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One of the simplest ways to earn bonus rewards on your everyday activity is through online shopping portals.
These sites offer additional points, miles or cash back when you visit a specific merchant through the portal, rather than going directly to that merchant’s website. Using them should be an essential part of your online shopping habits — especially when you’re picking out gifts for your loved ones around popular holidays like Valentine’s Day and Christmas.
There are dozens of different online shopping portals out there, allowing you to earn credit card rewards, airline miles, hotel points or straight-up cash for your purchases. One of the most powerful sites, however, is a hybrid of these.
Rakuten — formerly known as Ebates — allows you to select either cash back or American Express Membership Rewards points when you shop online. If you’re looking ahead to your next gift-giving occasion (or simply looking to make the most of your online purchases), make sure you review this guide first, which explains everything you need to know about using the Rakuten shopping portal.
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What is Rakuten?
Rakuten is an online shopping portal that used to go under the name Ebates. It partners with over 2,500 online retailers, from well-known brands such as Target and Home Depot to smaller merchants like Glossybox.com.
When you open an account with Rakuten, you’re eligible to earn cash back or Amex Membership Rewards points on purchases you make at these merchants. You must start at Rakuten.com and click on the merchant through that site, or make sure you activate the offer through your browser extension (more on that later).
How does Rakuten work?
You may be wondering how this is even possible — earning cash back for shopping online seems too good to be true. In its simplest form, Rakuten forms marketing agreements with individual retailers, which then pay the site commissions on purchases that begin there. Rakuten then passes a portion of those commissions on to you, the customer.
The retailer gets additional business and both you and Rakuten enjoy a cut of those purchases, essentially a win-win-win for all parties.
How to sign up for Rakuten
To start earning bonus cash back or Amex points for your online purchases, begin by visiting Rakuten.com. Choose how you want to sign up for an account:
- Through Google
- Through Facebook
- With your email address
From there, follow the on-screen prompts to sign up for an account.
Regardless of how you join, you’re typically eligible for a $10 welcome bonus when you spend a total of $25 on qualifying purchases within the first 90 days of joining the site.
But right now, it’s offering new members the opportunity to earn $30 by signing up via a referral link and spending at least $30 with participating retailers (offer valid through May 13). This is a great way to jumpstart your earnings for shopping online. Plus, right now, you can get $30 every time you refer someone to Rakuten using your personal referral link. So, there are opportunities to earn cash even after you sign up.
How to use Rakuten to earn bonus rewards
Once you have an account, be sure to start all of your online shopping trips at Rakuten.com, or check your browser extension to see if the site you’re on is offering cash back.
From the homepage, find the merchant at which you want to shop in the top search box.
As you start typing in the name of the store, the site will auto-fill any matching retailers. Here, I’ve typed in “Koh” as I start searching for Kohl’s, and you see the options that come up.
From that list, select your desired retailer and you’ll be redirected to its individual earning page. This will provide the earning rate(s) as well as a “Shop Now” button.
As soon as you click that “Shop Now” icon, a new window or tab will open up, indicating that you’re being redirected to the merchant’s website.
Rakuten automatically creates a shopping trip, and the merchant’s website will load after a few seconds. Do not close that window. Shop as you normally would and Rakuten will track how much you’ve spent. You will receive the bonus rewards in your account, generally within a day or two after completing the purchase.
You can review all account activity by clicking on My Account from the drop-down menu at the top-right corner. This includes all of your individual shopping trips and your earnings balance from transactions that have posted to your account.
Does everything count toward earning cash back?
Generally speaking, Rakuten will award cash back based on the subtotal of your purchase. This excludes shipping, taxes and other fees that aren’t tied to the items or services you’re buying.
Additionally, every merchant will have specific terms that you’ll want to review. For example, here’s what you’ll see for shopping at Staples.com:
Gift card purchases will frequently be excluded from earning rewards, and it’s common to see select items or brands not eligible for cash back. Some merchants will indicate that your shopping cart must be empty before clicking through from Rakuten. Be sure to carefully review these store-specific restrictions to know whether or not to expect rewards from your purchase.
Can I use any credit card?
Yes. One of Rakuten’s best features is that the bonus you earn is based on the purchase subtotal — the site doesn’t care how you pay. As a result, you can use a card that offers a category bonus with a specific type of merchant or a card that’s good for everyday spending. Most merchants will even allow you to use a gift card and still enjoy rewards.
What about promo codes?
This is a bit trickier. Rakuten will frequently list available discounts for individual merchants on the applicable pages. If you click Shop Now next to any offer on Rakuten, you’ll still earn cash back on your purchase (assuming you comply with all other restrictions).
Here are some examples from Kohl’s — which were active at the time of writing (Tuesday, May 11, 2021):
In this case, you can use the GOSAVE15 promo code by clicking the Shop Now, and you’ll still earn 1% back.
Many merchants, however, will prevent you from earning rewards when you use discount codes not listed on Rakuten. We’ve even seen TPG readers miss out on thousands of bonus miles due to this. If you receive a targeted mailer or email offer and use that code when shopping through Rakuten, you risk losing out on any earnings. You may still get cash back — but be aware that you may not.
How do I actually get my rewards?
Every quarter, Rakuten will distribute your earnings based on the following schedule:
|Purchases posted between:
Payment sent by:
|Jan. 1 and March 31
|April 1 and June 30
|July 1 and Sept. 30
|Oct. 1 and Dec. 31
As you can see, it will take roughly 45 days from the end of the quarter to receive your payment. However, if your balance at the end of any of these periods is $5 or less, it will roll into the next quarter. You’ll never lose the rewards you’ve already earned; they just won’t be paid out until your cumulative balance surpasses $5.
You have the option of receiving a check in the mail or a deposit into a PayPal account, whichever is more convenient.
You can also opt to earn Membership Rewards points instead.
Changing your earning preference
In 2019, Rakuten added the ability for all members to select between two earning types: cash back or American Express Membership Rewards points. Many online shoppers initially prefer to receive a check or automatic PayPal deposit, but more advanced travelers may eventually want to switch to Amex points. This option is available to anyone with a Membership Rewards-earning card, including The Platinum Card® from American Express or the American Express® Gold Card.
Once you’ve made this change, your earning rate will shift from a set cash-back percentage to a set number of Amex points per dollar spent. In other words, a merchant offering 2% cash back will now offer 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent — so a $100 purchase would earn 200 Amex points rather than $2 cash back.
Note that new members are automatically enrolled with the cash-back option enabled. You must proactively change your earning preference before any shopping trips to take home Amex points on the purchases.
Here’s how to change your earning preference with Rakuten:
- Log in to your account.
- Click your name at the top right, then select Account Settings.
- Scroll down to the “How would you like to get paid?” section.
- Find the American Express section, click on “Switch to Membership Rewards® points,” and follow the on-screen prompts to link your Amex account.
Once you have made the switch, all future earnings through Rakuten will be deposited into your Membership Rewards account using the same schedule. However, any existing cash-back rewards will remain in cash and be sent via check based on the above payment schedule.
Note that you can change your earning preference at any time — so if you’re sitting on an excess of Amex points due to welcome bonuses or enhanced earning rates from the pandemic, you can adjust back to cash back.
How to maximize Rakuten
Once you’ve started using Rakuten to each cash back or bonus Amex points for your online shopping, there are some additional ways that you can maximize the site.
Activate in-store offers
The vast majority of earning opportunities through Rakuten apply to online shopping. But when you log in to your account, you’ll notice a link for “In-Store Cash Back” at the top.
This allows you to earn bonus rewards when you shop in select brick-and-mortar stores. That being said, you must do two things to be eligible:
- Add your card(s): When you go to the in-store cash-back page, you should see a link to “Add a New Card” near the top. To be eligible for these offers, you must add the credit card numbers for any cards you plan to use at participating stores.
- Link the offer: After adding your card, you must activate every individual offer you want to use. This is simple but essential. Visit the in-store offer page, find the merchant at which you plan to shop, then click “Link Offer” underneath it.
Once you’ve done these two steps, you’ll earn the given cash back (or bonus Amex points) when a linked card is swiped at a participating store.
Look for limited-time offers
Rakuten frequently offers enhanced bonuses for a limited time, which can be a fantastic way to boost your earnings. For example, the site is currently in the middle of its Big Give Week, where dozens of stores offer upwards of 15% cash back or 15x Amex points. We saw similar bonuses during Black Friday last year along with a number of Cyber Monday deals — including free gifts, free shipping and buy=one-get-one-free offers.
Be on the lookout for these bonuses — or visit the Email Subscription page of your online account to sign up for email notifications of such offers.
Stack with credit card offers
When you shop through Rakuten, you aren’t prevented from leveraging discounts through programs like Amex Offers and Chase Offers. Since most of these post directly to your credit card (rather than being taken off the price at the time of purchase) and don’t require a coupon code, Rakuten still sees the full transaction amount.
This can also be a great way to use the annual Saks Fifth Avenue credit from the Amex Platinum. You’ll enjoy a $50 credit from January through June and another $50 from July through December. Starting at Rakuten should still allow you to enjoy these credits when you shop at Saks Fifth Avenue. Enrollment required for select benefits.
Related: Your ultimate guide to Amex Offers
Refer friends or family members
Once you’ve started using Rakuten, you should get your friends and family members in on the action. When someone creates a Rakuten account based on your referral and spends at least $25 within one year of joining, you’ll typically earn a one-time bonus of $25 (he or she will get a welcome bonus of $10 if those purchases are within the first 90 days).
And, if your account is set to earn Amex Membership Rewards, this will be 2,500 Amex points, worth $50 based on TPG’s most recent valuations.
However, from now through May 13, 2021, Rakuten has raised the stakes — as both you and the individual you refer can earn a $30 bonus when he/she/they spend $30 in the first 90 days of joining.
To start referring others to Rakuten, log in to your account and look for the “Refer and Earn” link at the top of the homepage.
From there, you can send emails directly to friends or family members, or you can share via Facebook or Twitter. You also have the option to copy your referral link and send it via text message or with another mode of communication.
Once someone signs up, you’ll see them listed in “Your Referral Activity” at the bottom of the refer-a-friend page. And once they’ve hit the required spending, they’ll shift to the “Qualified” section. Your account balance will then jump by the bonus in effect at the time of enrollment, which will be paid out roughly 45 days after the end of the quarter.
Install the Rakuten browser extension
If you don’t want to remember to visit Rakuten every time you shop online, consider installing the Rakuten Cash Back Button. This browser extension is available for Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Edge, and it’ll automatically notify you when you’re on a participating site. Here’s what that looks like when I visit Kohls.com directly instead of starting at Rakuten:
By clicking the icon to activate cash back, Rakuten will log a shopping trip and reload the website. You’ll still earn rewards on your purchase, a nice shortcut in case you forget to start at Rakuten.com.
Download the Rakuten app
Finally, you may want to download the Rakuten app to ensure you’re making the most out of the platform. There are a couple of reasons to do so. For one, it allows you to quickly check for in-store offers that you may want to add if you’re unexpectedly shopping at a participating merchant. More importantly, some merchants are mobile-only. This means you can only earn rewards when shopping via the mobile app — like Uber Eats, for example.
While the above strategies can help you make the most of your Rakuten experience, there are some critical things to keep in mind:
- Enable cookies on your browser: For Rakuten to track your shopping trips, you must have cookies enabled on your browser.
- Clear your shopping cart: Many merchants won’t award bonus cash back or Amex points if you already have items in your cart. When you click from Rakuten to a retailer, be sure your shopping cart is clear.
- Be careful with promo codes: As noted above, using promo codes not listed on Rakuten.com may void your rewards. A 30% discount may be worth it, but if you’re saving $5 on a $500 purchase, it’s probably not worth the risk.
Online shopping continues to play a massive role in consumer spending — with and without a pandemic that has kept most Americans at home. Fortunately, there are many ways to make the most of your online purchases, including using online shopping portals.
Rakuten is one of the most popular, as it partners with over 2,500 merchants and gives you the option of earning cash-back rewards or Amex Membership Rewards points.
If you’re not currently a member, join Rakuten today and start using it the next time you shop online. You’ll be well on your way to lowering your out-of-pocket cost for many purchases you’re already making.
All screenshots courtesy of Rakuten (unless otherwise noted).
Featured photo by MStudioImages/Getty Images
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.