College graduation cap with moneyTuition is climbing, but the stock market is risky and safe investments like certificates of deposit are paying 1% or less. So what's a good way to save money for college? One option to consider is signing up for rebate programs that build up hundreds, or thousands, of extra dollars every year for college savings.

They're similar to frequent-flyer programs: Use their credit card, or register your own cards with the programs, and they track the purchases you make using the cards, giving you a reward in the form of tuition benefits, such as credits to a Section 529 plan for your children.

Here are three well-known programs that offer the most bang for your tuition-earmarked bucks.

Fidelity Investments 529 College Rewards American Express Card
If you have a 529 savings account set up with the mutual fund giant Fidelity Investments, you can use its AmEx card to get 2% of your purchases turned into points that are deposited as cash into your 529 account, including the plans it runs for individual states. (You can also deposit the rebates into any Fidelity investment account you hold).

Fidelity also offers a Visa card that works in a similar way, but it only rebates 1.5%. There's no annual fee or limit on cash rewards. You could easily rack up five figures of card earnings over 18 years, depending on how much you charge with plastic, but if you carry a balance or pay your bills late, the interest and fees will demolish any rebate returns you receive.

BabyMint
This free program lets you earn college cash by shopping at its network of retailers and service providers and get rebates ranging from 1% to 26%, which you can either deposit into the savings plan of your choice, use to pay off student loans or have a check sent back to you.

If you use a BabyMint-issued Platinum Visa credit card , you get an extra 1% rebate off of any item. Participating companies include more than 127,000 grocery stores and 700 retailers, including Starbucks, Walmart, Gap and Delta Airlines. Buy items from the stores or catalogs in BabyMint's network and you'll get varying rebates -- BestBuy.com offers 1% rebates, for example, while Macy's.com offers 5%, and H&R Block's is 11%. If you buy gift certificates through BabyMint to use in its retailer network, you'll receive a 5% rebate for each one you buy. Also, BabyMint has partnered with SAGE Scholars to provide a matching scholarship credit -- every dollar in shopping rebates is matched by a dollar off tuition at 175 colleges and universities (mostly small, private ones) that participate in the SAGE program.

Upromise
This free program is similar to BabyMint, although its list of participants is somewhat bigger -- major names include AT&T, American Airlines, Avis car rentals, General Motors, McDonald's, Starwood Hotels and Toys R Us. To join, you register your credit cards, debit cards, and grocery/pharmacy cards with Upromise. Every time you use them at a participating company or buy certain products at your grocery store or pharmacy, your account will be credited with a percentage of your spending as a rebate. Rebates range between 1% to 3% of the value of grocery/pharmacy purchases; for online retailers, it's between 1% and 25%.

Upromise also has 8,000-plus restaurants that give you up to 8% in rebates on every meal you order. If you use either of Upromise's two credit cards, you'll generate additional rebates of at least 1% of all purchases, while some rebates go up to 10% of the value of some grocery and drugstore purchases (no annual fee to get a card, but the annual percentage rate ranges between 13% and 20%). Parents and students can choose to invest their earnings in a high-yield savings account or 529 savings plan, use it to pay down a student loan or request a check that can be used for college or other expenses.

"These rebating programs are a good way of supplementing your college savings plan," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the college financial-aid information websites FastWeb.com and FinAid.org.

However, some people go to extremes in order maximize their rebates. If you're buying a more expensive product just to get a rebate, is it really worthwhile? In Kantrowitz's case, he signed up for Upromise before the birth of his son, and has not changed his purchasing habits. "I suppose I might consider the Upromise rebate for a big ticket item, all else being equal, but it isn't worthwhile to chase after pennies or to buy something I wouldn't normally buy just to get a rebate," he said.

Since he set up the account, he has accumulated $175 in rebates on average per year. By the time his son enrolls in college, Kantrowitz will have accumulated about $3,000 in rebates, plus any earnings on the money.

After signing up for a rebate program, use these four steps to get the most free money you can out of the programs.
  1. Pay your credit cards off every month. Take the Fidelity Investments AmEx card: The interest (13.9%) and late fees (up to $35) will more than wipe out the rewards you earn.
  2. Do watch what you buy. Don't buy something that isn't on your shopping list just because it offers a big rebate, says Kantrowitz. "I'm not going to buy a product just so it will give me an extra 10 cents, especially if that product will cost me 15 cents extra. You can get these big discounts by buying a home from a Upromise partner Realtor or buy a car from a BabyMint partner dealership, but when it's a penny's difference in terms of receiving a rebate, the product price should be the first criteria."
  3. Turn rebate maximizing into a habit. Set your computer's homepage to Upromise or BabyMint so you get credit for clicking through those sites to rebaters like Priceline.com. It's also worth checking out Upromise's coupon page for weekly deals and discount codes.
  4. Ask friends and family to help. One of the easiest ways to increase rebates is to get your child's grandparents or godmother to help. But while it might be awkward to ask friends and relatives to switch to the 529 plan-targeted credit cards and away from building up their own frequent-flyer miles accounts, it can be easier to ask them to do free, easy things, like registering their grocery loyalty card at Upromise, or using BabyMint when shopping online.

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