Shake Shack recently announced a new rewards program that will give customers free Bitcoin — a bid to attract younger customers to the fast-casual burger chain, according to reporting by the Wall Street Journal.
Rewards programs like this and the free money they offer are nothing new to consumers: Credit cards have sign-up bonuses, bank accounts earn interest, and there are even tools to get cash back when shopping online.
But with the rise in popularity and mainstream adoption of cryptocurrency, you can increasingly get many of those same perks issued in cryptocurrency instead of credit card points or U.S. dollars.
If you’ve already added cryptocurrency to your investment portfolio, these options offer some extra coin on top of your initial investment — but you should know exactly how it works before diving in. You should also be prepared for the added responsibilities free crypto may require, especially when tax season approaches.
While some forms of free crypto, like crypto credit card rewards, are only taxed on the capital gains you earn when you cash out (just as any other crypto you buy with your own money), others may be considered taxable income when you receive it, and it’s your responsibility to report that to the IRS. Do your research to know your own tax obligations beforehand.
But if you’re already in on crypto, and prepared to do a little extra tracking of your coins, here are some other ways to bolster your holdings — for free.
Before You Start
Evaluate any opportunity for free crypto critically before participating. Many of the more legitimate ways to earn “free” crypto require at least some upfront work, like taking lessons on Coinbase Earn or navigating a shopping portal for crypto rewards. And promises of free money are ripe for manipulation from scammers. Never accept an unsolicited offer for free cryptocurrency, and do your own research into any opportunity before you take part.
1. Shopping Rewards
Lolli, a Google Chrome or Firefox browser extension, offers “Bitcoin Back” when you shop with its retail partners. It works similarly to browser extensions like Rakuten or Honey that offer discounts and cash back when you use the portal or extension to shop online. Like those programs, Lolli rewards you for spending regular money just as you normally would when shopping online — not for making purchases with crypto.
Retailers on Lolli range from Nike to Sephora to Malaysia Airlines. Rewards go from 1% to as much as 30% Bitcoin back, depending on the retailer and product. Your rewards will go into your Lolli account, and then you can transfer them to your crypto wallet or exchange account.
2. Credit Cards
A cryptocurrency credit card works similarly to other rewards credit cards, but instead of earning cash back or points with every swipe, you’ll get cryptocurrency. While we love simple cash back rewards (and you can always buy crypto with your cash back earnings), these cards can help you more seamlessly pad your crypto portfolio.
Gemini and other exchanges have announced plans for cryptocurrency rewards credit cards, along with fintech companies like BlockFi and Upgrade. The rewards categories on these cards are similar to many traditional cash back credit cards. BlockFi Credit Card, for example, earns a flat 1.5% back in Bitcoin on every purchase you make, after earning 3.5% back for the first 90 days after account opening.
In addition to varying rewards rates, each of these cards offer different redemption values. The Gemini card will let you choose which crypto to redeem rewards in, while BlockFi earns Bitcoin rewards, and others limit your rewards to only certain altcoins.
As with any credit card, the rewards you earn with these cards are only valuable if you avoid their high interest rates. If you use a card to earn crypto rewards, make sure you charge only what you can afford to pay off in full and on time each month, without carrying a debt balance.
3. Look Out for Exchange Sign-Up and Referral Bonuses
Some cryptocurrency exchanges offer sign-up or referral bonuses for using their services. A previous Coinbase sign-up bonus offered $5 to new users to invest in crypto, for example, and the exchange currently offers a $10 bonus to both you and your referral when they make an account and trade at least $100.
Make sure you pay attention to the terms of these bonuses. You may be required to provide more personal information or go through other actions to claim these rewards. Most of these offerings aren’t lucrative enough to warrant signing up for an entirely new exchange if you already have an account, but if you’re a beginner, keep an eye on exchanges you’re considering to see if they offer a sign-up bonus or referral for other friends that may be interested.
4. Coinbase Earn
Popular cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase offers incentives for using the platform’s Learn hub. In order to get the free change, you’ll need to watch Coinbase’s videos, take quizzes, and then Coinbase will deposit a small amount of crypto into your wallet. The content is typically focused on a specific altcoin (like GRT and BOND) and, as a result, these are the coins you’ll earn for going through the lessons.
Because altcoins generally aren’t recommended for long-term investing, you can convert these lesser-known coins into Bitcoin or Ethereum once you earn them. But remember to keep track of these transactions, as every crypto-to-crypto trade is taxable. Additionally, you should track the price value of all your earnings through Coinbase Earn, and report them as income on your federal tax return. If you earn over $600 through the program, Coinbase will issue you a Form 1099-MISC, which you can use to report your earnings.
You’ll need to have a funded Coinbase account, live in an eligible country, and verify all of your personal information to start earning with Coinbase Earn.
5. Earn Interest on Your Bitcoin
A few crypto exchanges allow you to earn interest on your cryptocurrency holdings. Gemini Earn, for example, is a lending program in which you lend your crypto to institutional borrowers and can earn up to 7.4% APY. BlockFi has a similar offering, BlockFi Interest Account, which accrues interest up to 7.5%. Lending your crypto out to these institutions can add even more risk on top of the built-in risk of cryptocurrency, so make sure you read the terms carefully before you sign up and don’t lend more than you can afford to lose.
You can also earn interest by staking on some crypto exchanges, like Binance.US. Staking means leaving cryptocurrency in your wallet to earn rewards or interest. By doing so you help maintain the blockchain network. You can usually only stake certain coins within an exchange, which may require buying into more risky altcoins to reap the benefits.
Interest you earn on your crypto as well as earnings from staking are both taxable, and your responsibility to report as income. If you choose to participate, you’ll need to track the cost basis of your earnings throughout the year to include on your tax return.
Of all the methods for earning free crypto, airdrops carry the most risk — more than we believe is worth the benefit for most investors. Developers perform airdrops when they want to gain traction for their new cryptocurrency. Put simply, they give away coins to try and garner adoption.
You can look online to find when airdrop projects are happening; they’re often promoted on the company’s website as well as by users on social media platforms and some crypto news sites. If you qualify, the developers often send the specified amount of coins straight to your digital wallet address.
It’s important to be cautious with any new cryptocurrency projects. Fake airdrops and ICOs— initial coin offerings — are common scams used by hackers. Even when they are real, many of the coins issued in airdrops are not a great investment store of value. Experts recommend sticking with the most well-known cryptos, Bitcoin and Ethereum, especially for beginners. If you follow that recommendation, then pass on airdrops.
Any crypto you earn through airdrops is also taxable income. You’ll be responsible for reporting it as such based on its fair market value on the date it was recorded on the distributed ledger (in most cases, when you receive the airdrop into your digital wallet), according to the IRS.
Even though there are ways to earn extra crypto for free, don’t let the temptation of freebies force your hand. Cryptocurrency is a very volatile, new investment, and you should only ever put in what you’re OK with losing.
Free crypto also might not be free come tax season. Any crypto that may be considered income, as well as crypto-to-crypto conversions or holdings you cash out for U.S. dollars, is taxable. You’ll need to track the market price of any crypto you get when you receive it, and again when you sell it, to report to the IRS come tax season.