Saturday, February 9, 2019

Saving Money with Ibotta: A Long-Winded Essay on the Pros and Cons of the Digital Coupon App

UPDATE (3/21): Ibotta has quietly added Aldi to its list of accepted stores! This has happened before in the past, before being unceremoniously dumped from its roster, so it's best to treat this like a limited-time offer, and load up on the rebates while you can. As long as this is the case, I'm upping my final rating to 6.5/10.

Well isn't this a review out of left field? Instead of looking at specific grocery items from discount grocers today, we're going to change it up a little bit, and take a look at a mobile app that can help you save some money at almost any grocery store that you shop (with the exception of Aldi, so let's get that out of the way right now). It's called Ibotta, and if you have never heard of it and consider yourself a savvy shopper...well then you're about to get even savvier. After all, there are other ways to help you maintain your budget than just buying off-brands every single time you shop!

Like everything in life, Ibotta isn't for everyone. Is it right for you? Clear an hour out of your schedule and let's have a look see, shall we?

NAVIGATION

The main app screen.

Navigating Ibotta is pretty easy once you get the hang of it, although it can sometimes be daunting at first. You can search by store, allowing you to see all of the available item offers in said store, or search for a specific product that you're looking for. Once a store is selected, the app has all of the offers separated by categories, making it easy to find, for example, baby products, or offers on alcohol. 

Adding an item is as easy as clicking “add”, which adds it to your product queue, allowing you to redeem it later. Keep in mind that you can add as many products as you like, but I'm pretty sure there are no ways to remove an item from your list once it's added; if you don't end up buying it on that trip, it will keep popping up and up until you either do buy it, or until the offer expires. This isn't a big deal, but just a heads up that if you add a lot of stuff that you don't intend to buy, you'll end up having a long list of items to scroll through, in order to add the ones you did purchase.

The handy little template for uploading receipts.
Uploading receipts is an easy process, accomplished using your phone's camera. Just make sure you get the store logo, and shopping date clearly captured; no worries if the receipt is long, as you can keep taking pictures of extra sections until you reach the bottom of the receipt. Once you have done this, you may be required to scan the UPC barcode of the items, which again is done using the camera: simply line up the scan bar with the item, and it will automatically verify the purchase, assuming it's the right size and price. (In case you have doubts in-store about whether or not you're selecting the right item, you can also scan the barcode to check, near the bottom of each item page.)

The barcode function can also be used in advance to verify if an item you're eyeing is part of an Ibotta offer, which eliminates the hassle of buying the wrong item, and only finding out after you've purchased it. Make sure to take advantage of this in-store so you don't get saddled with something you can't get anything back for.

Not sure if you're selecting the right item/size? Scan the barcode!
It might sound like a lot of steps, but it becomes much more fluid once you use it a couple of times.

EASE OF USE

As I've said before, the act of navigating Ibotta is pretty straightforward from the outset, with simple ways to search or browse for specific items or categories. However, there is more to life than convenience, and so it should come as no surprise when I say that Ibotta is far from perfect; chances are good for those that use it often that you will run into a problem at some point. And chances are also good that that problem will arise from not paying attention or reading the fine print in close enough detail.

Beware of multi-purchase requirements, like on this Skyr. You must by five of that item to get the $2 cash reward.

For example, some of the items require you to purchase multiples of the same item in order to get the offer. These were clearly denoted with a “x2” (with the number being however many you have to buy) in the item's image, but now merely have a "Must Buy __" caption below it. If you buy fewer than the required amount, you won't get anything back. Other offers require you to purchase two different things (such as a beer and specific brand of potato chip) in order to receive the cash back, so just make sure you're getting both of the items mentioned and you shouldn't have a problem.

However, the one area where it's easier to get burned is if you search for a specific product, without a store “attached”. You see, there are several offers that are only available at certain stores, even if the item is widely available everywhere; if you just do a search without first selecting your store, it will populate with all deals available, even if your store isn't one of them. For example, if you just search for your favorite brand of ice cream, it might pop up with an enticing offer. In a hurry, or just being unfamiliar with the app, you buy it from your favorite store, and go to activate it...only to discover that it's not valid at the store that you bought it from. No money back for you! These items aren't obvious from the search results, either, instead requiring you to click into the item and scroll to the bottom, where it lists everywhere that offer is accepted.
Perfect example of a general search with no store "attached". Note the 2 similar offers...some stores will qualify for the top offer, some for the bottom, and some for neither. Make sure to fill in the store first before searching for store-relevant results.
There have also been a couple times where I've had offers expire, out of nowhere. In theory, every item nearing its end should have a countdown timer, that notifies you how many days, or hours, are left. One time I bought an item with a few hours left, only to discover—after purchasing it—that it was no longer valid. No warning, no explanation, no nothing. I've also had other items, even with no noted expiration date, do the same thing. This thankfully doesn't seem to happen too frequently, but it's happened enough to be quite annoying, especially when you buy something specifically for the cash back.

Also, some of the deals require you to answer a question before you can “add” it for redemption. Most of these are obvious, just little survey-style samples of how old you are, your gender, etc. However, sometimes they look like advertisements, and aren't so obvious: One time I had to write to support because I was attempting to claim a deal, and all that would pop up was an ad for that item, listing off four highlights of said product, with no way to advance forward. As it turned out, that “ad” was actually asking me what four highlights of that product were, so I was supposed to manually select each answer, thus allowing me to move forward. Maybe I'm the only idiot that ever got “stuck” there, but I still feel it's worth noting.
Overall, it's pretty easy and straightforward to navigate, but there's definitely a learning curve when it comes to understanding all the nuances of the app, and chances are it's probably going to cost you a few dollars in lost deals before you fully get the hang of it.

SELECTION
In this case, “selection” means the variety of offers on display...and quite frankly, in this regard, Ibotta cannot be touched. They have almost every major grocery store chain, both nationwide and regional, covered, meaning no matter where you shop (unless it's a small, local, family-owned grocer) chances are Ibotta will have deals for it.

There are also a large number of online retailers, though the process for redemption is stupid.

Their deals even extend to online retailers, where they offer (a la “eBates”), a percentage of your order total back when you make an online purchase. Most of these offers are in the 2-4% range, but every so often (especially around the holidays) they can get boosted up to as much as 10% back, which is a very generous return on things you're already going to buy anyway. The only catch is, you must go into Ibotta and click on the “Shop” button for the store specific to the deal you want—unlike eBates (or even Ibotta's own in-store functionality), you cannot enter an e-receipt after the fact, to get your reward. Also, if you close out of it at any time, or are otherwise disconnected, you have to go back into Ibotta, and start all over from scratch, making this a pretty worthless option when compared to other services that allow you to submit receipts after the fact.

From an in-store perspective, each store has dozens of deals easily categorized and accessible...chances are good that you're going to find something that you want or need. While most of the offers are for specific brands and/or sized products, I love that they do throw in several unbranded items, too. These offers will have a generic photo and say, for example, “Any single-serve orange juice”. This allows you to buy any single serving bottle of any brand orange juice—even store brands!--while giving you the reward.

No specific stores in mind? Ibotta makes it easy to search for stores by category.
While it's true that a vast majority of national chains are included, it's worth a gentle reminder that Aldi is not one of them; this is probably due to them not carrying many national brand items that the app focuses on (though they could still keep them up for the unbranded items—Dollar Tree is in here, for God's sake). So if you're like me, and do a lot of shopping at the German chain, don't even bother checking out the app beforehand.

GETTING PAID
Once you upload a receipt, assuming there are no problems, you can expect the money to go into your account within 24 hours. Honestly, I haven't really paid attention to whether or not this is true, as I just tend to upload receipts, let the money accrue, and forget about it, but it's always there when I check the next time, so we'll just assume it's true.

The money is stored in your Ibotta account until you choose to cash out, which you can do with any amount over $20. Money can then be transferred to a Venmo or Paypal account or, if you don't have either one of those (or just prefer not to use them), you can also have the balance transferred to a gift card. Honestly, I've not even used this feature yet, so I can't comment on how well it works, but reviews across the board say it's a legit process, so I'm not expecting there to be any problems.

Earn some extra cash with bonuses.
Obviously, accruing cash depends on how much shopping you do at “approved” retailers (and how much time you invest in scanning deals beforehand), but as a general rule, we've had the app for about 8 months, and have close to $70 in it. That's not a bad amount, considering we only do about 50% of our total grocery shopping at Kroger, which is where almost that whole total came from.

While we're on the topic of accruing money, Ibotta also gives you the chance to earn extra through “bonuses”. Typically, they work like this: they give you a checklist of five or six deals to complete, usually linked by theme, and once you complete them, you get an extra boost in cash. I have never even tried to do this, because we typically don't need or want even half of the things that are listed, but for those that have larger families, or that throw parties and like to have lots of different products on hand, this could really boost your savings up quicker.

Loading up on free offers not only gets you free stuff, but can help you earn bonuses quicker.
The only bonus we've ever gotten was the $10 sign up bonus, which I highly recommend. For that one, you must bring your account up to $10 within the first thirty days you sign up, and they'll give you an extra $10. It might sound like a lot (we've certainly never come close to $10 within thirty days since), but they generally have some high value rebates (such as $4 back on a $4 jar of mayo) that can help you get there a little quicker. 

For those of you who have large friend groups and don't mind being an annoying little twat, you can also get a $5 bonus for every friend you refer to the app, though I'm sure a large checklist of stipulations apply. (I never play these “refer-a-friend” games.)

IS IT RIGHT FOR YOU?

Most everyone likes saving money, so you're probably thinking, “Who wouldn't this be for?” Well, while it certainly saves time over clipping paper coupons, there is still quite a bit of premeditated research that must go in to purchases if you really want to get the most out of it. Sure, you can always just do your normal shopping without first consulting the app, and just pray that some of your purchases qualify after the fact, but even though Ibotta has a lot of offers, it's still just a small percentage of what a typical grocery store carries: In other words, there's a good chance you won't be saving much.

Random leftover image to help break up the text.
You can also try looking up offers while you're at the store, but in my experience, wifi can be pretty spotty at some supermarkets, which generally just leads to a lot of frustration waiting for offers and pages to load. Not to mention the annoyance of having to find some uncrowded area to park your cart to stay out of everyone's way if you're going during busy times, and this generally isn't a recommended approach.

But if you have some time to sit down and compare the offers to your list, you can both save a good amount of money, and buy some things that you wouldn't normally try, just to take advantage of some offers (hey, if I'm going to get a $4 item for free, I'll give it a shot!). Ditto that if you're willing to go out of your way and shop elsewhere to get even bigger savings. (Pro tip: I've noticed Walmart seems to have more “free after rebate” offers, and a larger quantity of “exclusive” offers; if you can handle the circus-grade clientele and bleak atmosphere, that might help you reach bonuses even quicker.)

It's a great app for the right person, and a good app for the average one.

RATING: 6/10

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