Photo courtesy of Jonathan Hood
You could say Jonathan Hood’s mail-in-rebate addiction began before he was even old enough to drive.
Ten years ago, at age 15, Hood tagged along with his father on a mission to score Black Friday deals on a few video games.
“My dad kind of got me hooked,””We stood in line early in the morning and I found out then I could get the games I wanted for either really cheap or for free [with mail-in-rebates].”
Over the next eight years, he would perfect the craft to the point where he could cover his $95/month cell phone bill exclusively with rebates.
Most companies send rebates in the form of prepaid debit cards, while about a third use cash or checks, he said. Almost all the rebates Hood uses are “free-after-rebate” offers, which means he’s refunded the full amount.
“I haven’t made a payment on my T-Mobile bill without using a rebate debit card for probably two years now.”
But it was a month ago that he achieved his greatest feat so far: Using rebates to cover almost a semester’s worth of tuition at Auburn University, where he’s studying for his PhD.
“Tuition for this semester was $4,500,” he said. “I paid over $2,500 of it with prepaid debit cards [from rebates] and a little over $1,000 of it with rebate checks.”
He estimates he entered between 200 and 250 prepaid debit cards into the University’s online bill pay system. After all the rebates were counted, he was left with less than $1,000 to pay out of pocket.
“On a weekday, I usually have about two or three debit cards or rebate checks coming in,” he said. “[Stores] usually have at least one item come up online that’s free with a rebate, usually two or three. I’ll purchase the item, save the UPC code and mail it in with the receipt.”
He shops exclusively online, trolling message boards on deals site Fatwallet.com to find rebate offers he may have missed. It was tips from Fatwallet members that led him to deals at Newegg.com and Frys.com that helped cover his tuition.
There’s nothing speedy about the process. It takes as many as four and a half months before he even sees a rebate, and some companies have strict guidelines for rebate submissions. Forget to circle the proper item on your receipt in some cases and you could instantly be denied.
“I’ve only ever lost one rebate,” he said. “The company went out of business.”
Hood, who works full-time as a computer programmer, developed a special computer program to track outstanding rebates and alert him when they are past due.
Over the years, he has purchased Bluetooth headsets, laptop accessories, and other gadgets. To sweeten the deal, he uses a cash-back credit card to earn an extra 2 percent back on his initial purchase as well. Once he has purchased the items and mails in his rebate form, he often sells the product online to make extra cash. In some cases, he donates items to his church.
Here’s how the math adds up, per Hood’s calculations:
“My average rebate takes 11 minutes to fill out and cash, and is for $40. My envelopes and pens were free after rebate, so their cost is negligible. For this $40 rebate, I use a 2% cash-back credit card to purchase the item ($0.80 profit) and receive anywhere from 0-5% using FatCash from Fatwallet or a similar service. Stamp price is $0.45. Then, I turn around and sell the item on eBay for an average profit of $11.91 after shipping and taxes per item.”
With this semester’s tuition paid off and no outstanding student loans to worry about, he’s already started stockpiling another fund to cover next year’s expenses.
“Currently, [the fund] has $160 in it, but it will probably grow quite a bit in the next couple of days,” he said. “I’m expecting about $600 more in rebates