Summary: it may not feel like passive income at first, but your own spending can be a source of automated money. Psychologically it is extremely rewarding to just get money automatically from things you are already doing.
My dream is to have enough passive income, from a wide enough variety of streams, that I cover my current cost of living.
Mathematically speaking, the vast majority of that must come from investments, not saving on what I already do. But you can save money and get income from spending you're already doing! In terms of priorities, this should be pretty low down the list, but it's probably the easiest way to get started on your passive income journey.
First, our list of low hassle rewards...
- Credit card rewards. 2%+ on everything. If you are going to buy something anyway, and there is no discount to cash, buying on a cash back credit card will save you at least 2%. Read about optimizing credit cards in this post.
- Credit card linked apps. 1%-5% with participating retailers. These are apps which store your credit card info and then give you automatic rewards (usually cash) for shopping at nearby retailers. Some popular apps include Earny, Dosh, PEI, and Drop. Retailers range from drugstores (CVS, Walgreens) and Restaurants (Starbucks), to Home Goods stores (Cost Plus) and other general retailers (Target).
- Other credit card linked programs. 1% - 10% depending on the category. Some programs don’t specifically require an app on your phone, but are easy to sign up for. Similar to the above, they link to your credit card and automatically credit you when you purchase from a vendor on their list. This includes Empyr, Mileage Plus Dining, and Visa Savings Edge.
- Web extensions. Coupons and alternatives, amounts vary. There are various extensions you can load onto your browser that help you save money online through coupons and comparison shopping. A few examples include Honey, WikiBuy, and Rakuten (formerly Ebates)
Now, two things to keep in mind.
- Do not modify your behavior. The reason retailers offer all of these discounts is to encourage you to spend more with them, to choose them over a neighboring grocery store, etc. The small rewards offered here are a terrible reason to change what you are doing. It’s great to save 1% at CVS if you already shop there. It’s almost certainly not worth it to start buying things at CVS you otherwise wouldn’t just to get that additional 1%. Therefore, I suggest setting these up, then turning off all notifications, unsubscribing from any email lists, and just letting everything completely run in the background.
- Avoid anything that requires extra steps to get money or rewards. We’ll talk about the amount of time required for each app. Generally these are nearly automated, but some have a hassle factor. Remember to always put a price on your time. Personally I would simply not use time sucker apps unless you have a particularly large spend and the value of the reward is significant.
With the warnings aside, I will tell you that, even though financially this is not the world’s biggest win - it feels like free money! There are few things I love more than just seeing the reward amounts accumulate over time.
Credit Card Linked Apps
I’ve tried Earny, Dosh, Pei, and Drop so far.
Summary: I recommend Dosh and Pei, but not Drop or Earny.
Contender # 1: Earny
Earny might make sense if you have price protection on your credit card. For me, it was a lot of hassle, an ongoing monthly fee, and simply not worth it. I’ve deleted the app.
There is a brilliance to Earny’s business model. Earny took advantage of what is known as price protection, which used to be a feature of virtually all premium credit cards - essentially “if you discover that the item you just bought gets cheaper within the next X days, we will refund the difference up to Y.” X and Y varied depending on the provider, but the rough structure was the same.
The key here is the word discover...it put the onus on the buyer to find the newly discounted price. Obviously, for a time, this sounded like a great perk and only the most careful users enjoyed the refund policy.
What Earny did was automate this. With all that price information on the internet, why not? Not only did Earny search for you, they filed the claims for you. Earny charged 25% of what it saved and you just collected the benefits.
So why do I keep using the past tense? Because the credit card companies caught on. In 2019, the following providers have either severely restricted or eliminated price protection:
There are still some credit cards that offer price protection, but I suspect that won’t last for long. If you do have a card that offers price protection, then Earny might be worth considering.
Another thing to note is that, as of this writing, Earny is charging a fee of up to $5/month. I signed up with both my wife’s email and mine, and we were offered different rates. I imagine they are testing this so your experience may vary.
Earny has some other ways to save, but without a price protection card it has not been worth the hassle for us. Some retailers offer price protection if they drop their own prices within a certain number of days. This includes some retailers with a large online presence like like Zappos and Best Buy.
Our experience with this policy: My wife and I bought some items from Zappos, and Earny let us know that the prices had come down. Earny then has you copy a script that links directly to customer service at Zappos to request your refund. We did ultimately get some of the money refunded...but it required a lot of back and forth communication with the Zappos people, verifying information etc. All of that for $6 while paying a monthly fee? Not for me.
Note: Earny has some travel benefits, which we will cover in a travel savings post.
Contender #2: Dosh
Dosh is simple, doesn’t require any extra effort, and works with retailers I already go to. My one complaint is that they advertise certain discounts and then don’t honor them, and haven’t responded to requests to fix. I’m willing to change my review if I see this practice change.
Our Dosh balance seems to grow steadily and we haven’t changed our habits. The main source of our Dosh rewards is Cost Plus World Market, which we have been frequenting as we outfit a new home. We get 2% or more back, and after about a month of using Dosh we’ve got about $20 in credit.
My issue: the list of retailers for Dosh is not super impressive, but was supposed to include Safeway. I shopped three times at Safeway and the rewards have not been honored. I reached out to Dosh but received a message that they were busy. When they finally did get back to me they said that particular Safeway wasn’t participating, and that I should look on a map next time. Turns out their map was wrong. Should this be my fault? Not really. But not worth spending time on trying to fix.
My recommendation would be to install Dosh, check your balance after one month, and see if it makes sense for you. Remember as with all of these apps to turn off the reminders.
Contender #3: Pei
Pei is like Dosh but with more retailers. CVS, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, Starbucks, and Uber are all part of PEI.
If you were going to install one cash back app, it would probably be PEI. The rewards just seem to keep racking up and you are almost certainly already going to many of these stores.
My guess is we’ll get about $10-$20/month from PEI, absent any large purchases.
Contender #4: Drop
Drop requires more effort than Pei and Dosh, because you typically have to click a link through their app in order to “activate” an offer. “You must shop through the button below”. Because I want these apps to run in the background, I installed Drop and then gave up on it.
Non-app based rewards programs
Empyr, Mogl, and Yelp Cash Back primarily reward dining. Empyr is the "back end" engine for Mogl, Empyr, and Yelp Cash Back. We registered our cards with Empyr about a year ago and enjoyed getting, every now and then, a notification for 5% or 10% back on a restaurant order. I never really researched which restaurants they were, so was surprised when random business lunches rang up rewards. Like Pei, it runs in the background and has little to no ongoing management hassle. I did notice that the list of restaurants near my home overlapped almost completely with Pei. This may or may not be the case for you.
United MileagePlus Dining operates similarly. Again, the restaurants near me are the same ones as the other programs.
Visa Savings Edge and similar program MasterCard Easy Savings are specifically for small business credit cards. I like these because, again, they are fully automatic. Also, they tend not to be as dining focused - you see a lot more providers of gas, parts, hotels ,etc. One of my businesses uses Sears to order spare parts and it turns out these get a 10% rebate, automatically credited to your card. Also Chevron, Budget, MailChimp, and other small business services. You enroll once then forget about it - the credit shows up on your statement.
If you have a business credit card, you should sign up for this automated service to generate additional passive income.
Online Shopping Extensions
Online shopping extensions help you save money while you shop by either a) searching other sites for better prices, b) automatically inputting coupon codes to see what works, or c) just having a general offering discount at certain stores. These services tend not to cut you a check, but because they are nearly automated savings, I include it as a passive income source.
I’ve tried Honey, WikiBuy, and Rakuten. I would recommend WikiBuy and Rakuten, and not Honey.
After one year of using both Honey and WikiBuy extensions I found that WikiBuy was:
- More likely to have coupons that worked
- More likely to have savings at websites I shopped at
- Easier to work with when it sent you to another site
Rakuten (formerly Ebates) gives you rewards for shopping on sites it is affiliated with. When you install Rakuten’s extension, it will automatically populate google search results with the savings you get from each store. I don’t pick the stores based on these recommendations, but if you are shopping anyway, the moment you get to the site you click a button and it activates rewards for that shopping visit.
WikiBuy has probably been the number one way I have saved on existing spending in the last year.
Automated coupon input is extremely efficient. The problem with coupon codes is that they frequently don’t work. WikiBuy gets through this by automatically inputting the codes for you and then selecting the coupon that reduces your cost the most. Do you really want to sit there typing dozens of non-functioning codes? I don’t either.
I find WikiBuy is particularly effective for internet-only retailers who are small to midsized. These retailers may have 15-20 codes around and finding the best one through WikiBuy is a breeze. You will often get free shipping, 15% off a first order, and so on. If you were already going to buy - this is a great deal!
WikiBuy often finds reputable eBay sellers that are cheaper than Amazon. The best WikiBuy feature is that when you are on an Amazon page it searches to make sure that is the best price for that item across the internet.
Even though I’m an Amazon prime member and get free shipping, sometimes WikiBuy finds items for much cheaper through a reliable eBay seller. I use WikiBuy most often for items in the $75+ range where I am not in need of rapid shipping. You can often save 15% or more by buying through these sellers, most of whom have 99%+ positive ratings. I’ve never had a problematic shipment through these eBay sellers, and I’m very happy to spread the wealth outside of Amazon to these smaller businesspeople.
I used to use eBates, but the rewards accumulated slowly.
With eBates I probably totaled $50 over the period I used it. I suggest installing the extension and then if it’s not doing much after a few months, kick it out and simplify your life.
In summary, none of us is going to get rich saving an extra 1%-2% on what we already do. But it helps, feels good, and is pretty easy. So, my suggestion if you want to proceed mis:
1) Install PEI and Dosh
2) Install browser extensions for Rakuten and WikiBuy
Feel free to share your stories below!