Saturday, September 05, 2009


The good news was that my wife was home when the washing machine decided to break and leak all over the floor. The bad news (well, good for me) was that I wasn't home to help, being on a 12-hour road trip to pick up our youngest after his first year at college. So it fell to my wife to first clean things up and then figure out the next steps.

The machine had been in the house when we bought it 20 years ago and had been repaired more than once, so replacing it rather than repairing it seemed like the smarter option. She did some quick research online to find the right machine, the best price and who had it in stock. Eventually she found a store that not only topped out in all three categories, but was willing to deliver it within the next 24 hours. Since I was bringing home a college freshman and his laundry, having a working washing machine available immediately and not a week later seemed not only prudent, but an act of self preservation.

As promised, the machine was delivered and installed. Once we had it in place, I jumped in to do my part: dutifully filling out the rebate paperwork that was part of the deal. It seems I spend more and more time doing this chore, adding to the growing pile of dated copies sitting on the corner of my desk. In fact, many times it's only when factoring in these rebates that a particular purchase becomes the cheapest option, be it for an appliance, a piece of computer equipment or fertilizer for the lawn.

But lately, when I finally get the envelope 8 to 10 weeks later and open it, I'm finding not a check to be deposited immediately to balance the books but a piece of plastic. More and more, companies are opting to fulfill their "cash back" obligation with what the industry calls a "Prepaid Rebate Card." Emblazoned with the logo of the participating merchant, the cards are loaded with a given dollar amount equal to the rebate, with the promise of using them wherever the Visa, Mastercard or American Express symbol is found... in other words, virtually everywhere you shop.

For the issuing companies, it's a good deal. In particular, it gets them around the issue of escheatment. This legal doctrine concerns the reversion of unclaimed property to the states in the absence of legal heirs or claimants. Put another way, if you get a rebate check and don't cash it, after a given period of time the money reverts to your governor. Not so with these cards, as long as they are issued by a federally charted bank. Don't use your card or let it expire... and unlike gift cards, prepaid rebate cards generally carry expiration dates... and the companies keep the funds.

Yes, they are as good as cash, but with limitations. They generally can't be used to prepay at gas pumps, forcing you to walk in and settle up after you're done. You can't use them at a restaurant unless the balance on the card is at least 20% more than the bill, to allow for a tip when the merchant tries to get it authorized. Most annoying, if you have a $20 dollar card and you buy something for $13.73, you'll carry a card with a balance of $6.27, an amount you'll likely forget until you go online or call an 800 number. At the point the only way to use it up is to ask the merchant to charge that amount with the one card, then give them a second card for the balance... or buy something for exactly $6.27. Good luck figuring that one out.

And so it is with me. On my desk I have a card with a $.67 balance, another with a $.19 balance. All in all, we're still ahead with the new washing machine and the Turf Builder we bought, even factoring in what amounts to the higher prices represented by the unredeemed cards. But it galls me to throw them out, in essence flushing $.86 down the drain. And I'm not sure I am willing to endure the look I'm sure to get from a clerk when I ask them to split the cost over two cards, with the first being for such a paltry sum. Call me frugal, call me thrifty, or call me cheap. But unless I can find a pack of Lifesavers on sale... tax included... I guess I'm out of luck.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hates to carry extra gift or rebate cards in his wallet, especially since he generally forgets to use them until after he buys something. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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