One doctoral student has a very crafty way to avoid expenses. Jonathan Hood (right), a PhD student in computer science at Auburn University, has paid for tuition this semester almost entirely using corporate rebates.

According to an article by Mandi Woodruff in Business Insider:

“Tuition for this semester was $4,500,” he said. “I paid over $2,500 of it with prepaid debit cards [from rebates] and a little over $1,000 of it with rebate checks.”

He estimates he entered between 200 and 250 prepaid debit cards into the University’s online bill pay system. After all the rebates were counted, he was left with less than $1,000 to pay out of pocket.

“On a weekday, I usually have about two or three debit cards or rebate checks coming in,” he said. “[Stores] usually have at least one item come up online that’s free with a rebate, usually two or three. I’ll purchase the item, save the UPC code and mail it in with the receipt.”

It’s more of an obsession than it is a real financial strategy, however. As the article explained, if often takes as much as four months before Hood even gets a rebate. He has developed a computer program to help him track his rebates so he can take advantage of as many as possible.

He also still has to buy a lot of stuff to make this happen. He shops exclusively online. He buys things that have mail-in rebates, then he gets the rebate, usually in the form of a prepaid debit card or check, uses the rebate to pay tuition, his cell phone bill, and other expenses, and then often sells the item itself online.

It’s probably not a strategy of which too many more people are likely to take advantage. Hood explains how this works:

My average rebate takes 11 minutes to fill out and cash, and is for $40. My envelopes and pens were free after rebate, so their cost is negligible. For this $40 rebate, I use a 2% cash-back credit card to purchase the item ($0.80 profit) and receive anywhere from 0-5% using FatCash from Fatwallet or a similar service. Stamp price is $0.45. Then, I turn around and sell the item on eBay for an average profit of $11.91 after shipping and taxes per item.

But one sort of has to think of the world like this in order to really take advantage of the strategy.

The whole reason companies are so eager to offer mail-in rebates, of course, is that customers don’t use them. Some 40 percent of mail-in rebates, as of 2006, were either denied by the company or never redeemed by the customer. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer