Upromise by Sallie Mae is one of the many rewards programs in which participants accrue cash back points on purchases from participating vendors, including gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores, travel companies, and online retailers. At the end of participants’ monthly statement cycles, points are deposited into their Upromise accounts. Once there, they can be redeemed as a check, or converted to cash – one point equals $0.01 – and deposited into a tax-advantaged 529 college savings plan, a high-yield Sallie Mae savings account, or credited against an outstanding student loan.
Upromise serves as the de facto credit card rewards program for millions of Sallie Mae loan and college plan customers and their families. Since its inception in 2001, Upromise claims to have earned upwards of $1 billion for its 17 million participants.
Upromise is an optional rewards program, meaning that you’re not automatically enrolled when you open a college savings plan or take out an educational loan with Sallie Mae. You don’t have to be a Sallie Mae customer to open a Upromise account, either – anyone can do so and redeem their rewards by check. However, Upromise is closely associated with Sallie Mae and offers special benefits for the loan giant’s customers.
How It Works: Earning Cash Back
Unlike some other rewards programs, you don’t need a special credit card or membership card to earn cash back through Upromise. Upon signing up for a Upromise by Sallie Mae account, you can earn rewards in several ways:
Online Shopping at shop.upromise.com
The shop.upromise.com portal has links to hundreds of online retailers that issue rewards of anywhere from 1% to 10% of qualifying purchases.
To earn these rewards, you must access participating retailers’ websites through the Upromise portal. Rewards cannot be redeemed until the end of the statement period, and each retailer imposes restrictions (detailed in onsite disclaimers) regarding which products qualify. Some retailers offer across-the-board cash back rewards on all purchases, while others only offer these deals on select items.
Dining at Participating Restaurants
The Upromise Restaurants program partners with about 10,000 U.S. restaurants. The rewards rate is a flat 2.5% of qualifying purchases.
To earn cash back, simply register your credit or debit card with Upromise and then using that card to pay for meals. If you have more than one preferred credit card or debit card – perhaps a cash back credit card for everyday purchases and a travel rewards credit card for spending on the road – you can register more than one card. Upromise issues cash back for the full amount of members’ restaurant purchases, including tax and tip.
Using Grocery eCoupons to Shop at Participating Drug and Grocery Stores
Upromise’s eCoupons provide discounts at participating drug and grocery stores on everyday items such as plastic baggies, pretzels, insect repellent, and hair coloring. You can download individual coupons to a participating retailer’s frequent shopper card, which you need before signing up for the program, at ecoupons.upromise.com. Grocery eCoupons automatically credit your savings to your Upromise account at checkout.
Purchasing Travel Through Participating Merchants
Upromise partners with a number of travel merchants, including the Wyndham Hotel Group and Staybridge Suites Hotels. Purchases made with participating merchants earn up to 5% cash back, depending on the partner and type of travel. Available travel types include hotel rooms, airfare, car rentals, cruises, and vacation packages. Use a hotel rewards credit card or airline credit card to boost your cash back on Upromise travel spending.
You can access partner merchants’ offers through the Upromise shopping portal. The booking procedure is the same as for non-travel purchases: you click through to the merchant’s site and make your purchase without navigating away.
Referring Friends to Upromise
Upromise has a refer-a-friend program that’s pretty easy to take advantage of. Upromise has paid referral bonuses up to $20 per successful referral, but you’ll want to check with Upromise to confirm that any offer remains in force before you start referring friends.
How It Works: Redeeming Cash Back
Once earned, you can redeem cash back in $10 increments (or more). Redemption options include:
This old-fashioned redemption option doesn’t directly grow your education savings balance.
529 College Savings Plan
Any U.S.-based Upromise participant can enroll in a Sallie Male 529 college savings plan sponsored by the state of Nevada. Nevada residents only enjoy a special matching state grant: up to $300 per year for families earning less than $75,000 per year. The 529 plan may have minimum and maximum contribution limits, so check with the administrator before opening.
Upromise GoalSaver Account
This is another college savings option with fewer restrictions than the 529 plan. Deposited balances earn a low, variable yield. GoalSaver Accounts qualify for a 10% annual deposit match when you do one of the following:
- Make at least 10 credits or deposits from the account during the year, including one within 90 days of opening your account or the beginning of the year
- Deposit at least $5,000 into the account (in the aggregate) within 90 days of opening and maintain a $5,000 minimum daily balance for the remainder of the year
If you post a recurring monthly deposit in at least 10 of 12 months in an anniversary year, you’ll qualify for an additional $10 annual bonus.
Upromise’s Loan Link feature allows you to link your Upromise account with participating student loans and use your accrued cash rewards to pay down balances on eligible loans, including Sallie Mae Parent Loans and Smart Option Student Loans.
1. Reliable Earnings of Up to 10% on Qualifying Purchases
If you commit to using shop.upromise.com on a regular basis or seeking out restaurants that participate in the Dining by Rewards program, Upromise offers handsome payback. Many of the portal’s participating vendors, including JCPenney.com and Sears.com, offer 5% cash back on an open-ended basis. Some, such as H&R Block, offer open-ended cash back rewards of up to 15%, although such generous deals are hard to find. You can reliably expect to earn up to 10% back, though.
By contrast, Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program – an incentive program exclusively for Chase credit card holders – allows participants to make purchases using cash back points that accrue at rates of 1% to 5% ($0.01 to $0.05 per $1 spent), with the lower end of the scale being the norm.
2. Grow Your Rewards in a 529 College Savings Plan
You may be able to use the funds in your Upromise account to make tax-advantaged contributions to a 529 college savings plan sponsored by the state of Nevada and administered by Ascensus Broker Dealer Services, LLC.
Unlike some 529 plans, the Upromise plan doesn’t have state tax benefits. However, if you live in Nevada and earn less than $75,000 per year in total household income, you may qualify for matching grants up to $300 per year. You must use the funds in your account to cover qualifying educational expenses.
3. Better Deals at Online Retail Partners
The shop.upromise.com portal offers direct access to more than 850 vendors. Many of these are niche companies with which many shoppers won’t be familiar, but Upromise also works with major retailers like Walmart.com (5% cash back) and Walgreens.com (5% cash back).
This increases the likelihood that you can earn rewards as you buy – and save on – stuff that you actually want or need, whether it’s ink cartridges for your business’s printers, or staple items at Walmart. It’s also a sight better than the average rate of return on cash back credit cards, which typically ranges between 1% and 2% (with earnings up to 5% on select category purchases).
4. The Upromise Retail Portal Facilitates Comparison Shopping
The Upromise portal’s store and product search feature lets you quickly zero in on what you’re looking for without browsing through broad categories such as home improvement, pet supplies, and toys and video games. Since it has hundreds of partners, many of which sell similar products, shop.upromise.com is an effective comparison shopping tool that lets you compare prices and selection at competing vendors. For a generic search like “vitamins,” it’s more effective than a search engine query, where results are often monopolized by the most popular vendors – not to mention paid ads of questionable relevance.
5. Upromise Doesn’t Require a Credit Card to Earn Rewards
Unlike some other popular rewards programs, including Chase Ultimate Rewards, Upromise doesn’t require you to use a specific credit card to earn cash back with travel, retail, and restaurant partners. In fact, you can link to your Upromise account as many credit and debit card as you’d like, including reloadable prepaid debit cards. For grocery rewards, all that’s required is a registered frequent shopper card from each participating retailer.
1. Significant Restrictions on Earnings Through Shop.Upromise.com
Upromise’s online shopping portal does offer genuinely good deals on many items, but it’s also beset with restrictions from both Upromise and its retail partners. Two bear mentioning here.
First, you must access all participating retailers through shop.upromise.com. You can’t make purchases and then contact Upromise to apply your rewards at a later time. The RewardsU toolbar is supposed to make this process easier, but you still need to download and set up the plug-in. And since it’s always present in your browser, you have to look at it even when you’re not shopping.
There’s also the issue of fine print: Every Upromise partner has its own restrictions on how, when, and on what users can earn rewards. Upromise does a fair job of alerting users to general cash back rewards and limited-time offers, but these notices lack detail about individual products. You might not find out that your preferred product isn’t eligible for rewards until your cursor is hovering over the “Add to Cart” button.
2. Patchy Participation for Dining and eCoupon Rewards
Like shop.upromise.com, Upromise Restaurants and Upromise eCoupons are both less appealing when viewed close up. First, Upromise trumpets the fact that 10,000 restaurants participate in Upromise Restaurants, but that’s not as impressive as it sounds. While I found nearly 1,000 within 20 miles of Midtown Manhattan, I found that plenty of smaller towns and cities don’t have any within practical driving distance.
The eCoupons program once had great coverage, but has steadily declined in recent years. With a dwindling pool of participating stores and products, it now appears to be little more than an afterthought That’s bad news for shoppers looking for new and creative ways to save money on groceries.
3. Controversial Information Collection Practices
In the early 2010s, Upromise found itself embroiled in a major scandal over its information collection practices.
The FTC accused the company of misleading its customers about the collection of their personal information through TurboSaver, the predecessor to the now discontinued RewardU toolbar. According to the complaint, Upromise encouraged users to opt into a personalized offers program that collected detailed information about their online behavior, including websites visited, search terms used, passwords, credit card information, and Social Security numbers. The FTC alleged that Upromise failed to adequately disclose the extent of this systematic data collection, issuing only a boilerplate statement about steps taken to ensure user privacy and asserting that any collection of personal data would be “inadvertent” and “occasional.”
Upromise settled the complaint in 2012 without officially admitting that it engaged in the systematic tracking and collection of sensitive user data. However, the terms of the settlement forbade the company from misrepresenting its data collection activities and required it to submit to biennial audits of its tracking protocols until 2032.
The incident represented a public relations black eye for Upromise and directly led to the rebranding of its plug-in as RewardU. Indeed, it may be the reason RewardU was subsequently discontinued. While Upromise is far from the only company to face controversy over its data-use practices, its apparent attempts to conceal their nature gave many customers pause.
Upromise by Sallie Mae is advertised as a rewards program for students and their families to save for college and pay down their student loans, but everyone who uses it can redeem points for cold cash.
With multiple ways to earn rewards, it’s possible to accrue Upromise cash back on everyday purchases and big-ticket items alike. On the other hand, users must navigate limitations on online purchases and patchy coverage for dining rewards. And while Upromise members can still earn cash back rewards of 10% to 15% on some online purchases, these deals are hard to find and are often very time-sensitive.
Do you use Upromise Rewards, either with or without other Sallie Mae products?