping it in the mailbox, "Copy every single document you're required to send in," says Stinchfield. That includes the outside of the addressed envelope, the certificate, the UPC symbol and the receipt. Keep the copies in a safe place.
If you don't get your rebate check when expected, Stinchfield says it's better to call the manufacturer's consumer service department directly and not with the contact information on the rebate form, because that leads to the rebate processor.
If your rebate isn't processed, it might not be the manufacturer trying to rip you off. "Mistakes do happen at the fulfillment providers," says Stinchfield. "They'll occasionally disqualify something that shouldn't be disqualified. Occasionally, they'll lose mail."