Portals open path to back-to-school savings

This year's back-to-school shopping season is a good time to learn a new online shopping habit and reap free money. It's using rewards "portals."

Using such free shopping reward websites involves visiting the portal first and then clicking through to the usual retailer website to make purchases. That interim step, like entering a store through a different door, automatically yields cash back or reward points.

"To me, it's a no-brainer," said Becky Ford, founder of comparerewards.com, a shopping reward news and review site. "If you don't use them, you're paying too much."

If you were going to buy back-to-school jeans at Gap and notebooks at Staples, you might as well enter those retailers through a portal and get money back for what you spend.

Examples of popular portals are fatwallet.com and sister company ebates.com along with upromise.com and mrrebates.com. Some credit card websites also host reward portals.

"A lot of people don't realize they're leaving money on the table when they're doing their shopping," said Debby Hohler of Upromise by Sallie Mae. "Why wouldn't you want to get money back when you're buying things you need to buy anyway?"

Families with school-age children this year will spend an average of $635 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, according to the National Retail Federation's 2013 Back-to-School Survey. The amount is $837 for college students.

Using a portal and averaging a modest 5 percent cash back yields about $32 in free money, $42 for college, for very little effort.

"It may not sound like a whole lot of money, but all of those 5 percents add up," Ford said. "It might mean you can contribute toward a family vacation."

Using online shopping portals is a good idea year-round, but the back-to-school shopping season is the second-largest buying season of the year. That concentrated buying period offers a chance to learn about portals, create a habit of using them and earn some money for shopping you would do anyway.

"The reason cash back will pay off during back to school is because you're making more and bigger purchases, so it will seem like a bigger reward," said Brent Shelton, spokesman for Ebates.com and FatWallet.com.

In addition, many rewards during the back-to-school shopping season exceed the typical 5 percent, Ford said.

To get started, here are questions and answers about shopping reward portals, developed with help from Ford of CompareRewards.com, Shelton of FatWallet.com and Hohler of Upromise by Sallie Mae.

How do these sites work? Basically, retailers pay these portal websites a sales commission because they sent you to the retailer. When you buy something, the portal shares its commission with you, the customer, often about 50-50. So, if a retailer pays a portal 10 percent of the purchase price as a commission, the portal, in turn, places 5 percent in your account, either cash or equivalent points.

Are prices and selection the same? Yes. After clicking through the portal, you are directed to the retailer website to use its virtual checkout process. The difference is that the commission is invisibly credited to the portal, which then passes a portion of it to your account.

How do I get started? Sign up with a shopping rewards portal for free. At the portal site, click through to a retailer website. That's it.

Can I stack savings? Yes. Several of the more robust portals, such as FatWallet and Upromise, highlight store sales and provide coupon codes that can't be used in physical stores. That's in addition to your portal rewards. However, you'll probably run into problems earning rewards if you try to use coupon codes from elsewhere, Ford said. Paying with a rewards credit card compounds the benefit.

What currency should I choose? Portals issue reward cash, points, airline miles and other forms of payment. "Cash is always king," Ford said. That's because a portal can choose to devalue accumulated points by requiring more points to purchase merchandise. However, a buck is always a buck. All else being equal, choose cash. Upromise emphasizes paying for college, so its options include cash deposits to a 529 college savings plan, a savings account and paying down a Sallie Mae student loan, although you can choose a check too.

How do I cash out? One of the main differences among portals is the minimum threshold for retrieving your rewards. For example, a portal might require you to accumulate $10 before you can retrieve your money. For that reason, you might want to concentrate spending with one or just a few portals, so you can reach minimums quicker and cash out more frequently. With cash rewards, some sites will mail you a check and some require a deposit into a PayPal account.

How quickly are rewards paid? Some are instant, while others require you to wait 90 days. The delay comes because retailers don't want people to game the system by purchasing merchandise via a portal, cashing out rewards money and then returning the merchandise to the retailer. Some sites pay accumulated rewards monthly, others less often.

Which portal should I choose? Check out several, including the retailers they have affiliations with. Portals have different advantages. For example, FatWallet is a robust site known for great user forums. Upromise has a 5 percent cash-back minimum with all retailers and an emphasis on college savings. MrRebates runs frequent short-term promotions for higher cash-back rates and sponsors' giveaways, Ford said.

How do I create a portal habit? For some consumers, the biggest hurdle with shopping rewards is remembering to use them. Some portals offer tool bars or plug-ins for your Web browser that remind you to shop through the portal when it notices you visit a retailer directly. However, those reminder tools are a drawback if you'll use multiple portals because the browser-installed portal can trump the portal you would rather use, Ford said.

Another way to develop a habit is to sign up for email newsletters from the portal, or don't unsubscribe from ones that come automatically. Nobody needs more junk mail, but the email can act as a regular reminder to use portals when you shop online.

One caution: Sometimes prices will be lower at online retailers unaffiliated with reward portals. For example, it's a good idea to check prices on Amazon.com. That may be ultimately cheaper, so comparison shopping still makes sense.

But often you'll find portals are a great detour to savings.

"I can't imagine shopping without cash-back sites," Ford said.

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