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11 Best Cash Back Credit Cards of December 2019

Gregory KarpDecember 4, 2019

At NerdWallet, we strive to help you make financial decisions with confidence. To do this, many or all of the products featured here are from our partners. However, this doesn’t influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

NerdWallet's Best Cash Back Credit Cards of December 2019

Our pick for

Groceries, gas and commuting

American Express Blue Cash Preferred Credit Card

on American Express's website

Rates & Fees
Annual Fee

$95

Regular APR

14.49% - 25.49% Variable APR

Intro APR

0% intro APR on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 12 months

Recommended Credit Score
The annual fee is high for a cash-back card, but the stellar rewards rates on the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express should more than make up for it for families that spend a lot on groceries and commuting expenses.

Pros

This card’s 6% cash back rate at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 a year in spending, then 1%) and its 3% rate at U.S. gas stations have long made it a NerdWallet favorite. On top of that, you now get 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions (see the list here) and 3% on transit, including such things as taxis, rideshares, parking, tolls, trains and buses. All other purchases earn 1% back. The new-cardmember bonus also adds to the appeal.

Cons

If you spend at least $31 a week at the supermarket, the cash back will offset the annual fee. However, if you spend less than $61 a week, consider an alternative version of this card — the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express. It has a $0 annual fee, but the cash back rates are lower. Because this card is an AmEx, you may have trouble using it in some places.
  • Earn a $250 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months.
  • NEW 6% Cash Back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions.
  • NEW 3% Cash Back on transit including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more.
  • 6% Cash Back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%). 3% Cash Back at U.S. gas stations. 1% Cash Back on other purchases.
  • Over 3 million more places in the U.S. started accepting American Express® Cards in 2017 and 2018.
  • Low intro APR: 0% for 12 months on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable rate, currently 14.49% to 25.49%
  • $95 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • View Rates and Fees

Our pick for

5% categories and a cash bonus

Chase Freedom Credit Card

on Chase's website

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

16.49% - 25.24% Variable APR

Intro APR

0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 15 months

Recommended Credit Score
The Chase Freedom® has one of the best rewards rates out there without an annual fee or a complicated redemption process. If you spend a lot on the 5% bonus categories — and most people do — you’ll easily earn substantial cash back with this card.

Pros

This card offers 5% cash back on rotating bonus categories, which in recent years have included gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants and wholesale clubs. You earn an unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases. The card comes with a cash sign-up bonus that’s fairly easy to reach: Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.

Cons

The Chase Freedom® requires you to opt in to the bonus category each quarter. You can opt in at any time and get the bonus for the entire quarter — but if you forget, you won’t get 5% cash back. If you don’t spend enough to maximize the bonus categories each quarter, you might earn more rewards with another card.
  • Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening
  • Earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter you activate. Enjoy new 5% categories each quarter!
  • Unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases - it's automatic
  • 0% Intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable APR of 16.49 - 25.24%.
  • 3% intro balance transfer fee when you transfer a balance during the first 60 days your account is open, with a minimum of $5.
  • No annual fee
  • Cash Back rewards do not expire as long as your account is open and there is no minimum to redeem for cash back.
  • Free credit score, updated weekly with Credit Journey℠

Our pick for

Opt-in categories and a unique bonus

Discover it® Cash Back

on Discover's website, or call (800) 347-0264

Rates & Fees

on Discover's website, or call (800) 347-0264

Rates & Fees
Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

13.49% - 24.49% Variable APR

Intro APR

0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 14 months

Recommended Credit Score
It's pretty hard to beat 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in spending per quarter (though you have to remember to activate the bonus categories), and the Discover it® Cash Back has historically offered bonus categories where many of us spend a lot. With a $0 annual fee, this card does well as either an everyday card or a backup.

Pros

The Discover it® Cash Back offers 5% cash back in specific categories that you have to activate, on up to the quarterly maximum of $1,500. All other purchases earn 1% cash back. Past categories have included such common merchants as gas stations, restaurants, home improvement stores and Amazon.com, so there's a good chance of earning bonus cash back on spending you were going to do anyway. This card puts you in charge of your sign-up bonus. Instead of a flat amount paid once you spend a certain amount of money, the bonus is based on your spending and is awarded at the end of your first year: Discover will match ALL the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year, automatically. There's no signing up. And no limit to how much is matched.

Cons

Activating the bonus categories each quarter can be a hassle. If you forget, you don't get your 5% rewards. If you don’t spend enough to maximize the bonus categories each quarter, you might earn more rewards with another card.
  • INTRO OFFER: Discover will match ALL the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year, automatically. There's no signing up. And no limit to how much is matched.
  • Earn 5% cash back at different places each quarter like gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, Amazon.com and more up to the quarterly maximum, each time you activate.
  • Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases - automatically.
  • Redeem cash back any amount, any time. Rewards never expire.
  • Use your rewards at Amazon.com checkout.
  • Get an alert if we find your Social Security number on any of thousands of Dark Web sites.* Activate for free.
  • No annual fee.
  • View Rates and Fees

Our pick for

Cash sign-up bonus

Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card

on Bank of America's website, or call (877) 754-6706

on Bank of America's website, or call (877) 754-6706

Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

15.49% - 25.49% Variable APR

Intro APR

0% Introductory APR for 15 billing cycles for purchases, and for any balance transfers made in the first 60 days

Recommended Credit Score
The Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card combines a rich offer for new cardholders with a semi-customizable rewards structure that lets you pick which purchases earn the highest cash-back rate.

Pros

Start with a great bonus offer: $200 online cash rewards bonus after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening. Earn 3% cash back in a category you choose and 2% at grocery stores and wholesale clubs, on up to $2,500 per quarter in combined spending in those categories. All other purchases earn 1% cash back. (The 3% choices are gas, dining, travel, online shopping, drugstores or home improvement and furnishings; you can change your choice once a month.) Bank of America® customers in the Preferred Rewards program can earn rewards bonuses of 25% to 75%.

Cons

The rewards structure is somewhat complicated. Because the amount of spending eligible for the 3% and 2% rewards is capped, you might earn more rewards with a simple flat-rate card that pays an unlimited 1.5% or 2% on everything.
  • No annual fee
  • $200 online cash rewards bonus after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening
  • Earn 3% cash back in the category of your choice, 2% at grocery stores and wholesale clubs (up to $2,500 in combined choice category/grocery store/wholesale club quarterly purchases) and unlimited 1% on all other purchases
  • 0% Introductory APR for 15 billing cycles for purchases, and for any balance transfers made in the first 60 days. After the intro APR offer ends, 15.49% - 25.49% Variable APR will apply. A 3% fee (min $10) applies to all balance transfers
  • No expiration on rewards
  • If you're a Preferred Rewards member, you can earn 25% - 75% more cash back on every purchase

Our pick for

Flat-rate cash back

Citi® Double Cash Card

on Citibank's application

Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

15.49% - 25.49% Variable APR

Intro APR

0% on Balance Transfers for 18 months

Recommended Credit Score
The Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer is one of the best rewards cards on the market, partly because it’s so simple: straight cash back — no points, no bonus categories to keep track of. Cardholders can shop as they normally would and get a fantastic rewards rate.

Pros

The Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer's combined 2% cash back rate on all purchases is best in class for a card with a $0 annual fee: You get 1% back on every dollar you spend and another 1% back when you pay off your purchases. Cash back can be redeemed as a statement credit, a gift card or a check in the mail.

Cons

This offer does not include a sign-up bonus, nor does the card have any bonus categories. Higher cash back percentages can be had on different cards for specific categories. There’s a minimum cash back redemption of $25.
  • Earn cash back twice. Earn 2% on every purchase with unlimited 1% cash back when you buy, plus an additional 1% as you pay for those purchases.
  • To earn cash back, pay at least the minimum due on time.
  • Balance Transfer Offer: 0% intro APR on Balance Transfers for 18 months. After that, the variable APR will be 15.49% – 25.49%, based on your creditworthiness.
  • Click 'Apply Now' to see the applicable balance transfer fee and how making a balance transfer impacts interest on purchases.
  • Balance Transfers do not earn cash back.
  • The standard variable APR for Citi Flex Plan is 15.49% – 25.49%, based on your creditworthiness. Citi Flex Plan offers are made available at Citi's discretion.

Our pick for

Flat rate + no minimum redemption

Capital One Quicksilver Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

15.74% - 25.74% Variable APR

Intro APR

0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 15 months

Recommended Credit Score
Few cards offer as compelling a mix of rewards rate, redemption simplicity, 0% intro period and sign-up bonus as the Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card.

Pros

The $0 pays an unlimited 1.5% cash back on everything. And unlike other cards that restrict when and how you cash in your rewards, you can redeem cash back in any amount at any time. This card also comes with an outstanding introductory APR offer: 0% APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers, and then the ongoing APR of 15.74% - 25.74% Variable APR. There's a nifty sign-up bonus: One-time $150 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening. The annual fee is $0.

Cons

No bonus categories. If you're a hardcore rewards maximizer, this might be best as a secondary card.
  • One-time $150 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day
  • No rotating categories or sign-ups needed to earn cash rewards; plus, cash back won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how much you can earn
  • 0% intro APR on purchases for 15 months; 15.74%-25.74% variable APR after that
  • 0% intro APR on balance transfers for 15 months; 15.74%-25.74% variable APR after that; 3% fee on the amounts transferred within the first 15 months
  • Pay no annual fee or foreign transaction fees
  • See if you qualify for a better offer with Capital One:

Our pick for

Dining and entertainment

Capital One® SavorOneSM Cash Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

15.74% - 25.74% Variable APR

Intro APR

0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 15 months

Recommended Credit Score
If a night out is more than a once-in-a-while proposition, the Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card will fit neatly into your wallet.

Pros

The Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card pays an outstanding 3% cash back on restaurant dining and entertainment, plus 2% cash back at grocery stores and 1% cash back on all other purchases. It has an annual fee of $0 with no foreign transaction fees or minimum requirements for redeeming. It even comes with a sign-up bonus: Earn a one-time $150 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening.

Cons

The card offers a good rate at grocery stores, but not extraordinary. If you buy most of your food at a supermarket, a card that pays 3% or more on grocery store purchases would be better.
  • Earn a one-time $150 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening
  • Earn unlimited 3% cash back on dining and entertainment, 2% at grocery stores and 1% on all other purchases
  • No rotating categories or sign-ups needed to earn cash rewards; plus cash back won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how much you can earn
  • 0% intro APR on purchases for 15 months; 15.74% - 25.74% variable APR after that
  • 0% intro APR on balance transfers for 15 months; 15.74% - 25.74% variable APR after that; 3% fee on the amounts transferred within the first 15 months
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • No annual fee
  • See if you qualify for a better offer with Capital One:

Our pick for

Customizable rewards

US Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Credit Card

on US Bank's website

Rates & Fees
Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

15.49% - 24.99% Variable APR

Intro APR

0% Intro APR* balance transfers for 12 billing cycles

Recommended Credit Score
The unique rewards system on the U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card makes it worth considering for people who don't mind (or who even enjoy) actively managing their credit card accounts.

Pros

The U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card is a rotating category card with a twist: You get to pick your own bonus categories. You earn 5% cash back in two categories you choose, on up to $2,000 per quarter in combined spending (then 1%); unlimited 2% cash back in one other category of your choice; and 1% on all other spending. There's a good sign-up bonus, and the annual fee is $0. Plus, if you apply through NerdWallet, you can get a 0% introductory APR period on both purchases and balance transfers.

Cons

Rotating category cards involve more work than flat-rate cards, and this one adds an extra layer of effort because you have to pick your categories each quarter. Forget to do so, and you'll earn only 1%.
  • Earn up to $550 cash back in the first year.
  • $150 bonus after spending $500 in eligible net purchases within the first 90 days of account opening.
  • 5% cash back on your first $2,000 in combined eligible net purchases ($100 per quarter) on two categories you choose. That adds up to $400 cash back!
  • 2% cash back on your choice of one everyday category, like gas stations or grocery stores.
  • 1% cash back on all other eligible net purchases.
  • No limit on total cash back earned.
  • 0% Intro APR* on balance transfers for 12 billing cycles. After that, a variable APR currently 15.49% - 24.99%
  • No annual fee*
  • Great Offer from U.S. Bank, a 2019 World's Most Ethical Company® - Ethisphere Institute, February 2019
  • View Rates and Fees

Our pick for

3% cash back in the first year

HSBC Cash Back Mastercard

on HSBC's website

Rates & Fees
Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

14.49% - 24.49%, Variable

Intro APR

0% Introductory APR on credit card purchases and balance transfers for the first 12 months from account opening.

Recommended Credit Score
With solid rewards and no annual fee, the HSBC Cash Rewards Mastercard® credit card is a good option for people with good credit.

Pros

The HSBC Cash Rewards Mastercard® credit card sets itself apart from other flat-rate cash-back cards by offering 3% cash back on up to $10,000 in spending in the first year (1.5% back after that). The annual fee is $0.

Cons

The introductory 3% cash back on this card offers the potential to earn $300 in cash back in the first year. However, the amount of spending needed to max that out is high. As with all flat-rate cards, there's no opportunity to earn extra rewards on certain purchases.
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases.
  • Earn an Introductory 3% Cash Back on all purchases in the first 12 months from Account opening, up to the first $10,000 in purchases
  • No Annual Fee.
  • 0% Intro APR for 12 months on purchases and balance transfers, then a 14.49% - 24.49% variable APR.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $0 liability for unauthorized purchases.
  • Terms Apply.
  • View Rates and Fees

Our pick for

High rewards for bigger spenders

Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card

on Alliant Credit Union's website

on Alliant Credit Union's website

Annual Fee

$0 the first year, then $99

Regular APR

12.49% - 14.99% Variable

Intro APR

N/A

Recommended Credit Score
The annual fee may be a turn-off for many, but the Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card was specifically designed for bigger spenders. After the first year, if you spend more than $9,900 a year, it's a better deal than a 1.5% card with no annual fee; spend more than $19,800, and it's better than a no-fee 2% card.

Pros

The Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card has an outstanding cash-back rate: unlimited 3% rewards on every purchase in the first year, then unlimited 2.5% cash back thereafter. The card also has no foreign transaction fee, making it a good option for international travel.

Cons

There's an annual fee of $0 the first year, then $99. After the first year, you'll have to spend $4,000 a year to make up for it. Also, you must be a member of Alliant Credit Union, although anyone can join with a $10 donation to Foster Care to Success.
  • Exclusively designed for those spending $50,000+ a year on their card
  • Unlimited Cash Back: 3% cash back in year one & 2.5% cash back after
  • No limit to the cash back awards you can earn
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Generous credit line
  • $99 annual fee, waived the first year
  • Works with Google Pay, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay
  • $0 fraud liability guarantee from Visa

Our pick for

Average credit

Capital One QuicksilverOne Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Annual Fee

$39

Regular APR

26.99% Variable APR

Intro APR

N/A

Recommended Credit Score
The reality is that not everyone has a credit score above 800. The Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card offers an extremely competitive 1.5% rewards rate for people still building their credit scores.

Pros

The flat 1.5% cash back rate is pretty great, especially for people without perfect credit, and there’s no limit on the rewards you can earn. The rate is the same as that paid by the Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card, which is only for people with excellent credit. (That card has a $0 annual fee.) There are no foreign transaction fees, and Capital One may bump your credit limit up if you make your first five monthly payments on time.

Cons

The annual fee of $39 isn’t very high, but it will still cost you something to have this card. The ongoing APR is high, so you should plan on paying your balance in full each month; otherwise, the interest will wipe out your rewards.
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day
  • Earn cash rewards without signing up for rotating categories
  • Get access to a higher credit line after making your first 5 monthly payments on time
  • Monitor your credit profile with the CreditWise® app, free for everyone
  • $0 fraud liability if your card is ever lost or stolen
  • No limit to how much cash back you can earn, and cash back doesn't expire for the life of the account
  • Help strengthen your credit for the future with responsible card use
  • Get customized alerts and manage your account with the Capital One mobile app
  • See if you qualify for a better offer with Capital One:

Summary of Best Cash Back Credit Cards of December 2019

Credit CardBest ForIntro APRRegular APRAnnual FeeLearn More
American Express Blue Cash Preferred Credit Card

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

on American Express's website

Groceries, gas and commuting

0% intro APR on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 12 months

14.49% - 25.49% Variable APR

$95

on American Express's website

Chase Freedom Credit Card

Chase Freedom®

on Chase's website

5% categories and a cash bonus

0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 15 months

16.49% - 25.24% Variable APR

$0

on Chase's website

Discover it® Cash Back

Discover it® Cash Back

on Discover's website, or call (800) 347-0264

Opt-in categories and a unique bonus

0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 14 months

13.49% - 24.49% Variable APR

$0

on Discover's website, or call (800) 347-0264

Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card

Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card

on Bank of America's website, or call (877) 754-6706

Cash sign-up bonus

0% Introductory APR for 15 billing cycles for purchases, and for any balance transfers made in the first 60 days

15.49% - 25.49% Variable APR

$0

on Bank of America's website, or call (877) 754-6706

Citi® Double Cash Card

Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer

on Citibank's application

Flat-rate cash back

0% on Balance Transfers for 18 months

15.49% - 25.49% Variable APR

$0

on Citibank's application

Capital One Quicksilver Credit Card

Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Flat rate + no minimum redemption

0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 15 months

15.74% - 25.74% Variable APR

$0

on Capital One's website

Capital One® SavorOneSM Cash Rewards Credit Card

Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Dining and entertainment

0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 15 months

15.74% - 25.74% Variable APR

$0

on Capital One's website

US Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Credit Card

U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card

on US Bank's website

Customizable rewards

0% Intro APR* balance transfers for 12 billing cycles

15.49% - 24.99% Variable APR

$0

on US Bank's website

HSBC Cash Back Mastercard

HSBC Cash Rewards Mastercard® credit card

on HSBC's website

3% cash back in the first year

0% Introductory APR on credit card purchases and balance transfers for the first 12 months from account opening.

14.49% - 24.49%, Variable

$0

on HSBC's website

Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card

Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card

on Alliant Credit Union's website

High rewards for bigger spenders

N/A

12.49% - 14.99% Variable

$0 the first year, then $99

on Alliant Credit Union's website

Capital One QuicksilverOne Credit Card

Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Average credit

N/A

26.99% Variable APR

$39

on Capital One's website

Credit CardBest ForIntro APRRegular APRAnnual FeeLearn More
American Express Blue Cash Preferred Credit Card

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

on American Express's website

Groceries, gas and commuting

0% intro APR on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 12 months

14.49% - 25.49% Variable APR

$95

on American Express's website

Chase Freedom Credit Card

Chase Freedom®

on Chase's website

5% categories and a cash bonus

0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 15 months

16.49% - 25.24% Variable APR

$0

on Chase's website

Discover it® Cash Back

Discover it® Cash Back

on Discover's website, or call (800) 347-0264

Opt-in categories and a unique bonus

0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 14 months

13.49% - 24.49% Variable APR

$0

on Discover's website, or call (800) 347-0264

Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card

Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card

on Bank of America's website, or call (877) 754-6706

Cash sign-up bonus

0% Introductory APR for 15 billing cycles for purchases, and for any balance transfers made in the first 60 days

15.49% - 25.49% Variable APR

$0

on Bank of America's website, or call (877) 754-6706

Citi® Double Cash Card

Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer

on Citibank's application

Flat-rate cash back

0% on Balance Transfers for 18 months

15.49% - 25.49% Variable APR

$0

on Citibank's application

Capital One Quicksilver Credit Card

Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Flat rate + no minimum redemption

0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 15 months

15.74% - 25.74% Variable APR

$0

on Capital One's website

Capital One® SavorOneSM Cash Rewards Credit Card

Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Dining and entertainment

0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 15 months

15.74% - 25.74% Variable APR

$0

on Capital One's website

US Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Credit Card

U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card

on US Bank's website

Customizable rewards

0% Intro APR* balance transfers for 12 billing cycles

15.49% - 24.99% Variable APR

$0

on US Bank's website

HSBC Cash Back Mastercard

HSBC Cash Rewards Mastercard® credit card

on HSBC's website

3% cash back in the first year

0% Introductory APR on credit card purchases and balance transfers for the first 12 months from account opening.

14.49% - 24.49%, Variable

$0

on HSBC's website

Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card

Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card

on Alliant Credit Union's website

High rewards for bigger spenders

N/A

12.49% - 14.99% Variable

$0 the first year, then $99

on Alliant Credit Union's website

Capital One QuicksilverOne Credit Card

Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Average credit

N/A

26.99% Variable APR

$39

on Capital One's website

OTHER RESOURCES

What are cash-back credit cards?

Cash-back credit cards offer the most useful and flexible rewards currency there is: cash. Points and miles can have squishy value and limited flexibility when redeeming. But a dollar in cash back is a buck you can spend anywhere.

Also, cash-back cards are typically the simplest rewards cards: You get a certain amount of cash for every dollar you spend. You might get more cash back for certain types of spending — at restaurants or gas stations, for example.

If you spend $60 at a restaurant using a card that gives 3% back on restaurant spending, you just earned $1.80 for doing nothing. Think of it this way: A cash-back rewards card is like getting a discount on everything you buy with the card. The fun comes when you use the card everywhere and your cash back piles up.

Even the best cash-back credit cards probably aren't as flashy as travel rewards credit cards, but as with the hare and the tortoise, sometimes slow-and-steady wins the race.

Types of cash-back credit cards

Cash-back credit cards come in three basic types that determine how you accumulate cash rewards.

Flat rate

Flat-rate cash-back cards give you a set percentage of cash back regardless of what you buy with the card. A good benchmark is 1.5% cash back on everything. But a few cards give you back 2% or even more.

Examples:

Tiered

Tiered cards earn a higher rate in specific categories of spending, such as groceries or gas, and usually 1% on everything else. With some cards, you get to choose which categories earn the higher rewards.

Examples:

Rotating categories

Rotating bonus category credit cards offer a high cash-back rate, typically 5%, in specific categories that change periodically — usually every three months. Everything else earns 1% on everything else. You have to "opt in" or "activate" the bonus categories online each quarter.

Examples (with both of these cards, the 5% cash back applies to the first $1,500 in bonus category spending per quarter):

Common cash-back bonus categories

Many cash-back cards earn a higher rewards rate for certain purchases. That’s usually based on where you use the card rather than what you buy with it. You’ll see this with all rewards cards except flat-rate cards.

Examples of common bonus categories:

  • Supermarkets. Sometimes card issuers call this category “groceries,” but the rewards are determined by the type of store, not the specific items you purchase. So it applies to groceries, cleaning supplies, toiletries, prepared meals and anything else bought at the supermarket. You can often buy a gift card for a restaurant or retailer at the supermarket, and it counts as a supermarket purchase. Often warehouse clubs and superstores, like Target and Walmart, are excluded. For larger households, this can be one of the most valuable categories to get accelerated rewards.
  • Restaurants. Sometimes called "dining," this usually includes everything from fast-food restaurants and pizza delivery to white-tablecloth fine dining. Your whole restaurant bill, including the server’s tip, counts for accelerated rewards.
  • Gas stations. This is often described as "gas" and usually applies to traditional gasoline service stations, such as Mobil, Shell and BP. It usually doesn't extend to gas stations affiliated with supermarkets or warehouse clubs. Often, it counts everything you buy in the associated convenience store, too, although a few cards count only gas paid for at the pump. Gas sounds like a really useful category, but unless you’re a long-distance commuter, most households don’t spend as much at gas stations as they do at, say, supermarkets.

That last point hints at the key to cash-back categories — the best ones are where you spend the most money regularly. So a bonus category like digital streaming services might be comparatively less valuable because while you might spend money on Netflix and Spotify, you probably don’t spend very much.

Other bonus categories you might see include entertainment, drugstores, home improvement stores, wholesale clubs and mobile wallet purchases. Rotating bonus category cards sometimes designate specific retailers for bonus rewards for a quarter, such as Amazon or Walmart. 

Card issuers determine whether a purchase earns a higher rate based on the retailer's merchant category code, which usually describes the merchant’s primary business.

How to compare cash-back credit cards

Which type of cash-back credit card is right for you depends on how you spend money and your patience for tracking rewards categories. If you spend a lot in certain categories, such as gas or groceries, consider a tiered or bonus category card. If you don’t want the fuss of remembering which of your cards have which bonus categories, opt for a flat-rate card.

Once you’ve decided which type of cash-back credit card works best for you, consider these factors:

Annual fee

Nobody wants to pay an annual fee — and most cash-back cards don’t have one — but sometimes it can work out better. That’s because cards with annual fees often have more lucrative rewards like higher cash-back rates for some or all of your spending.

The key is to make sure paying the annual fee is worthwhile mathematically. Think of the fee as a reduction in your annual cash-back total. 

Sign-up bonus

A cash sign-up bonus is nice to get — if your regular spending will be enough to earn it. (You typically have to spend $500 to $1,000 in the first few months.) It’s essentially free money. Or, for a card with an annual fee, it might compensate for the annual fee for a few years.

Don’t disregard cash-back cards without a bonus, though. Bonuses are less common with cash-back cards, and bonuses are low compared with those on travel credit cards. A higher rewards rate on one card could be a better deal than a card with a bonus and a lower rate, depending on how much you spend and where you spend it.

Flexibility

What are the rules for getting your cash back? Some cards have a threshold amount — maybe you need to earn $25 in cash back before you can redeem, for instance. Some cards allow you to take the cash back as a statement credit, which can lower your next credit card bill. Others allow you to redeem cash directly into your bank account, while some offer to mail you a paper check. Some issuers allow you to redeem rewards for more than cash back — for merchandise or gift cards, for example. And others might allow you to transfer cash-back points to another card program where strategic use might yield better value.

» MORE: Beware of minimum redemption requirements

0% introductory APR period

You typically don’t want to carry a monthly balance with rewards cards, but some cash-back cards offer 0% intro APR periods on new purchases, balance transfers or both.

Carrying a balance from month to month incurs interest charges that can eat up the value of your rewards. If you expect to carry a balance, look for a low-interest credit card instead.

» MORE: How to choose a cash-back credit card

Cash back vs. travel cards

Cash-back cards are easy to understand and use, but they can also seem boring. That’s especially true when they're compared with travel cards, which can be aspirational — visions of earning a free flight to Bora Bora in first class or a night at a swanky hotel in New York City.

And co-branded travel cards for airlines and hotel companies might give you perks no other card will. For example, airline cards often offer free checked bags and priority boarding. Many of the best hotel credit cards give you a free night's stay each year.

Still, while travel dreams are more exciting than another $90 in cash back on your credit card statement, cash-back credit cards might actually be the right choice for most people. 2016 study by NerdWallet found in many cases, a consumer could get more value by using a cash-back card and using the cash rewards to pay for travel expenses.

The study found that domestic travelers who spend less than $8,600 per year on travel earn more rewards with a cash-back card than a travel rewards card, especially if they hold the card a long time.

A big exception: Americans who travel overseas an average of at least once per year are often better off with a travel rewards credit card because of higher point values and no foreign transaction fees.

» MORE: Cash-back cards that are great for travel, too

Pros and cons of using a cash-back card

Cash-back cards are great for many people, but not everybody. Here’s a quick look at their advantages and disadvantages compared with other types of cards.

Pros: Why it's worth getting a cash-back card

Best rewards currency. Cash is king for flexibility. Nobody can change the value of it, and you can spend it anywhere. You don’t have to wait years to accumulate enough miles or points to redeem them for a free flight or hotel stay, as you might with a travel card.

Simplicity. Cash-back cards tend to be far easier to understand and use than other types of cards that leave you wondering whether you’re getting the most value out of them.

No or low annual fees. You can find plenty of choices with no annual fee or reasonable fees if you want superior cash-back rewards.

Low bonus requirements. It’s usually easier to hit the required spending level for a sign-up bonus on a cash-back cards than on travel credit cards.

Cons: Why a cash-back card might not be for you

Relatively low sign-up bonuses. Bonuses might range from none to about $200, while some travel-card bonuses exceed $500.

No outsized value. Points earned with travel cards can sometimes be parlayed into huge value, far exceeding the value of any cash-back card.

Inappropriate for carrying a monthly balance. Some cash-back cards have a good 0% intro APR period, but most do not. If you carry a balance, you’re likely to pay more in interest than you earn in cash-back rewards.

Few perks. You’re unlikely to find such valuable perks as reimbursement for TSA Precheck applications or free checked bags or early check-in at a hotel.

Foreign transaction fees. Some cash-back cards charge you a percentage of every purchase you make abroad. Such fees are rarer on travel and luxury cards.

» MORE: NerdWallet's best no foreign transaction fee credit cards

Making the most of your cash-back card

Charge often

If you’ll have trouble paying off the balance every month, a cash-back card — or any reward card — might not be for you. But if you never carry a balance, try to pile as much spending as you can onto your cash-back card to pump up your rewards.

Combine cards for optimum rewards

If you’re willing to switch among cards to maximize your rewards, be sure to get cards that complement one another's rewards structures. For example, you can get one card that offers extra cash back for dining, another that offers extra for shopping at Amazon, and another that gives extra for gas and groceries. If your cash-back categories overlap, you’ll wind up with redundant cards in your wallet.

Earn back the annual fee

If there's an annual fee, make sure you’re getting more than that in cash back. An annual fee is worth it only if you’re earning more in rewards than you pay — and more than you would if you were using a no-fee card. Most cash-back credit cards keep a running total of the rewards you’ve earned in the past year, so log in to your account and check your statements after a year to make sure it’s worth it to pay the annual fee again.

Take advantage of rotating bonus categories

If you have a card with rotating cash-back bonus categories, make sure to activate the categories every quarter so you don’t miss out on 5% cash back on featured categories like restaurants, wholesale clubs, gas stations, groceries and more.

Earn your sign-up bonus

Make sure you meet the minimum spending requirement to qualify for the bonus, otherwise you could miss out on hundreds of dollars. Cash-back cards typically require less than $1,000 in spending to earn the bonus, so shift as much spending as possible to a new card until you earn the bonus.

Use the card's shopping portal for extra rewards

Online credit card malls, accessible through your credit card login, can help you earn extra cash back on your web-based purchases, sometimes up to 10 times as much. Not all card issuers offer shopping portals, but it’s worth checking.

Other cards to consider

If you carry a balance from month to month, the interest can quickly gobble up more than you're earning in cash back. In that case, a low-interest card is probably a better choice. If you need to transfer a balance, look for a balance-transfer credit card. If you have bad credit or you’re a student, there are specialty cards for you.

If you’re a frequent traveler, you might be able to reap better value from a travel credit card, maybe coupled with an airline card or hotel card.

Still not sure? See our best rewards cards for a range of credit cards that earn cash, points or miles.


To view rates and fees of the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, please visit this page.
To view rates and fees of the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, please visit this page.
To view rates and fees of the American Express Cash Magnet® Card, please visit this page.

Last updated on December 4, 2019

Methodology

NerdWallet's Credit Cards team selects the best cash-back credit cards based on overall consumer value, as evidenced by star ratings, as well as their suitability for specific kinds of consumers. Factors in our evaluation include each card's cash-back earning rates, rewards structure (such as flat-rate or tiered categories), annual fee, redemption options (including minimum redemption amounts), promotional APR period for purchases, bonus offers for new cardholders, and noteworthy features such as loyalty bonuses or the ability to choose one's own rewards categories.

Frequently asked questions

Every time you use a cash-back credit card, the card issuer "pays you back" a certain percentage of the purchase amount. For example, if your card earns 2% cash back on all purchases, and you buy something for $80, then you would earn $1.60 in cash back. Or say your card earns 5% at the gas station; in that case, a $42 fill-up would earn $2.10.

With most cash-back cards, you can see your accumulated earnings on your monthly statement or through your online account portal, and you can decide when and how to redeem your cash back. Some cards automatically apply your cash back to your account as a credit.

"Cash back" doesn't mean the card issuer sends you an envelope full of dollar bills. But the rewards do ultimately leave you with more cash in your pocket. The simplest way to redeem cash back is to take it as a credit that reduces your account balance: Redeem $50 worth of cash back, and a $325 balance becomes $275. Many cards also allow you to redeem cash back as a direct deposit into a bank account, and some will even mail you a paper check if you request it.

Every card issuer has its own rules for how you can redeem cash back. Some have a minimum redemption requirement — you might not be able to cash in your rewards until you have accumulated at least $20 or $25. Others let you redeem any amount at any time.

There are three basic kinds of cash-back credit cards:

  • Flat-rate cards pay the same cash-back rate no matter what you buy. Flat-rate cards typically pay 1% to 2% on everything.
  • Tiered cards pay higher rates at specific types of merchants, such as grocery stores or restaurants, and a lower rate (usually 1%) everywhere else. Some cards let you pick which types of merchants earn the higher rates, but most have set categories.
  • Rotating category cards pay a higher rate (often 5%) in bonus categories that change from time to time and a lower rate (usually 1%) on everything else. You usually have to "activate" the category online to qualify for the higher rate.

Everyone's spending patterns are different, so the card that earns you the most cash back depends on your individual situation. If you spend far more money eating out than at home, for example, a card that pays 3% at restaurants would likely be a better fit than one that pays 6% at supermarkets. However, if you're interested in the highest available rates on cash-back cards, here are some industry leaders:

  • Flat-rate: 2.5% — The Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card pays 2.5% on all purchases (and in the first year, it's 3%).
  • Groceries: 6% — The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express pays 6% cash back on up to $6,000 a year in spending at U.S. supermarkets (then 1%). Terms apply.
  • Gas: 5% — The Sam's Club Mastercard pays 5% on up to $6,000 a year in gas spending (then 1%). And the Ducks Unlimited Rewards Platinum Edition® Visa® Card pays unlimited 5% on gas.
  • Restaurants: 4% — The Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card and the Uber Credit Card both pay 4% on dining out.

Legally speaking, credit card rewards are treated as discounts on purchases rather than as income. That means you don't owe any taxes on your cash back.