NEW YORK (MainStreet) — You're probably used to shelling out big bucks during the holiday season, but did you know that you can actually earn money while you shop? From taking on mystery shopping assignments to using websites and apps that offer cash back for purchases, there are several ways to keep your bank account afloat in the coming weeks without skimping on great gifts for your nearest and dearest. Here are a few ideas to consider as you set out on your holiday shopping sprees.
Shop on Cash-Back Websites
If you're planning to buy some of your holiday gifts online this year, we suggest shopping on sites that offer you cash back for your purchases. One of the best is Ebates.com, which partners with thousands of retailers such as Best Buy, Amazon, Kohl's and Macy's. Ebates earns a commission from these retailers when you make a purchase, then shares part of that commission with you. There's no sign-up fee, and you'll receive a check in the mail each quarter for the money you've earned. Not bad, huh?
Other sites that offer cash back for purchases include Upromise, which allows you to earn money for college through your online purchases; FreeShipping.com, which allows you to earn 10% cash back at more than 1,000 retailers (membership costs $12.97 per month) and offers free shipping and return shipping; and BeFrugal.com, which offers up to 30% cash back at more than 4,000 online stores.
Become a Mystery Shopper
Another great way to earn cash while hitting the malls this holiday season is through mystery shopping. Businesses hire mystery shoppers to visit their stores anonymously and report back on product quality and the overall customer experience. If you're instructed to make a particular purchase in a store or restaurant, you'll typically get reimbursed and you'll often get to keep the product.
"You can earn money while you're out doing your holiday shopping by evaluating a makeup artist by getting a free makeover, test-driving a new vehicle, or trying out restaurant fare with a friend," says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch.
Freelance writer Anne Violette of Houston says that she takes on a few mystery shopping assignments during the holiday season to make some extra cash. “Although it doesn't pay big bucks—some shops pay between $25 and $60—I've gotten a lot of discounts on things I have needed, such as sunglasses at Sunglass Hut, free coffees at Dunkin' Donuts, free oil changes for my car and other cool things," she says. “While out shopping at the mall, you can pick up a couple of easy assignments and it only takes about 15 minutes to do the mystery shop and then another half hour worth of your time at home to fill out the review."
Just be aware that there are many mystery shopping scams out there. The Federal Trade Commission suggests checking online comments and reviews about a company before working for it and avoiding companies that ask you to pay them money or require you to wire money as part of a mystery assignment.
Woroch recommends visiting the Mystery Shopping Providers Association to search for legitimate opportunities.
Use a Cash-Back Credit Card
For an easy way to earn extra dough while holiday shopping, consider making purchases with a credit card that offers cash back. Just keep in mind that interest rates for cash-back credit cards tend to be higher than standard cards, so they're best used if you intend to pay off your balances in full each month. Also be sure to check if the card has an annual fee; if it does, you'll have to decide whether the rewards make the fee worth it.
Matthew Goldman, CEO and founder of Wallaby, a company that offers a variety of products to help you maximize credit card rewards, suggests checking out the Chase Freedom card, which offers 5% cash back on up to $1,500 at Amazon.com, Zappos.com and select department stores through December 31 and unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases. The card offers no annual fee and a 0% introductory annual percentage rate (APR) for the first 15 months, then a variable 13.99% to 22.99% after that. Goldman also recommends the Discover It card, which carries no annual fee and offers 5% cash back for online shopping and department stores purchases up to $1,500 through December. You can also earn 1% cash back on all other purchases and receive a free FICO credit score on your monthly statement. The APR is 0% for the first 14 months, then 10.99% to 22.99% after that.
Join a Rewards Program
Many stores offer attractive rewards programs that allow you to rack up points for every purchase you make, then earn store credit for accumulating a certain number of points. For instance, the Kohl's Yes2You Rewards program allows you to earn 1 point for every dollar spent, then gives you a $5 reward for every 100 points you accumulate. The Dick's ScoreCard program allows you to score 1 point for every dollar you spend at Dick's, then gives you a $10 reward for every 300 points you earn.
Download Apps That Help You Earn Cash
One great cash-back app available on iOS and Android devices is Shopkick, which allows you to earn free gift cards just for shopping. Once you download the app, you'll get points for walking into stores such as Target, Macy's and Best Buy, and you'll rack up even more points when you scan items and make purchases. You can then redeem your points for gift cards. The one caveat? Don't let the app sway you into buying more than you can afford.
“You might start justifying unnecessary purchases by thinking about all the rewards you're earning," says Kendal Perez, marketing manager for Kinoli Inc., the company that owns such money-saving websites as FreeShipping.org and GiftCardGranny.com. "Use the app wisely to help earn rewards on items you already planned to purchase or try on."
Of course, the season of giving also means helping out those in need. The Charity Miles app, available on iOS and Android devices, allows you to earn money for charity from corporate sponsors simply by walking, running or biking. Here's how it works: just turn on the app, select a charity and press start. As you walk through the mall or bike or run to your favorite shopping destination, the app will track your distance and the money earned. Bikers earn up to 10 cents per mile, while walkers and runners earn up to 25 cents per mile. Participating charities include Habitat for Humanity, Feeding America, Autism Speaks and The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.
—Written by Kristin Colella for MainStreet