In 2015, you won’t see significant changes from many of the best cash back credit cards, but there are a few improvements with rewards programs that will benefit cardholders. For example, some of the rotating category cash back credit cards have now added groceries as a quarterly item to earn rewards on. In the past, this wasn’t the case as some categories were very specific, only allowing you to earn rewards from certain stores.
So what makes the best cash back credit cards different from other cards? These cards help you take advantage of extremely high rewards rates within designated or rotating categories. That means the best way to capitalize is to find a cash back card where the rewards appropriately match your spending habits. Cash back credit cards are considered a type of rewards credit card. There are two cash back credit cards that I rank among the best rewards credit cards: Chase Freedom® and Discover it®. These are also some of the most popular cards on the market.
However, keep in mind these cards will have a limit on the amount of rewards you can earn in the designated or rotating categories within a given time period. That’s why I recommend a cash back credit card as the perfect choice for your second credit card.
Once you hit your cap on earning rewards at a level of 3%, 5%, or even 6% with one of these cash back cards, you’ll want a card that earns you 2% or higher on your other important purchases. You can achieve this combination by adding an all-around, general rewards credit card.
I recommend getting the Chase Sapphire Preferred® to earn 2x points on travel and dining. There are other top choices for your main credit card, but nothing pairs better with the Chase Freedom® (my favorite cash back card) than the Chase Sapphire Preferred®. This is my favorite combination of credit cards in 2015.
These cards work great together because you can transfer rewards from one card to the other, adding an additional layer of flexibility other card pairings will not possess.
The Simple Dollar’s Top Picks for 2015
Here are the 3 best cash back credit cards to own today:
The Chase Freedom® is likely the most popular cash back credit card available today. It offers rotating quarterly cash back categories so you can take advantage of new ways to earn rewards throughout the year.
This is also the most versatile cash back card because rewards are easy to redeem, it’s widely accepted, and there are new 5% cash back categories every three months like gas stations, restaurants, and Amazon.com. You get 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases.
In addition to all these benefits, you’ll receive exceptional fraud monitoring from Chase (I know from personal experience). I’ve also found Chase customer service to be very dependable, and they were accommodating when I asked for a credit-limit increase when I needed to make some big purchases after moving across the country.
Who Should Get It
Best Way To Use It
- This card works for everyone due to the variety of the rotating categories.
- It’s the perfect second credit card to own, especially for Chase Sapphire Preferred® owners.
- Quarterly rewards are capped at $1,500, so the card may be better off for smaller spenders.
- Chase bank clients will find it useful to have all of their accounts in one place.
- This is a great first card for someone just establishing credit.
- Plan your purchases ahead of time by reviewing the rotating categories.
- If you’re about to buy a big ticket item from Amazon.com, you may want to wait until October – December to make that purchase.
- The Chase Freedom® pairs well with travel credit cards.
- Opt in each quarter to receive your 5% cash back — it’s not automatic. Chase does a good job of sending reminders and they retroactively give you the 5% on your purchases that qualify for that quarter if you opt in late.
The Discover it® card is one of the best cash back cards and overall rewards credit cards on the market. With 5% cash back on rotating categories, similar to the Chase Freedom®, the rewards are some of the highest you can find anywhere. Discover it® is not accepted everywhere but, when it is, it’s well worth owning due to the high rewards and great benefits.
This is one of the best cash rewards credit cards to have as your second card because of the 5% cash back on rotating categories, the 0% APR on balance transfers for 18 months, and no foreign transaction fees.
Really, the only thing holding the Discover it® back is the fact that Discover is not as widely accepted as Visa or MasterCard. If you have a Visa or MasterCard to offset this concern, the complaint becomes less valid. On the positive side, the Discover it® is one of the rare cash back cards to not charge a foreign transaction fee.
Who Should Get It
Best Way To Use It
- This is good card for people who need a little extra cushion. You can pay late, lose your card, and go over your limit without being charged a fee.
- Only get this card if you own another rewards credit card that’s a Visa or MasterCard because Discover is not as widely accepted.
- Take advantage of the quarterly 5% cash back rotating categories and plan your purchases accordingly.
- Use the cash back calendar to see the upcoming categories for the year.
- Maximize your rewards by making purchases with the card in the 5% cash back categories, and then use a Visa or MasterCard to pay for any other items not in the 5% category in addition to making purchases after you hit the $1,500 cap.
- You can use this card while traveling because it has no foreign transaction fee.
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
After you get past the relatively weak sign-up bonus and the annual fee, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is a great long-term cash back card to own, especially if you know you’re going to spend at least $6,000 at U.S. supermarkets.
The major highlight of this card is the whopping 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets as well as 3% at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, making it the best grocery and gas credit card on the market.
I read a few comments on other sites about the card not dishing out the 6% rewards at every standalone U.S. supermarket. As far as I know, you’re definitely getting 6% at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, and other major supermarkets. You might not get the 6% at specialty food stores or local grocery stores, but it’s best to ask the American Express reps if you’re unsure.
Research the 14 Best Cash Back Credit Cards
Listed below, you will find a directory of the most popular cash back credit cards available in 2015. This directory was used as a starting point for my research and analysis, which is based on the data derived from each card. The directory is updated weekly to reflect any new changes, to add new cards, and to remove expired cards.
The cash back credit cards directory is a sub-directory of rewards credit cards. This custom directory highlights the most important features for cash back cards specifically and displays all important information about each card. The directory is maintained and updated on a weekly basis to ensure it is always current.
Cash Back Credit Cards Directory
The cash back rewards credit card directory lists every cash back credit card and the vital information for that card. In order to rank and value each of these cards, certain features were weighted accordingly based on overall importance to the prospective cardholder.
Sort, filter, or search for what matters most to find the best cash back credit card for you.
The most heavily weighted (and most important) elements of a cash back credit card are introductory APR, sign-up bonus, ongoing rewards, and benefits. Depending on your situation, you might want to be aware of the ongoing APR as well.
Based on these important features and other data, I developed a Cash Back Card Rating for each card. This rating takes the features that matter most for a cash back card and combines them together to rate each card based on a group of important features. I also included an Overall Rating, which displays the card rating as an overall credit card, comparing it to every other credit card type on the market.
There are a number of factors that went into rating each card and the most important are described below.
To analyze rewards, I assessed each cash back credit card on its ongoing rewards and rewards categories.
Ongoing rewards refers to the actual rate at which you can earn rewards using the cash back card. The very best cash back credit cards will always offer a rate of 3% or higher on select categories. The majority of cash rewards cards have a base rewards rate of 1%, while some reach 1.5% but don’t offer higher incentives for specific categories. It’s important to note that the 1% base is just the starting point for earning rewards and you should always aim to earn more than 1% on any purchase you make.
The top cards, like the Discover it® and Chase Freedom®, offer rotating categories that enable you to earn 5% cash back on a variety of common purchases each quarter. The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express offers 6% cash back on purchases from U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000).
The important thing to note regarding rewards rates for cash back credit cards is that any card with a rewards rate of 5% or higher will certainly have limitations or caps on the amount you can earn within a specific time period. For the 5% rotating category cards, the cap is normally $1,500 per quarter. The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is capped at $6,000 on purchases from U.S. supermarkets, but has no cap for the 3% at U.S. gas stations.
As a part of the rewards, I also analyzed the rewards categories, which highlight the versatility of each cash back card. This accounts for the various ways you can earn rewards that are greater than 1%. The more ways you can earn greater than 1% in rewards, the better a card will be.
For example, the 5% cash back rewards credit cards that offer rotating categories every three months are versatile and score among the highest cards. These cards offer 5% cash back on things like Amazon.com, restaurants, gas stations, home improvement stores, Starbucks, and more. The categories rotate every three months, so you always have something new to capitalize on.
The American Express cash back cards offer higher percentages in designated categories that don’t change, but are very broad. These cards will also score high because you can capitalize by making common purchases, such as groceries, gas, and even clothing at department stores.
There are some additional perks of owning a cash back credit card beyond earning rewards, but this category is not as important as those listed above. Some cash back cards, like the Discover it®, provide cardholders with a free FICO® credit score on monthly statements, which is a nice bonus.
Additional benefits include 24/7 customer service, car rental insurance, and emergency travel assistance. The Discover it® even has no foreign transaction fees, which is normally common among travel cards but not most cash back cards.
Some other cash back cards come with special perks, like the one year of Amazon Prime membership you can get with the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express if you meet the spending requirement. You can even use your rewards instantly at Amazon.com when you check out if you have the Chase Freedom® or Discover it®.
As a rule, the sign-up bonuses aren’t as high for cash back credit cards in comparison to the best rewards credit cards or airline credit cards. Cash back credit cards offer a higher rewards percentage as the main selling point instead of a large sign-up bonus.
However, every dollar counts and you can still get a decent sign-up bonus from a cash back card. The largest sign-up bonus you’ll find with the most popular cash back cards will be $100. To collect that bonus, you’ll likely have to spend around $500 in the first three months.
The introductory APR for the best cash back credit cards is usually very generous. Intro APR holds an average importance level when ranking all the top cash back cards simply because some people value the feature a lot while others don’t care.
Many of the cash back credit cards I consider to be the best will have a 0% introductory APR for at least 12 months. Some cash back cards go as high as 14 or even 15 months.
What this means for a prospective cardholder is you can sign up for a new card prior to making a large purchase you know is coming, but choose to pay it off over the course of the next year or so. I always recommend you never carry a balance, but taking advantage of 0% APR deals can be a way to make yourself feel more financially comfortable if you anticipate a large purchase.
Cash back cards have some of the lowest APRs, so you could say these cards are a top choice for people who don’t pay off their balance each month (although no card is good for that). As I mentioned many times, you shouldn’t be getting a credit card if you plan on carrying a balance. But, if you must carry a balance, a cash back card may hurt you the least of any rewards card.
Cash back cards have ongoing APRs that range as low as 10.99% and go beyond 20%. The key determinant of your ongoing APR is your credit score and history. If you have good credit, the APR rate for you will be on the lower end. APR differs from Intro APR because it is the more permanent rate. Once you get beyond the designated time period for any introductory APR offers, the credit card will default to the ongoing APR rate.
APR is not factored into our ratings as a very important category because it nullifies the ability to earn rewards. You won’t be able to capitalize with any rewards credit card if you’re carrying a balance each month and making high payments. Remember, I ranked the best cash back credit cards based on the features that matter for the people who use the cards the right way.
The Truth About Cash Back Cards
The best cash back credit cards have unique structures to their rewards programs. Generally speaking, cash back cards offer the highest rewards percentages of any credit cards for specific or rotating categories. Due to the high rewards earning potential, cash back credit cards also come with caps on the amount you can earn in those categories.
- Cash back credit cards are the best second cards to own.
- Rewards for cash back cards are very high but have caps.
- Be sure to maximize your cash back categories each quarter or year.
- If you want a big sign-up bonus, don’t get a cash back card.
- Never use a cash back card for any 1% cash back purchase.
Case Study: Rotating vs. Designated Categories
This case study will break down the difficult choice between the two popular styles of cash back cards. Some of the top cash back credit cards offer rotating 5% cash back categories while others have designated categories where you earn cash back.
There is no overlying consensus on which type of card is best for everyone. The best cash back card type is the one that offers the most rewards on the purchases you make. The other element that factors into the decision is which other credit cards you already own.
To show these cash back rewards programs in action, this case study will analyze the difference between the two types of cards when both cash back categories are maxed out. It will also detail which cash back card is the best choice for you depending on the type of credit cards you already own.
I’m going to compare the best rotating 5% cash back category card, the Chase Freedom®, and the top designated cash back card, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. Using the top cards from each of the two types will help illustrate what your best choice is. First, let’s look at a brief comparison of the rewards programs for these cards.
You earn a $100 bonus after you make $500 in purchases in your first three months from account opening. Also, you’ll enjoy new 5% categories every three months like gas stations, restaurants and Amazon.com. You get 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases. If you do the math, that’s 5% cash back on $6,000 in purchases in variable categories over a full year. There is no annual fee and rewards never expire.
Knowing that you can get 5% cash back in categories is great, but you also want to know what those categories actually are prior to committing.
Here is a quick breakdown of the current year’s cash back schedule for the Chase Freedom®:
- January – March: grocery stores, movie theaters, Starbucks® stores
- April – June: restaurants and more
- July – September: gas stations and more
- October – December: Amazon.com and more
If you can look at these categories right now and say with certainty that you don’t make many purchases on these items, then this card isn’t worth getting. In my opinion, Chase made some major improvements in 2015 regarding the rotating categories by adding grocery stores.
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
With the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, you also get a $100 statement credit, but it takes $1,000 in purchases with your new card in the first three months to get it. The cash back rewards are as follows: 6% at U.S. supermarkets for up to $6,000 per year in purchases, 3% at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, and 1% on other purchases. Just like the Chase Freedom®, the limit to earning big rewards at the 6% cash back rate is $6,000 for the year, but there is also a $75 annual fee for this card.
It’s pretty clear this is the card to own if you spend a lot of your money on groceries. It’s also a top card for consistent gas purchases, as there is no cap on the 3% cash back you can earn.
Maximizing Each Cash Back Category
Creating a single fixed scenario to judge these cards is next to impossible. Instead, let’s look at each card at a category level to examine the the return you could get from the rewards program. The table below shows an overview of the best type of cash back card to get for each of the various purchases you might make. Continuing on, you’ll find more details on using these cards for each type of purchase.
|Type of Purchase||Best Cash Back Card Type|
|Groceries||Designated Category Card|
|Gas (less than $6,000/year)||Rotating Category Card|
|Gas (more than $6,000/year)||Designated Category Card|
|Shopping||Rotating Category Card|
|Dining and Entertainment||Rotating Category Card|
|Variety of Purchases||Rotating Category Card|
|Household Purchases||Designated Category Card|
By now, you know the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is the winner on groceries with 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets. The Chase Freedom® now has groceries in one 5% cash back category.
Assuming you spend enough to hit the $6,000 cap on the Blue Cash Preferred® Card, you’ll get $360 per year back on that spending. At 1% cash back, that same $6,000 only gets you $60 back. Using a 2x card, you would get $120 cash back.
This is where the battle really heats up. Both the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express and the Chase Freedom® have decent gas rewards. For one quarter of the year, or three months, the Chase Freedom® offers gas stations as a 5% cash back category. The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express offers 3% on gas consistently with no limits, year round.
Since the Chase Freedom® offers cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases, let’s assume you max out this category for gas. In a full year, you’ll earn 5% of $1,500, which is $75 cash back.
Obviously, using the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express and spending the same amount will earn you less money. Getting 3% of $1,500 only comes to $45. However, it’s safe to assume you wouldn’t simply buy gas for three months out of the year and then skip out on the other nine months.
For the sake of this comparison, assume your spending remains consistent each quarter at $1,500. Projecting that out over a year shows that you’ve spent $6,000 on gas. With the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, you earn $180 cash back from gas purchases.
You would never want to do this, but if you continued to use the Chase Freedom® on gas at 1% cash back for the other nine months, you would earn an additional $45. Doing the math brings the rewards total for the year on gas purchases to $120 — ending up as less favorable option than the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express.
Therefore, following my rules of cash back cards, you would never make these remaining purchases on gas with the Chase Freedom®; instead, you would use a 2x card and earn $60 in rewards vs. $30. This methodology vaults the Chase Freedom® slightly ahead of the Blue Cash Preferred® Card using the spending model I outlined here. Of course, if you spend way more on gas over the course of a year, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card will come out ahead.
Both cards offer some solid rewards for those of you who like to shop. The Chase Freedom® – offers much more variety compared to the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. With the Chase Freedom®, you’ll have the ability to earn 5% cash back on Lowe’s®, Kohl’s®, Amazon.com, Zappos.com, and select department stores throughout the year in different quarters. The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express offers a consistent 3% at U.S. department stores.
Ultimately, earning rewards for shopping depends on what your preferences are. When you’re talking about earning 5% cash back from Amazon.com, though, it should be easy for anyone to capitalize there. The other nice thing about that is Chase has intentionally put Amazon.com in the quarter leading up to the holidays (October – December) so you can capitalize on your gift buying.
Food and Entertainment
The Chase Freedom® comes out on top here again simply because the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express doesn’t offer any rewards relating to dining or entertainment.
The Chase Freedom® has cash back categories that include restaurants, Starbucks® stores, and movie theaters. The great thing about earning 5% cash back at these locations is that you can maximize your rewards with one key strategy even if you don’t think you’ll hit your $1,500 cap for the month. All you have to do is buy gift cards from restaurants, movie theaters, or Starbucks® and you can capitalize on your rewards.
Case Study Conclusion
This case study clearly illustrates that all cash back credit cards are not created equal — even when you compare two of the best. If you’re looking to decide between the rotating category cash back card (Discover it® or Chase Freedom®) and the designated cash back category card, the top choice depends on how you can best earn the maximum rewards.
For a variety of purchases, the rotating category cash back cards are the way to go. If you have a set spending budget and you know things like groceries and gas are your main purchases, then you should go with the designated category cash back credit card.
Case Study: Annual Fee vs. No Annual Fee
It’s important to note that only one popular cash back card charges an annual fee. That card is the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. If you ever encounter another cash back card that charges an annual fee, make sure it is at least comparable to the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, which offers the highest cash back of any card at 6% on purchases at U.S. supermarkets.
However, the question remains whether or not paying the $75 annual fee for the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is worth it when the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express charges no annual fee. The question will be answered in this brief case study and comparison of the two cards.
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
Looking at the details of the two cards above, you can see the rewards earning potential for the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is double the Blue Cash Everyday® Card for buying groceries (6% vs. 3%). The $6,000 spending cap at U.S. supermarkets applies for both cards.
You can earn 3% at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores with the Blue Cash Preferred® Card and 2% with the Blue Cash Everyday® Card. There are no caps for either card on the amount you can earn from gas and department store purchases.
At the surface, it might be tough to tell which card to get given that you have to pay a $75 annual fee for all the extra rewards that come with the Blue Cash Preferred® Card.
Real-Life Spending Scenario
Let’s take a look at a quick comparison between the two cards. I created a hypothetical spending scenario for someone who makes $10,000 in purchases within the two important rewards categories for these cards.
Here’s the spending breakdown we’ll use to analyze the two cards:
- You spend $6,000 on groceries in a year.
- You spend another $4,000 per year on gas and department stores combined.
- Your spending remains consistent over four years (for the purpose of standardization).
- You make no purchases at the standard 1% rate.
The sign-up bonus and annual fee are factored in each year because this is a cumulative measurement of how much you earn in rewards (over a four-year time period). Those amounts carry over, while the rewards earnings compound year after year. (For example, by the fourth year, you’ve still only accumulated the first year’s sign-up bonus).
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
|1 Year||2 Years||3 Years||4 Years|
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
|1 Year||2 Years||3 Years||4 Years|
Case Study Conclusion
As you can see, even after factoring in the annual fee, it’s well worth getting the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. However, this only holds true if you maximize the 6% cash back rewards category by spending at least $6,000 on groceries.
The only reason you’d want to go with the Blue Cash Everyday® Card over the Blue Cash Preferred® Card is if your annual spending in these categories is going to be minimal. In that case, you probably shouldn’t get either card and go with one that matches your spending better.
Money-Saving Tips for Cash Back Cards
Using the right credit cards in the right situations can save you some significant cash. Depending on your situation, there are specific credit cards tailored to your everyday purchases where you can earn rewards in the form of cash back for spending your hard-earned money.
Create a Detailed List of Your Monthly and Yearly Spending
This is the first thing you should do prior to signing up for any credit card. In order to find the best cash back credit card or combination of cards, you have to know where your money is spent. To determine which cash back card is your top choice, create a list of what you buy each month and each year.
The monthly breakdown will help calculate any spending that could potentially happen while using a rotating category cash back card. A list of your yearly spending will help determine if you spend enough to maximize the rewards for a designated category cash back card.
Look for a Rewards Program That Matches Your Spending Habits
Once you have an itemized list of what you spend your money on, use that information to look for a cash back credit card. As I outlined here, there are three top cards worth considering for the majority of people. Look into the Chase Freedom®, Discover it®, and the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, as those are likely your best options.
Use Your Credit Card Statement to Keep Track of Spending
When you actually have your credit card, you’ll be able to access your monthly statements. This will help ensure your original calculations were correct when you created a list of what you buy each month.
You should also use your statement to review the current status of your cash back categories so you’re aware of how much you’ve spent and how much more you can spend before hitting any caps.
Plan Ahead to Take Advantage of Cash Back Categories
When you select a cash back card, make sure you become familiar with the rewards program of that card. If you go with a rotating category card, it’s smart to plan ahead and make any larger purchases when your 5% category is in effect. For example, you can wait to make any large purchases or holiday purchases until October – December to capitalize on 5% off your online shopping. If you’re looking to make some home improvements, you can plan on buying everything when a home improvement store shows up in the rotating category.
When using any cash back card, you also want to be aware of where your spending is at so you stop once you hit your rewards caps. For example, if you can only earn 6% cash back on groceries up to $6,000, you don’t want to be spending beyond that because everything drops to 1% cash back. At that time, you’ll want to use a different 2% rewards card or higher.
Redeem Your Rewards for Cash, Not Luxury Items
Many cards offer the ability to redeem rewards for things other than cash or statement credit. You can get gift cards from various retailers or restaurants and reward yourself for the money you’ve spent.
However, if you really want to feel see the impact of cash back rewards on your everyday life, I advise you to simply take the cash or statement credit. It’s the best way to actually “save” your rewards versus using them to purchase luxury items or meals out. I’m not saying you have to deprive yourself from such things but, if you’re truly looking to save, this is the best way to do it.
Additionally, you may have the opportunity to use your rewards to get a gift card for something that’s a necessary purchase you would make anyway. In this case, it’s fine to exchange your cash back for a gift card to a place where you shop for necessities frequently. Also, once in a while, the cards will offer higher redemption for certain retailers and you might be able to take advantage if one of your common purchases is there.
Buy Gift Cards to Maximize Remaining Rewards
After three months, the rotating category cash back cards will change categories. In some cases, a time may come where you did not hit the $1,500 spending limit to maximize your 5% cash back category in the quarterly period. Prior to the expiration date of the rotating category, you should assess whether or not there is something within the category you will use in the future.
For example, if the 5% cash back category happens to be restaurants, maybe you didn’t hit the $1,500 rewards cap in the three months. For the sake of this, let’s say you only spent $1,000 at restaurants on the card within the three-month period. However, you know that you’ll be eating out for the rest of the year and likely be spending more than $500. You can go to your favorite place or several restaurants of your choice and buy $500 in gift cards.
This might take some adjustment and planning within your budget, which is why I recommend this as a more advanced technique to save money. Basically, you just saved 5% on your next 50 meals (assuming you pay $10/meal), which isn’t so bad of a deal.
Compensate for Fluctuations in Gas Prices
With a rewards credit card that offers cash back on gas, you’ll be less susceptible to high gas prices than the average consumer. While it may only be a consolation prize, the more gas prices rise, the more rewards you earn on gas purchases.
Using a cash back card that earns you 3% or more on gas will help take the sting away a little when gas prices rise. You may have to pay more out of pocket, but you’re also getting more in return. Again, just be sure you’re always earning more than 1% cash back on your gas purchases. You can always ensure that by combining a cash back card with the Chase Sapphire Preferred®.