5 apps to turbocharge back-to-school savings
Stack up savings by combining these mobile applications with your rewards or cash back credit cards
It’s the three-word phrase that terrifies children and budgeters alike: back to school.
With back-to-school shopping, success is measured both by what you buy and how little you spend. And that’s where your favorite mobile apps can help, collecting discounts, coupons and cash-back offers – and putting them all at your fingertips.
Many apps also let you integrate your rewards cards if you choose, so you can seamlessly double-up on deals and stack up savings like Lego blocks. And those card rewards can be a rich source of back-to-school savings, says Michelle Madhok, founder and CEO of SheFinds.com, a site dedicated to bargain shopping.
While it’s a business card that may not fit an average consumer’s needs, Chase’s Ink Business Cash Card, for example, offers five times the cash back for office supplies year-round.* Other issuers, like American Express, supply a changing menu of deals that you can check by logging in to your account. So carving out an extra discount can be a matter of pulling out the right plastic, she says.
Back-to-School Guide 2017
Want a head start? Here are five free apps to supercharge back-to-school savings:
1. Cartwheel by Target.
Cartwheel “is a coupon app for Target shoppers,” says Kendal Perez, spokeswoman for CouponSherpa, a coupon aggregator.
How it works: Register with your name and email address. Scroll through by hot deals, or product category – or search for specific items. Depending on how much you shop and spend at Target, “You can unlock different levels of coupons,” says Perez. “The more you use it, the more access you have.”
“You just have to select [deals] before you get to the register,” says Stephanie Nelson, author of “Greatest Secrets of the Coupon Mom” and founder of CouponMom.com.
Shoppers also get 5 percent cash back with a Target Redcard, “which does make sense, as long as you pay off your bill,” Nelson says.
- Pro tip: “I found the challenge to using Cartwheel was sorting through things,” says Ben Glaser, editor of DealNews.com, a comparison shopping site. His solution: Filter by discount – with the items posting the biggest percentages off first.
- For back to school: Last year, DealNews found that “Target was the No. 1 store for getting back-to-school shopping done at one time,” says Glaser. Use Cartwheel to suss out buys on everything from school supplies to kids’ clothes and school uniforms.
- To save at other retailers: Check out CouponSherpa and RetailMeNot apps. Each collects a wide array of coupons and discounts for all the popular retailers for use online or in-store. Maximize your rewards even further by throwing CreditCards.com's Wallet app in the mix. Wallet will show you which credit card to use in every store you visit, both online and offline, to gain the most rewards.
- Get the app: iTunes
Today’s Groupon is more than the “buy local services now, use them later” marketplace of old. The app offers coupons and discounts for a wide array of popular retailers for both in-store and online shopping. And you don’t necessarily have to pay in advance.
“Before you shop, use card rewards to buy discounted gift cards. You can buy gift cards discounted up to 20 percent.”
How it works: You sign up with your name, email and location. You can also link a credit card to your account. With some offers, that will get you the discount automatically when you pay with that card. Accepted or preferred cards can vary with the offer. And deals vary widely by location.
- The fine print: Even within the app, you may need to create accounts with third-party retailers to clip some coupons.
- Pro tip: Use it in combination with “the Ebates or Ibotta [rebate] apps – stacking the savings,” says Madhok of SheFinds.com.
- Get the app: on Google Play, iTunes
Groupon also hosts an online marketplace, Groupon Goods, where you can buy items from third-party sellers. Groupon handles the transaction, but you won’t necessarily know the vendor’s identity. And you can’t currently vet sellers via customer reviews.
- For back to school: There are “a lot of salon services for those back-to-school haircuts,” she says.
“Most people associate it with grocery cash-back rewards,” says Perez. “But you can use it for retail cash-back rewards.”
How it works: Create an account with your name, email, birth date and ZIP code, or register through Facebook. Review what rebates are available. To claim one, you “have to complete a task. It might be answering a survey question or watching an ad.
Once you make your buy, “unlock” your reward by taking a photo of your receipt or, if you’re shopping online, uploading it. While Ibotta encourages selecting deals before you shop, you can also claim them after the fact.
Once you accumulate $20 in rebates, you can take your cash via Venmo, PayPal or retailer gift cards.
- The fine print: Rebates vary by shopper and location. Also, “when you upload your receipt, you’re letting them know your preferences – what you’ve bought,” says Nelson, a big fan of the site. “So they will give you tailored offers.”
- Special for back to school: This one offers bonuses around the holidays, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a $5 to $10 bonus for back-to-school supplies,” says Nelson.
- Pro tip: Before you shop, use card rewards to buy discounted gift cards. Or use an app such as Gift Card Granny. “You can buy gift cards discounted up to 20 percent,” says Madhok, which equals a healthy discount on whatever you buy.
- Get the app: on Google Play, iTunes
Also a rebate app. This one reimburses shoppers every three months – if you’ve accumulated more than $5. You can elect a paper check or deposit to your PayPal account.
How it works: Register with your name and email address. Then you start online shopping through the app. And you can also add credit cards and a shipping address to your account.
For in-store shopping, add an American Express or Visa card to your Ebates account, and link specific offers to your card. When you use it to pay, those Ebates will be credited to your account.
If your American Express also offers any discounts or rewards, “you’ll get both deals,” says Madhok. “It’s a great way to stack savings.”
5. Amazon Prime.
Not technically a coupon app, but it is an online savings option popular during back-to-school shopping season.
How it works: Subscribe to Amazon Prime for $11 a month or $99 a year. Then download the free Amazon app, and link it to your Prime account.
Or sample Amazon Prime for one month free. (Students can get a six-month free trial, with a 50 percent discount on paid membership after that.)
Video: Protect your privacy while using mobile shopping apps
“Prime members get early access for ‘Lightning Deals,’” – one-time sales that average about 50 percent off and last only a short time, says Glaser. Set a notification for Lightning Deals, and “Keep an eye out for the deals to help you with school supplies,” he says.
*The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date. Please see the bank’s website for the most current version of card offers.
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