Return to Sender: Mail-in Rebates Are Bad Deals for PC Builders

Mail-in Rebates
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

In some ways, our long PC-building winter is over. GPUs have reached sane prices and are more available than ever, overcoming one of the biggest frustrations for builders and gamers for the last two years. Other parts may be hard to find or afford due to inflation and continued production issues, but supply-wise, it's a much better time to build a PC than it was a couple of years ago.

Those who have the means may be starting to collect new parts, ready to build a new machine, perhaps even one of the best PC builds or a gaming PC for under $500. To those people, I beg of you, don't rely on mail-in rebates.

Don't get me wrong, times are hard, and either way I love a good deal. But mail-in rebates are bad for shoppers who want their cash back.

When I built my last PC, my Corsair power supply, which I ordered from Newegg, came with a mail-in rebate. To redeem it, I had to cut the barcode off of the box, print a form from Newegg, gather the receipt and mail it all to Corsair (yes, I paid for postage). Weeks later, I got my rebate on a prepaid debit card. (A current rebate form I looked at while writing this suggested it could take eight to ten weeks. That may vary based on the rebate.)

I got that debit card because I did all of that work. Sure, it doesn't take a ton of time, but it's something you need to remember to do. If you're like me and don't have a printer, you have to go elsewhere for the paperwork. More importantly, you have to remember to do it, and if you do, it has to be before the expiration date for the deal.  

"For the type of product you are writing about, it seems like rebates are really a mixed bag," Chuck Bell, programs director for advocacy at Consumer Reports told me in an email. "Consumers like to get the savings, but many of the programs have complex rules for what documents have to be sent in.  Sometimes consumers wait for long periods of time to get the rebate, or maybe it never comes because of contracted-out fulfillment centers, some of which are the focus of many complaints and occasional enforcement actions."  

Vendors that offer mail-in rebates, whether they're for PC components, appliances or anything else have an interest in your inaction. You're a busy person. You probably have a job, school, a family or other things taking up your time. So if you forget to do it until after the postmark date in the terms and conditions — or at all — that's some money you expected to get back that stays in their pocket. It may look like a deal when you buy online or in store, but that doesn't count if the money doesn't end up back in your wallet or bank account. This all snowballs if you're buying a whole machine and several of those parts have rebates attached to them. 

Getting a debit card back, rather than a check, is also a problem. Those cards can have expiration dates, meaning that if you don't spend the money in time, you won't be able to use it all. It can also be harder to spend. If you want to buy something that costs more than what you have on the card, you have to hope that the store will allow two forms of payment.

There are alternatives. Stores and manufacturers can do instant rebates, which you often see with codes to put in at checkout. This still relies on you taking action (or noticing in the first place), but it's in a much shorter amount of time and it's harder to screw up. Of course, the best thing these stores and sellers could do is just put the items on sale in the first place.

Heck, I'd rather get something on a slightly smaller sale and spend less at purchase then have to remember to do something. I'd gladly take a $15 sale rather than a $20 mail-in rebate any day of the week.

The fact that anyone expects people to send proof of purchases back in the mail is just ridiculous in 2022, especially if you're shopping online. I can register almost any component online for some sort of membership program, but to get money back, I need an envelope and a stamp? How twentieth century! 

Mail-in rebates aren't limited to computer parts, of course. There seems to be shockingly little recent research into them. The Federal Trade Commission, for instance, responded to my request for information saying that it didn't have data on the usage of mail-in rebates or how many go unused. Much of the most recent research I found was from years ago.

"No national survey or complaint content analysis has been performed to quantify consumers’ concerns about rebates," researchers Cornelia Pechmann and Tim Silk wrote in Policy and Research Related to Consumer Rebates: A Comprehensive Review, published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing in 2013. But the research paper did catalog a number of other issues with rebates. 

For instance, Pechmann and Silk point out that some vendors don't make clear what the pre-rebate price is. (They may, for example, suggest something is $100 after mail-in rebate, and not that you'll be paying $120 for it beforehand.) Others may use shortened terms like "MIR" that aren't totally clear to all consumers. These, of course, occur on a store-to-store basis.

In a September 2009 survey of 1,000 adults that Bell sent me, Consumer Reports found that 47% always or often send in rebate forms, 23% do so sometimes, and 25% never do. The majority of those who don't do it all (52%) said it was because it takes too many steps, while others also highlighted that they missed deadlines, feared it would add them to mailing lists, that they misplaced receipts or doubted that they would even get the money in the first place.

Honestly, I didn't think I'd be talking down on mail-in rebates in 2022. Best Buy, Dell and OfficeMax all started eliminating them back in 2006, but somehow some stores still have them.

Gaming PCs are on the cutting edge of tech. Building a PC allows you a personal relationship with that machine. But the hobby is an expensive one, so I get the use of sales and rebates to attract attention. But by getting the postal service involved, these companies don't feel cutting edge. They feel like they're stuck in the 1990's. And by putting such draconian terms and conditions on these rebates, the relationship between you and your machine gets further in the way of the relationship between you and your money.

So here's my plea to stores and to the companies that make PCs and components: If you truly want to offer your customers a good deal, stop doing it with mail-in rebates. They're hard to use and easy to forget. And if you're a person looking to build a new PC, look for real sales. Don't leave money on the table because some big company is using an archaic rebate system when you could be saving money up front. 

Note: As with all of our op-eds, the opinions expressed here belong to the writer alone and not Tom's Hardware as a team. 

Andrew E. Freedman is a senior editor at Tom's Hardware focusing on laptops, desktops and gaming. He also keeps up with the latest news. A lover of all things gaming and tech, his previous work has shown up in Tom's Guide, Laptop Mag, Kotaku, PCMag and Complex, among others. Follow him on Threads @FreedmanAE and Mastodon

  • Aaron44126
    ...Isn't this kind of the point? I always sort of figured that this was by design. It would be easier for companies to just offer a discount rather than a rebate.

    If the rebate process is cumbersome and difficult, and people are apt to not complete it, then the company ends up selling products "on sale" but the actually get to charge the not-sale price. Why would they make it easier to get less money from you? :-\
  • KananX
    MIR are a elaborate half-scam, good article btw. These things are typically American too, never saw them here in Europe. I don’t think it would fly here, we have rebates too, but it’s just via coupons or rebate on bundles, or directly serviced via internet. MIR are definitely strange.
  • XaveT
    Yes, that's the point. I haven't sent in a mail in rebate in years, and to be honest, I don't even look at items that offer them anymore. If I do end up buying something that offers one, I add that back to the cost so I'm actually buying whatever it is assuming that isn't going to come back.

    I started doing that several years ago after three in a row never came back after I followed the instructions to the letter.

    We need to do stop buying this crap as a society so this practice stops.
  • KananX
    This is also one of the reasons people dislike Newegg. It’s typically Newegg and I didn’t see it anywhere else tbh. Among other scandals they had recently they still offer this half-scam.
  • USAFRet
    Its not just PC parts, but MIRs in general.
    And NOT just newegg.

    A bad deal all around.

    Buy this! $90!!
    Actually, give us $100 and we'll give you $10 back, eventually, maybe. If you jump through the proper hoops.

    If you can afford to sell it to me for $90, then just do that.

    Why am I loaning $10 to a billion dollar company, in hopes that they will give it back in 4 months.
  • bigdragon
    I really hate MIRs. I'd much rather see an instant rebate. If the MIR is entirely online, then sometimes it's ok...annoying, but acceptable. The main-in stuff is a non-starter. It's also a pain in the butt to redeem an MIR debit card. The only place that can reliably process those is the grocery store, assuming there is staff running the registers and not just self-checkout.

    MIRs are also common on major appliances. I see them on washing machines, refrigerators, and more especially around Memorial day and Labor day.
  • thisisaname
    GPUs have reached sane prices

    I would call it saner prices but at this point in the cycle the prices
    should be lower.
  • Alvar "Miles" Udell
    Don't forget the worst part of a mail in rebate: You cannot return the product because you adulterated the packaging.

    Personally I think they should be banned by the federal government.
  • GenericUser
    I remember sending in several rebates from purchases made via Newegg back around 2010 or so. Did everything to the letter, and never heard anything back.
  • JamsCB
    Well, as he said, he mailed it in to Corsair, which completely fits my experiences with that company. They are pretty scummy, refusing to honor warranty repair on my wife's MMO mouse purchased direct from them (which they fully acknowledge and could see the order) because they require "original packaging" like the packaging has anything to do with the mouse. There's another scam for you to report on with them. They'll never see another dime from us, and I have always recommended against getting anything from Corsair to others after that.