Americans may lose $4B in cash back this holiday season. Don’t be one of them


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The 2019 holiday shopping season is fast approaching, and that means our spirit, patience, and wallets will all soon be tested yet again. Whether you’ve been saving all year for this or you’re just starting to think about what you’ll be spending in the upcoming months, a new FinanceBuzz survey finds Americans are missing out big time on opportunities to save.

Our survey took into account only online shopping, and we learned that while a majority of consumers are actively trying to save money while shopping, many aren’t fully taking advantage of all the options available to them. Holiday spending numbers are staggering as it is, with one study forecasting holiday sales growing between 3.8% and 4.2% this year to a total of nearly $731 billion. The same study shows online sales increasing between 11% and 14% to nearly $167 billion, up roughly $20 billion from 2018.

With this much money being spent over just a few months and not all avenues for saving being exhausted, you can see there’s the potential for a large amount of money to be left on the table.

We asked people to open up about some of their online shopping habits, how they save, and their preferred method of payment so we could figure out just how much money is falling by the wayside. Here’s what we found.

Key findings

  • A robust 85% of respondents plan on spending at least $100 on online purchases this holiday shopping season.
  • When it comes to online shopping, nearly 46% of respondents are more likely to pull out their debit cards over any other form of payment.
  • We asked respondents how they save money on online purchases and found they’re least likely to turn to rewards-earning credit cards and cashback sites to save. The number one way respondents save money? Waiting for sales.
  • Only 35% of respondents use a cashback site or app when online shopping. Based on spend projections for 2019 holiday shopping, shoppers not using a cashback portal are losing out on around $2.17 billion in cashback savings. Additionally, shoppers not using a cashback card are losing out on around $1.83 billion in cashback rewards.

Online shopping: Almost everybody’s doing it

Economic and technological shifts over the last couple of decades have drastically changed how Americans shop. The popularity of internet retailer behemoth, Amazon, for instance, has exploded in the past decade, giving consumers access to an array of products — often at a cheaper price — from anywhere that has an internet connection.

In-store shopping may never cease to exist, but Americans are doing more of their shopping online than ever before, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) American Time Use Survey.

In fact, just over 80% of our survey respondents reported that they buy something online at least once a month, with nearly a quarter of respondents shopping online multiple times a week.

It’s clear Americans love to shop online, but just how savings-savvy are we when we click that “Buy” button?

How we save (and don’t save) on our online shopping

There’s nothing quite like a sale that gets us to instinctively pull our wallets out — even if many advertised sales are bogus in the first place. Our survey finds that when it comes to saving money on online purchases, a majority of respondents (51%) wait for sales.

For this particular question, respondents were given the option of choosing multiple selections. While “I wait for sales” secured the most responses, some other approaches to saving money like searching for coupons (46%) and comparison shopping (47%) weren’t lagging far behind.

Aside from the 6.50% who don’t use any of these money-saving methods, cashback sites and rewards-earning credit cards were the two least utilized ways respondents would try to save money when shopping online — both of which are very consistent and easy ways to save money.

Additionally, cashback sites and reward credit cards are money-saving methods that can be used in conjunction, or stacked, with other cost-saving strategies. For example, you can compare prices or wait for a sale, and then use a coupon, loyalty program discount, cashback site, and/or a cashback credit card all in the same transaction. By not using all the options afforded to you, you’re probably not maximizing your savings.

Lost savings not using cashback portals

Cashback portals aren’t the only way to save money, but they sure are one of the easiest ways. After starting your purchase journey at the cashback website, you simply navigate to the store you want to shop at and shop as you normally would. Once you’ve completed your purchase, the cashback site gets notified and the cash back gets added to your account.

As easy as this may be, only 35% of respondents reported using a cashback portal to save money when shopping online. When these sites offer 1%, 2%, 5%, and even 10% cash back, the money being left behind by not using one of these sites can really add up.

Shoppers have literally earned billions of dollars by shopping via cashback portals. Rakuten (formerly ebates) reports having paid out more than $1 billion in cash back to its 12 million members. That’s roughly $83 per member. Ibotta, another cash back portal, report having paid out more than $627 million to more than 35 million members. That’s about $18 per member in cash back. Lastly, Swagbucks, a similar cashback site, notes having paid out more than $383 million to its 10 million members. That’s about $38 per member.

Between these three cashback portals alone, that’s $139 per member in cash back, totalling over $2 billion.

Just how much are shoppers missing out on?

According to our survey, 85% of respondents are planning to spend at least $100 shopping online for the holidays this year and almost half (45%) plan to spend over $500. Of course, not every purchase will be eligible for cash back. But even if we assume that only 50% of purchases made through a cashback portal are eligible for cash back, it can really add up.

Say, for instance, you plan on spending $750 this holiday season, and the average cash back through a cashback portal for eligible purchases is 4%. If only even half of those purchases are eligible for cash back, you could save $15. Since many stores offer elevated cashback during the holiday season, there’s a good chance your savings could be even higher. It’s not unusual for many of these cashback portals to double, and even triple, cashback offers for many popular stores. So that 4% cash back you would normally earn could be well over 10% during the holiday shopping season.

According to numbers provided by the National Retail Federation on projected online spending for the 2019 holiday shopping season, consumers will likely spend upwards of $167 billion shopping online this year. However, our survey shows 65% aren’t taking advantage of cashback sites. If even just half of that $167 billion is eligible for cash back through a cashback site, and of that people earn an average 4% cash back, that’s over $3.3 billion in cash back that could be earned by shoppers. If 65% aren’t using a cashback portal when shopping online, we’re talking over $2.17 billion being left behind.

That’s a lot of money that could otherwise remain in Americans’ pockets this holiday season. What’s even more mind-boggling is that we haven’t even gotten to what’s being left behind by not using a cashback credit card as well.

Lost savings not using cashback credit cards

As we mentioned earlier, cashback credit cards are one of the easiest ways to save money on every purchase. A flat-rate cashback credit card like the Chase Freedom Unlimited will pay you an unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases, every day. Depending on how much spending you do, this can really add up.

Of the $167 billion that is forecasted to be spent this holiday season, if it’s all done using a flat-rate cash back card that earns 1.5%, it would total a savings of $2.5 billion.

Just how much are shoppers missing out on?

Our survey found that online shoppers are most likely to pull out a debit card when making their online purchases. The 46% who use debit cards are missing out not only on rewards and cash back, but also fraud and purchase protection. In all, we found that 73% of respondents don’t use a cashback credit card as their most common payment method when shopping online.

That means, of that $2.5 billion that shoppers could save if they use a cashback credit card, roughly $1.83 billion could be left behind. Yup, $1.83 billion. And that’s just from not using a credit card that earns 1.5% cash back. There are cash back credit cards that earn 5%, and even 6%, on spending in certain categories.

Between cashback portals and a cashback credit card, Americans might be missing out on nearly $4 billion in cash back this holiday season.

Don’t miss out on savings this holiday season

There’s no shortage of ways you can save money when shopping online this holiday season. Coupon codes, sales, cashback credit cards, or cashback portals, are all great, but using them in conjunction with one another is how you’ll save the most.

Tips for maximizing your savings this holiday season

If you’re planning to spend any amount this holiday season shopping online, there are plenty of ways you can cut down on costs. A little creativity can go a long way, and having a plan in place before you begin shopping can allow you to get the same gifts, but for less.

Between the following money-saving tips, you should have no trouble finding ways to save money during your holiday shopping this year:

  • Always start your online shopping at a cashback site. It adds just a few seconds to your shopping trip, but the savings are worth it. If you don’t already have an account, check out Rakuten, Swagbucks, and Ibotta.
  • Many cashback sites offer browser extensions, which can come in handy if you forget to start your shopping trip at the cashback site. Once installed, many extensions can alert you about available cash back based on the website you’re visiting. It takes just a click to activate, and it’s a quick and simple way to save.
  • Look for coupon codes. Luckily, many cashback portals often also have these so you don’t have to scour the internet to find one. The browser extension, Honey, searches for all available coupons for you and automatically applies them at checkout.
  • When you’re ready to make your purchase, make sure to use a rewards card. The Chase Freedom is offering 5% cash back at department stores in Q4 of 2019, while the Discover it Cash Back card is offering 5% cash back at, Target, and over the same period.
  • Use Google Shopping or a similar website to compare prices for items across a range of stores. This will ensure you’re getting the best price, and then, you can add coupons, a cashback portal, and a cashback credit card to save even more.


FinanceBuzz ran this survey through Pollfish, collecting 1,000 responses from online users in the U.S. on August 16, 2019.

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