Cash back websites like Rakuten, Swagbucks and Great Canadian Rebates are nothing new—some have existed for at least 20 years. Still, their claims of giving online shoppers cold, hard cash for making purchases at Amazon, Indigo and hundreds of other stores might give some savvy buyers pause. Are these claims actually true? Can you earn money just for shopping online?
The short answer is yes, though all of them come with caveats, including relatively small payouts, slow payout schedules and fluctuating rewards. Here, we’ll take a closer look at Rakuten, as it’s one of the most popular and largest cash back websites out there.
Who is Rakuten?
In 2014, Rakuten, a Japanese-based internet service company, purchased cash back website Ebates, which was itself founded in 1999 and became available to Canadians in 2012. In 2019, the site changed its name to Rakuten without making changes to its users’ accounts. (Users continue to accumulate cash back in the same way, but now they’re under the Rakuten name.)
Since then, Rakuten.ca has become one of the most well-known cash back websites in Canada. It claims to have about 5 million members on Rakuten.ca, and says it has doled out more than $70 million to these users since 2012. It has partnerships with over 750 stores such as Banana Republic, FedEx and HelloFresh.
Bridget Casey, a personal finance blogger at MoneyAfterGraduation.com, is one of those users. She started using Rakuten (then Ebates) as a student in 2013, and has since earned about $1,400 total on purchases. That’s not a lot of money, but she barely had to do anything to get it. And members can earn that cash on top of any credit card rewards they’re already earning. “The big pro is that it’s just so easy to use,” says Casey. “There are literally no steps. It’s actually the easiest money I earn.”
How Rakuten.ca works
You can avoid going through Rakuten.ca to make purchases if you install the Rakuten Express browser extension. It’s one of Rakuten’s best features, says Enoch Omololu, a personal finance blogger at SavvyNewCanadians.com. “I often forget about visiting Rakuten.ca when I’m looking to make a purchase online,” he says. “Their cash back button, however, pops up to alert me whenever cash back offers are available on any page I visit on my computer.”
Rakuten makes money by getting a commission from stores when users make a purchase. Instead of keeping all of that money, Rakuten shares it with users in the form of those cash back rewards.
How to get paid
Whether you use Rakuten.ca or the browser extension, Rakuten will track your purchases and deposit the cash into your Rakuten account, often within a few days. You can choose to receive your cash back by cheque or PayPal, or you can redeem it in the form of an electronic Amazon gift card.
Another way to earn money is by using Rakuten’s referral program. If someone you refer signs up for Rakuten and makes a qualifying purchase, you’ll both earn a reward. The reward amounts do vary, but they can add up, especially when there are extra bonuses in play. “Instead of the usual $5 per referral, you could easily get $10 to $25 for every friend or family that signs up using your referral link,” says Omololu.
Rakuten also offers coupons, deals and promo codes on Rakuten.ca. These change often, but if you combine them with cash back offers, it can all add up to significant savings.
What are some drawbacks of using Rakuten for cash back?
One of the biggest complaints with Rakuten and other cash back sites is that it can take months to get your money. With Rakuten, expect to get paid, at most, four times per year—February 15, May 15, August 15 and November 15—and that’s only if you’ve accumulated at least $5.01.
The cash back values on Rakuten often change day to day per store. That’s okay for Bridget Casey: “Because I’ve been using it for so long, I know that Lululemon, for example, will go up to 18%, so I will hold off on a purchase and wait a few days or weeks until that happens.” But if you need to make a purchase right away, you might miss out on maximizing your cash.
Read the fine print
Another potential con with Rakuten is that all of the products at a particular store might not qualify for cash back. A recent 5% cash back offer at Amazon.ca, for instance, didn’t include Kindle devices, gift cards or Amazon subscriptions.
The advertising and marketing around cash back sites like Rakuten may imply that you’ll make significant amounts of money. You won’t. While some cash back values can increase to over 10%, most are under 5%. At 5%, that translates to $100 cash back per $2,000 spent.
So, is Rakuten worth it?
That all depends on how you use it. Rakuten isn’t a scam, though, and it’s easy to sign up for and easy to use. And because Rakuten has partnerships with more than 750 stores, chances are you’ll get cash back for a purchase you were planning on making anyway.
Plus, when you add in those referral bonuses, coupons and promo codes, it could add up to significant savings, especially if you can wait until a cash back value hits its peak. How those savings compare to other programs like rewards credit cards, however, isn’t easy to pin down because the deals on Rakuten change so often.
All of which is to say you have to be a pretty savvy shopper to truly maximize everything that Rakuten offers. And even then, don’t expect to quit your day job.