I’m going to voice an unpopular opinion today about something that a lot of people love.
It’s popular with mommy blogs, coupon blogs, and money-saving blogs. It’s often peddled as a method to save and make money—all from the comfort of your home. It’s so popular and widespread that I’m sure this blog will be met with shouts of scorn and judgment!
“Guys, guys, I got two cases of mustard for FREE!”
“OMG I got a $50 Target gift card from InboxDollars!”
“I got $20 in rebates from Ibotta! I’m gonna use them to buy little Johnnie some new shoes!”
These are things I’ve heard from people who are trying to save money with rebate sites and apps. But guess what?
Ibotta, InboxDollars, Checkout51, Shopkick—I’m calling them all out. They are thinly veiled consumerist plots to take your money, and are, to put it bluntly, bad.
There are countless apps and websites dedicated to deals. And guess what? I’ve tried them all. During our transition to frugality, I was willing to try anything. I downloaded Ibotta for grocery rebates. I faithfully completed InboxDollars surveys. I surfed the web for Swagbucks.
I’ve been there. Sure, this stuff is fun, and you might gain a few points or rewards here and there. But you know what I’ve discovered?
Deal sites miss the point.
Why Deal Sites Are Not Good
Sites like InboxDollars, Ibotta, Swagbucks, and their ilk are horrible for three reasons.
1. They encourage consumption
When I had Ibotta, I loved the rush of getting my first 25 cent rebate on fresh tomatoes. But after that, the deals were only for packaged foods that I never bought. I had to fight the urge to buy these items just to get the small rebate after the purchase.
Why did I feel this way? Because these “deals” created a feedback system in my brain that rewarded me for buying things I normally wouldn’t buy, causing me to fork over more money. A 50 cent reward doesn’t make up for a $5 bag of granola that I wasn’t going to eat. Not good.
2. They are not “free”
Nope, deal sites aren’t free.
They pay you miniscule amounts of money or rewards in exchange for your personal information—which is ridiculously valuable. Maybe you think nothing of sharing your age, sex, occupation, and income level, but this information is gold to companies and their marketing departments.
Apps that catalog your purchases, like Ibotta, are even better. They store all of your demographic information and document your purchases. This means the companies can do smarter targeting and messaging—convincing the world they need to buy more Shake Weights.
So no, these sites aren’t free to use. You’re willingly handing over information in exchange for comparatively small rewards.
3. They are time-consuming
Some of these sites are just plain exhausting.
I did survey after survey on these sites for days on end, only to be rewarded with an insultingly miniscule number of points. That made me consider all of the things I could have done with that time.
I could have read a book. I could have spent time with Mr. Picky Pincher. I could have worked on this blog. I could have cooked meals ahead of time to save money. I could have gone over our budget. I could have watched my hamster frolic in a cardboard box.
You get the idea. It’s not helpful to waste so much time on activities with such a low yield. The time and effort expended here don’t surpass the value of the time you could put towards other more useful tasks.
What is the Point, Then?
Deal sites are a symptom of consumption gone wild.
When we normalize consumption, we are contributing to a throw-away culture. Companies learn that customers expect new things at a rapid pace, which means they can make poor quality items for the same price.
Is it obsolete by a week? Then chunk it!
This has horrifying consequences for our wallets (“Wow, the new fancy iPhone only costs $200 with an upgrade!”), the environment (“Yuck, guess it’s time to throw away my perfectly functional yet not-new iPhone!”), and our minds (“I can’t sleep because I’m so excited for the new, hardly-different-in-any-way iPhone! Now in rose gold!”).
At best, deal sites let you put a Band-Aid over your financial woes. It feels like you’re getting something for nothing; like it’s the miracle of miracles. But it’s not. These “deals” just aren’t worth it, and they definitely aren’t frugal.
In fact, it grinds my gears when these people say they’re “frugal,” when in reality they’re just gaming a consumer system.
I found a great example of this in a book by a guy named Brad. Brad infuriates me so much that I won’t name his book.
The guy bills himself as a money-saving whiz who scores free luxury trips, items, and flights. He booked international trips and five star resorts for nothing, thanks to a bizarre variety of loopholes with credit cards and frequent flyer miles. He even bought tens of thousands of dollars worth of U.S. Mint coins to take advantage of a loophole with credit card rewards. It took a lot of work and time to put this trip together, but it was ultimately a success, and he was lauded for it by his followers.
But is it frugal to relish in such extravagant consumer delights for nothing? No, it’s not. All it means is that this guy is good at math and has a propensity for reading boring things like credit card contracts. He’s still no better than the dude with two Hummers and a mortgage the size of Grenada’s GDP.
I have the same problem with these people that I do with deal sites. They aim to take advantage of a system instead of rejecting the broken system in the first place.
So if deal sites are missing the mark, then what should we actually be aiming for?
Frugality is about being happy with what you have. Frugality is simplicity. It doesn’t mean you should pore over credit card contracts for loopholes—you should just live small, simply, and happily with what you have. It’s an approach that’s good for your finances, the Earth, and everybody we share it with. So no, I don’t agree with participating in most rebate or deal sites. They still force consumers to engage with a system that’s stacked against them in the first place.
Buying more stuff doesn’t make you frugal, and it sure doesn’t make you more happy.
The Bottom Line
I know a lot of people can’t get enough of InboxDollars who might be upset by this advice. But InboxDollars and all the other rebate sites upset me! They give the illusion of saving or earning money, but in reality they are poor substitutions for living a truly conscious and frugal lifestyle.
As an alternative, I ask you to save money in different ways. Cook more at home. Cancel the gym membership. Use your car less. These actions add up to real savings over time; not the 100 surveys you have to do for a $50 gift card. By focusing on strategies that avoid consumption and encourage growth, we can see true freedom.