If you received a cash rebate card for upgrading your cable television service or for buying your teenager a new smartphone over the holidays, here’s my advice: Use it soon.
Unlike gift cards that come with far-off expiration dates and protections against fees, rebate cards don’t offer the same terms.
In fact, if you don’t use the rebate card quickly, you might come to find a few months from now that fees have eaten away a good portion of its value.
So much for the free chunk of cash.
I blundered into this realization during a recent holiday shopping trip. Here’s what happened.
After upgrading the family cellphone plan in spring 2011, I received four rebate cards loaded with cash from Verizon. The cards, which are like debit cards and can be used at practically any retailer, had an April 2012 expiration date. I used one card right away but held on to the rest. Like everybody else, I like free money and wanted to apply the remaining balances toward a special product.
Last spring I asked for and received a one-year extension on the three remaining cards from the bank that handles the rebate program.
Imagine my surprise last month when I pulled out the plastic at the Verizon store to help cover part of the bill, only to be told the cards were no longer worth the full value. Fees had trimmed the balance in half, meaning about $75 had evaporated.
When I called a customer service representative later, she explained that the maintenance fees were the penalty for not using the cards in a timely fashion. Furthermore, she said, I had been informed of this policy and had agreed to it when I extended the life of the cards last spring.
That was news to me, since I think I would have remembered such an important detail. I wanted the full value restored, but I didn’t win this argument.
The bottom line: The service rep wiped off the fees but on only one card. A costly lesson.
To avoid throwing away free money, it’s best to use rebate cards as fast as you can, including cashing them in and depositing the proceeds in your bank account. The average life of a rebate card is six months, according to Bankrate.com.
I also recommend keeping the cards in your wallet rather than in your sock drawer, where they won’t do you any good when you are at the cash register. Keep track of your card’s balance so you know what’s available to spend.
Finally, read the fine print on the back of the card or in the form letter that should come with it. A magnifying glass and a law degree might come in handy.
The “terms and conditions” will spell out how long you can hold on to the rebate card before it could be deemed inactive and hit with charges. In my case, the card was considered inactive based on two criteria: It had been a year since the card had originally been issued, and it had not been used for any purchases in the last 90 days.
The fine print might also spell out the amount of the maintenance fees that are subtracted from the account balance. Generally, the fees cannot draw your account value to zero.
When it comes to free money, use it or lose it.
Next week: the rules of the game with gift cards.