I'm going to let you in on a little secret: Shopping is a bit of a game to me – the challenge is to see how much I can save. When I save, I win.
And when I save big, I win big – like thousands of dollars.
The shopping tool I want to share with you today has earned me close to $3,000 in digital rebates. (Add this to the $5,000 I've saved with RebateKey, another program I recently wrote about, and Target Circle, which drives the savings on my Target shopping.) Money in the bank. The tool? An app called Ibotta.
Ibotta is a free cash back rewards and payments app. You might have seen the TV ads pop up recently. It's an easy way to save on most grocery store trips, online shopping, gift cards and even booze in some states. Some shoppers have saved thousands more than I have – one person I spoke with scored more than $10,000 in savings. More on that later.
What sets Ibotta apart from rewards programs like CVS ExtraCare is that you can use it in person at multiple stores, including Target, Walmart, Costco, Trader Joe’s, Aldi and online at Amazon, Kohl’s, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Macy’s and more.
►School supply shortage: Backpacks, shoes could be hard to find, so shop early, experts say
►Teacher discounts 2021: Target teacher discount is here along with savings for educators at Dollar General, Staples
It's also a way to get freebies and try new products.
Right now, for instance, Ibotta is giving away free school supplies, for a limited time.
The rebate items, which combined have a value of up to $20, are available to purchase in-store and online at Walmart and online at Target, Instacart, H-E-B or Shipt. (Speaking of back-to-school shopping, if you're renewing a school wardrobe for your tween, you'll now be able to find Justice brand clothing at Walmart – and you can try using Ibotta online to help save on your splurge!)
You can also earn cash back when booking travel through Expedia, Travelocity, Hotels.com and other popular sites and get 75 cents back with every Uber or Lyft ride when you launch the ride-hailing apps from Ibotta.
On its own, it might not look like much. But the money adds up on products and services that you'd be purchasing anyway.
CEO and founder Bryan Leach told me Ibotta has given out more than $1 billion in the company’s lifetime. It first launched in 2012 primarily as a grocery app, but has evolved over the years.
Ibotta is working to make earning cash back more seamless and recently announced an expanded partnership with Walmart. Leach said it's expected to start next year, and it'll be easier to find cash-back offers on the app and website.
“As we move, expand and grow we think there's an opportunity to give you cash back on everything,” Leach said.
►Free school supplies: Ibotta giving away free school supplies for back to school at Walmart, Target and more
►Popeyes nuggets coming soon: Popeyes to add chicken nuggets to the menu based on its chicken sandwich recipe
Adventures in saving with Ibotta
Long before the Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020, thanks to Ibotta, I was prepared with a nice stockpile of bath tissue and cleaning products.
So was Carrie McGuire-Loveall, of Lebanon, Indiana, who has earned more than $12,000 in cash back from Ibotta.
Her family called her stockpile her "personal grocery store," and she says it helped her gain more of a financial cushion.
“It's my addiction," she said. "I check the app multiple times per day."
When COVID-19 hit and many of her neighbors were out of work and having a hard time finding items in local stores, she took action.
“I opened my garage to my neighbors so they could get what stores no longer had. Some paid me for what they took, some couldn't,” she said. “What I didn’t want to sell, I gave away.”
Heather Curtis, of New Market, Tennessee, has earned more than $6,100.
“If you take 10 minutes, you can easily make money,” Curtis said, noting on a recent shopping trip she made a whopping $48 back.
But she doesn’t only make money with Ibotta. She also pays it forward.
For a recent food drive for vets, she donated 15 boxes of products with Ibotta rebates.
“Usually for a food drive, they’re getting all the cheap stuff,” Curtis said. “I was buying all the name-brand stuff and was getting really great discounts and cash back. I don’t think I spent even $25.”
Earning cash back on groceries, other items
For grocery rebates, I focus most on the free or nearly-free items. Last month, I picked up a pack of Beyond Meat burgers that were free after a rebate, and this week, I've ordered many of the free school supply items.
However, depending on what store you shop at, Ibotta's free items might not be 100% free after the rebates and could each cost a few cents. Or maybe you wind up walking away making a few cents. Ibotta bases the rebate on the manufacturer's suggested retail price, which can vary.
Ibotta has also enticed me to try new products with little risk. The first time I tried Halo Top ice cream was when there was a rebate through Ibotta, and when Coca-Cola with Coffee came out earlier this year, there was a rebate to try a can for free.
But everyday items you buy might also have rebates. Need milk? There might be an offer for any brand. Getting blueberries? There could be an offer for those good at any store, though sometimes it's only available at specific stores.
There's even a category for beer, wine and spirit rebates, which can be used at liquor stores, though the rebates can't be redeemed in all states, so read the fine print.
Pro-shopper tip: I like to check Ibotta before I shop in-store or online and have an organized plan of attack. Sometimes I'll change the brand of a product I'll buy based on the rebate offer.
Here's how Ibotta works
Download the mobile app and browser extension: You can use the mobile app for shopping on the go and in-store offers, for either iOS or Android devices. For shopping from a computer, you can get the browser extension, which currently is available for Chrome and Firefox, but also works on Microsoft Edge.
For in-store offers: Add the offers to your account on the app by clicking on a plus sign next to the item. After you shop and redeem the offer, for some stores, you’ll have to upload photos of your receipt in app. At other stores, you can link your account to Ibotta, and then the rebates are automatically processed. (For instance, if you pay with Walmart Pay at Walmart with a linked account, you won’t have to submit a receipt). Cash back on qualifying purchases is usually added to accounts within 24 hours but sometimes happens within minutes.
For online grocery orders: When shopping for grocery pickup and delivery, make sure your Ibotta account is linked with the online retailer. Then add offers to your account and checkout online. You’ll get cash back 24 to 48 hours after your order is picked up or delivered.
Pro-shopper tip: Check to confirm you are purchasing the rebate items. In the app, you can scan the barcodes of your items to check. If, for some reason, you don't earn cash back for a purchase as expected, you can file a ticket with Ibotta customer support on the app and explain what offers you were trying to redeem.
Important notes: The email address on your retailer account does not need to match your Ibotta account email address, but multiple Ibotta users can't link the same retailer account. So if you share an Old Navy account with a parent, partner or roommate, for instance, only one of you can link the account to Ibotta.
Gift card perks
Leach said buying – and using – gift cards through Ibotta is something he considers a "power user feature."
Heather Curtis says it's one of the ways she earned $3,000 last year. Her family would look for restaurants with high percentages of cash back.
Curtis also used Ibotta gift card offers to help get gifts for "the grandmas and grandpas" her family adopted for a holiday drive. Sometimes, they'd use the gift card to purchase the gifts, and sometimes they gave the gift card as a gift.
Cash-back percentages vary and periodically change. On Thursday, 15% was the highest percent on gift cards from Adidas, Applebee's, Belk, DSW, IHOP and Red Robin. Walmart had a 0.5% cashback offer and Amazon 1% back.
Step 1: You can find a large selection of restaurant and store gift cards under the “gift cards” category of the app.
Step 2: Gift cards can be purchased with a debit card, Apple Pay, Google Pay or you can apply your Ibotta earnings. Then, the cash back will be added to your account instantly. For instance, I purchased a $5 Starbucks gift card and received 10 cents back immediately.
Step 3: You can use the gift card immediately in stores and online.
Savings tip: You can give Ibotta gift cards as a gift. You’ll need to toggle on “This is a gift.” You’ll have the option to send the gift card as a text or email. Your friend doesn’t need to have Ibotta to use the gift card.
Getting cash back on online shopping and travel
Ibotta started offering cash back for online groceries during the pandemic when more started buying groceries online, Leach said.
The company then added a browser extension late last year to offer more cash back opportunities.
For most online purchases, you get a percentage of your purchase back, which can vary by the day and often excludes the online grocery purchases that are item-specific offers. There are some exceptions though as Safeway and Albertsons do offer a 2% back rebate.
For Amazon purchases, for instance, the cash back offer is 5% back on select Amazon devices while Walmart is 1% on kids apparel, beauty supplies and other categories. Macy's and JCPenney had 3% offers. Dick's Sporting Goods had an 8% offer.
Hotels.com was offering 7% cash back, Booking.com 6.5% and Hotwire 6% while RentalCars.com offered 4% back.
On your phone: You can earn cash back on mobile purchases when you visit online retailers through the Ibotta app. Just note to have the Ibotta savings apply, you have to go to Ibotta first to launch either the retailer's app or a browser. (My editor says that, after I taught her about the app, she's used Ibotta for Target and Old Navy back-to-school and holiday shopping on her phone while putting the kids to bed.)
On your computer: Cash back is available for grocery pickup and delivery as well as hundreds of online retailers with the Ibotta browser extension. You’ll need to login with your Ibotta email address or create a new account. When you visit a supported site, the extension will pop up, but you’ll need to activate it to earn cash back on the purchase.
Shopping tip: Exclusions apply, and it will take longer to earn cash back with online offers than in-store shopping and gift cards. For instance, the Macy's offer said cash back is not valid on online orders using select coupons or promo codes.
Cashing out with Ibotta
Once you earn $20 in rebates through Ibotta, you can withdraw your earnings.
I have received my money through PayPal or gift cards, but I usually favor PayPal so I can easily transfer to my bank account.
You can choose to deposit the money directly into your bank account, too.
For cashing out, gift card options usually have a $20 minimum and include Amazon, Best Buy, Lowe’s, Starbucks, Walmart, Sephora, Panera Bread and Victoria’s Secret. This is different from "purchasing" a gift card using your Ibotta earnings, where you also can earn more cash back.
Pro-shopper tip: Cash out often. If you don't use Ibotta for more than six months, your account will be considered inactive, and Ibotta will deduct $3.99 each month until the account balance reaches zero.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ibotta savings guide: How to use app to earn cash back on everything