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Originally published Saturday, August 17, 2013 at 8:07 PM

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How to use reward portals for back-to-school shopping

Using a portal and averaging a modest 5 percent cash back yields about $32 in free money, $42 for college, for very little effort.

Chicago Tribune

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This year’s back-to-school shopping season is a good time to learn a new online shopping habit and reap free money. It’s using rewards “portals.”

Using such free shopping-reward websites involves visiting the portal first and then clicking through to the usual retailer website to make purchases. That interim step, like entering a store through a different door, automatically yields cash back or reward points.

Examples of popular portals are fatwallet.com and sister company ebates.com along with upromise.com and mrrebates.com. Some credit card websites also host reward portals.

Families with school-age children this year will spend an average of $635 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, according to the National Retail Federation’s 2013 Back-to-School Survey. The amount is $837 for college students.

Using a portal and averaging a modest 5 percent cash back yields about $32 in free money, $42 for college, for very little effort.

Using online shopping portals is a good idea year-round, but the back-to-school shopping season is the second-largest buying season of the year. That concentrated buying period offers a chance to learn about portals, create a habit of using them and earn some money for shopping you would do anyway.

“The reason cash back will pay off during back to school is because you’re making more and bigger purchases, so it will seem like a bigger reward,” said Brent Shelton, spokesman for Ebates.com and FatWallet.com.

In addition, many rewards during the back-to-school shopping season exceed the typical 5 percent.

To get started, here are questions and answers about shopping reward portals.

Q: How do these sites work?

A: Basically, retailers pay these portal websites a sales commission because they sent you to the retailer. When you buy something, the portal shares its commission with you, the customer, often about 50-50. So, if a retailer pays a portal 10 percent of the purchase price as a commission, the portal, in turn, places 5 percent in your account, either cash or equivalent points.

Q: Are prices and selection the same?

A: Yes. After clicking through the portal, you are directed to the retailer website to use its virtual checkout process. The difference is that the commission is invisibly credited to the portal, which then passes a portion of it to your account.

Q: How do I get started?

A: Sign up with a shopping rewards portal for free. At the portal site, click through to a retailer website. That’s it.

Q: Can I stack savings?

A: Yes. Several of the more robust portals, such as FatWallet and Upromise, highlight store sales and provide coupon codes that can’t be used in physical stores. That’s in addition to your portal rewards. However, you’ll probably run into problems earning rewards if you try to use coupon codes from elsewhere. Paying with a rewards credit card compounds the benefit.

Q: How do I cash out?

A: One of the main differences among portals is the minimum threshold for retrieving your rewards. For example, a portal might require you to accumulate $10 before you can retrieve your money. For that reason, you might want to concentrate spending with one or just a few portals, so you can reach minimums quicker and cash out more frequently. With cash rewards, some sites will mail you a check and some require a deposit into a PayPal account.

Q: How quickly are rewards paid?

A: Some are instant, while others require you to wait 90 days. The delay comes because retailers don’t want people to game the system by purchasing merchandise via a portal, cashing out rewards money and then returning the merchandise to the retailer. Some sites pay accumulated rewards monthly, others less often.

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