Poll

Do you sign up for retailers’ rewards programs in order to get discounts and rebates? Go to postandcourier.com to vote.

Cash-back offers can be real money-savers, but only when you follow the rules and don’t end up with unplanned expenses by chasing deals.

Most offers don’t really give you cash back, but some sort of cash-like reward that can be used only in a particular store. Many rewards have expiration dates, and others require annoyances like typing codes into a website.

It’s easy to let your brain fool you into double-counting the resulting savings, and that can lead to overspending.

For example, you buy $20 worth of something and get a $5 coupon that can be used like cash on a future purchase. It feels like you just saved $5, but it might also feel like you have a “free” $5 to spend the next time you go shopping.

That’s how lots of these deals are structured — to get you back into the store with “money” that must be spent by a certain date. That doesn’t mean they are bad deals — some of them are quite valuable — but to save money they must be used wisely.

There are several ways to make sure you come out ahead. The rules aren’t very complicated, and in most cases you’ll start by signing up for the store’s free shopping rewards program.

Here are some examples of how different incentives work, and tips for making the most of them. I’m calling them cash-back deals, but typically you’ll get a coupon, voucher, or a reward that’s loaded electronically onto a store’s loyalty card.

Cash back to use now. A good example is the “extrabucks” rewards at CVS stores, where if you buy promoted items, you’ll receive an “extrabucks” coupon. A recent promotion offered $5 in extrabucks for spending $20 on Proctor & Gamble products. Extrabucks can be used like cash at CVS, with some restrictions. They expire in about 30 days.

TIP: With this sort of deal, where cash-back coupons can be used immediately but have a near-term expiration date, my favorite strategy is to divide my purchase. First, buy the items that generate cash-back coupons, then do the rest of the shopping and use those coupons during the same visit. That way a second trip isn’t necessary to use the rewards, and they won’t expire unused.

The freebie. Sometimes promotions offer so much cash back that an item is nearly free. Or is it?

For example, OfficeMax just ran a promotion where those with a MaxPerks rewards card could buy a backpack worth up to $49.99 and get all but a penny back to be used later on other purchases. That was a great deal, but it didn’t mean you were just spending a penny. You would end up getting the backpack for a penny, but also would have to spend the $49.98 rebate at OfficeMax.

TIP: Cash-back doesn’t mean free, if you can only use the “cash” to buy more stuff at the store. It’s only a good deal if you can use the rebate to buy things you need. For example, with the OfficeMax offer, if you needed two backpacks, you could have bought one, received the rebate, then bought another for full price, thereby getting two for the price of one.

Cash to use later. Kohl’s periodically offers customers a $10 coupon for every $50 they spend, but the coupon is usually good only at Kohl’s the following week. Many retailers offer rewards that must be used on a future purchase, but Kohl’s is an example of a deal that combines a generous reward (worth up to 20 percent of your purchase) with a short expiration period.

TIP: Your brain will be tempted to treat that rebate as $10 saved on the $50 or more you spent. But you still spent $50. The $10 coupon is savings on your next trip. Just remember to use it before it expires, and don’t let a $10 coupon turn into a large unplanned shopping trip.

The enter-codes rebate. In the modern version of mail-in rebates, it’s common now to see product offers where you get a reward for entering codes from the product packaging online.

I’ve used a Kellogg’s promotion, where they give you a movie ticket voucher for entering codes from six cereal boxes online. I only buy cereal on sale, so for about $15 I get six boxes of cereal and a movie ticket.

Energizer batteries is running a promotion through Aug. 30 where you can get an $8 gift card by entering codes from three marked packages of batteries, which you could probably buy for about $12. Not bad.

TIP: To make sure you get your rebate, with the least hassle, buy all of the required quantity of product at once, and enter the codes online at once. Those “specially marked” boxes aren’t always available, and rebates are only valuable if you claim them.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.