Best of

Best Cash Back Credit Cards of October 2020

NerdWalletOctober 19, 2020

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

Cash back is the most flexible of all credit card rewards. Instead of points that you have to figure out how to redeem — and that you might not be able to redeem for something you want — you get real dollars and cents you can use for, well, anything. Depending on the card you use and where you use it, you'll earn cash rewards of 1% to 6% of the amount of each transaction. Some cards pay a single, flat rate on every purchase, while others pay higher rates in specific categories and a lower rate on everything else.

Some of our selections for the best cash-back credit cards can be applied for through NerdWallet, and some cannot. Below, you'll find application links for the credit cards from our partners that are available through NerdWallet, followed by the full list of our picks.

NerdWallet's Best Cash Back Credit Cards of October 2020

Best Cash Back Credit Cards From Our Partners

Our pick for

Flat-rate cash back: High ongoing rate

on Citibank's application

Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

1%-2%

Cashback

Intro offer

$0

Recommended Credit Score

The Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer gets best-in-class marks for pure value and simplicity: 2% cash back on every purchase — 1% when you make it and 1% when you pay it off. Shop as you normally would and get a fantastic rewards rate on EVERYTHING.

Pros

There are no bonus categories to track or spending limits to be mindful of. The combined 2% rate on all purchases is probably the best you're going to do on a card with a $0 annual fee.

Cons

The value in this card is all in the rewards rate, so there's no sign-up bonus or 0% period for purchases. Higher cash back percentages can be had on different cards for specific categories. There’s a minimum cash back redemption of $25.

  • 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 13.99% - 23.99%, based on your creditworthiness.
  • Balance Transfers do not earn cash back.
  • If you transfer a balance, interest will be charged on your purchases unless you pay your entire balance (including balance transfers) by the due date each month.
  • There is a balance transfer fee of either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
  • The standard variable APR for Citi Flex Plan is 13.99% - 23.99%, based on your creditworthiness. Citi Flex Plan offers are made available at Citi's discretion.

Our pick for

Bonus rewards: Groceries, gas, commuting, streaming

on American Express's website

Rates & Fees
Annual Fee

$0 intro for the first year, then $95

Rewards Rate

1%-6%

Cashback

Intro offer

$300

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 will more than make up for it for families that spend a lot on groceries, gas, transit and streaming.

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 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

The annual fee will be a sticking point for some, but the rewards will offset the fee if you spend just $31 a week at the supermarket. If you don't have significant grocery expenses, however, this simply isn't the card for you. Instead, consider the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, which has a $0 fee but lower rewards rates.

  • Limited Time Offer: Earn a $300 statement credit after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 6 months. Offer Expires 12/10/2020
  • Limited Time Offer: $0 introductory annual fee for one year, then $95. Offer Expires 12/10/2020
  • 6% Cash Back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%).
  • 6% Cash Back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions.
  • 3% Cash Back at U.S. gas stations and on transit (including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more).
  • 1% Cash Back on other purchases.
  • Plan It® gives the option to select purchases of $100 or more to split up into monthly payments with a fixed fee and no interest.
  • Cash Back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit.
  • Terms Apply.
  • View Rates and Fees

Our pick for

Bonus rewards: 5%/3% categories + high ongoing rate

on Chase's website

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

1.5%-5%

Cashback

Intro offer

$200

Recommended Credit Score

The Chase Freedom Unlimited® was already a fine card when it offered 1.5% cash back on all purchases. Now it's even better, with bonus rewards on travel booked through Chase, as well as at restaurants and drugstores. New cardholders get great bonus opportunities, too.

Pros

This card earns 5% cash back on travel booked through Chase; 3% cash back at restaurants and drugstores; and 1.5% on other purchases. New cardholders also get 5% back on up to $12,000 in grocery store purchases in the first year (not including Target or Walmart) and can snag this sign-up bonus: Earn a $200 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.

Cons

If groceries are a major line item in your budget, you may be better off with a card that offers high ongoing rewards at the supermarket, rather than just in the first year. And while you can earn big rewards on travel bookings with this card, it also charges a 3% foreign transaction fee, so it's not a good companion abroad.

  • Earn a $200 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.
  • Earn 5% cash back on grocery store purchases (not including Target® or Walmart® purchases) on up to $12,000 spent in the first year.
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.
  • Earn 5% on travel purchased through Chase, 3% on dining at restaurants and drugstores, and 1.5% on all other purchases.
  • No annual fee.
  • 0% Intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases, then a variable APR of 14.99 - 23.74%.
  • No minimum to redeem for cash back. Cash Back rewards do not expire as long as your account is open.
  • See if you qualify for a better offer with Chase:

Our pick for

Flat-rate cash back: Bonus offer + 0% period for purchases

on American Express's website

Rates & Fees
Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

1.50%

Cashback

Intro offer

$150

Recommended Credit Score

The American Express Cash Magnet® Card offers solid, no-fuss cash rewards — 1.5% cash back on purchases — for a $0 annual fee. Terms apply.

Pros

You get 1.5% cash back on all eligible purchases, and new cardholders can qualify for a solid bonus: Earn a $150 statement credit after you spend $1,000 or more in purchases with your new Card within the first 3 months of Card Membership. Terms Apply. The introductory 0% APR period on purchases is terrific, too.

Cons

Your only option for redeeming cash back is as a statement credit, with a $25 minimum. You can't get rewards deposited into a bank account, as is possible with many other cash-back cards.

  • Earn a $150 statement credit after you spend $1,000 or more in purchases with your new Card within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Unlimited 1.5% Cash Back on your purchases.
  • Low intro APR: 0% for 15 months on purchases from the date of account opening, then a variable rate, currently 13.99% to 23.99%.
  • Plan It® gives the option to select purchases of $100 or more to split up into monthly payments with a fixed fee and no interest.
  • Amex Offers rewards you at places you like to shop, dine, travel, and more. You can add as many Offers as you'd like to your Card, then just use that Card to pay, and enjoy rewards directly on your statement.
  • Cash Back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed for statement credits.
  • No Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • View Rates and Fees

Our pick for

Bonus rewards: Groceries and gas + no annual fee

on American Express's website

Rates & Fees
Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

1%-3%

Cashback

Intro offer

$200

Recommended Credit Score

The Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express is a great option for families that spend a lot on groceries and gas but not enough to justify the annual fee on the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express.

Pros

You earn 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 spent per year, then 1%), 2% back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, and 1% back on everything else. (Terms apply.) You get a 0% intro APR period and a solid bonus offer, too.

Cons

This card doesn't offer the transit or streaming benefits of its annual-fee cousin, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. And if you spend at least $61 per week at the supermarket, you’re actually better off paying the annual fee on that card because you'll come out ahead with the higher rewards rate.

  • Earn a $200 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months.
  • 3% Cash Back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%).
  • 2% Cash Back at U.S. gas stations and at select U.S. department stores.
  • 1% Cash Back on other purchases.
  • Low intro APR: 0% for 15 months on purchases from the date of account opening, then a variable rate, 13.99% to 23.99%.
  • Plan It® gives the option to select purchases of $100 or more to split up into monthly payments with a fixed fee and no interest.
  • Cash Back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed for statement credits.
  • No annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • View Rates and Fees

Our pick for

Bonus rewards: Quarterly categories + cash-back match

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

Rewards Rate

1%-5%

Cashback

Intro offer

Cashback Match

Recommended Credit Score

You get 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in spending per quarter in categories that you activate — and unlike with some cards, the 5% categories include places where a lot of people spend a lot of money. With Discover's unique bonus and a $0 annual fee, the Discover it® Cash Back does well as either an everyday card or a backup.

Pros

The 5% categories regularly include big line items in many household budgets: grocery stores, restaurants, Amazon.com. You earn 1% on all other spending (that is, spending outside the bonus categories and category spending above the $1,500 quarterly limit when you activate). This card also puts you in charge of your new cardmember bonus. The more you use the card, the bigger your bonus.

Cons

Activating the bonus categories each quarter can be a hassle. If you forget, you don't get 5%. The categories might not be a good fit for everyone. You also have to wait a year for your bonus.

  • INTRO OFFER: Unlimited Cashback Match – only from Discover. Discover will automatically match all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year! There’s no minimum spending or maximum rewards. Just a dollar-for-dollar match.
  • Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places each quarter like Amazon.com, grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations and when you pay using PayPal, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate.
  • Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases - automatically.
  • Redeem cash back in 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.
  • Discover is accepted nationwide by 99% of the places that take credit cards.
  • View Rates and Fees

Our pick for

Bonus rewards: Quarterly categories + cash bonus

on Chase's website

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

1%-5%

Cashback

Intro offer

$200

Recommended Credit Score

The Chase Freedom Flex℠ offers rewards as high as 5% in specific categories (some that change quarterly and some that don't), plus generous bonus opportunities for new cardholders. If you're willing to put in a little work, it's one rich card.

Pros

This card earns 5% cash back in bonus categories that change every three months (on up to $1,500 per quarter in spending, then 1%); 5% on travel booked through Chase; 3% cash back at restaurants and drugstores; and 1% on other purchases. New cardholders also get 5% back on up to $12,000 in grocery store purchases in the first year (not including Target or Walmart) and can snag this sign-up bonus: Earn a $200 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.

Cons

You have to opt in to the bonus categories every quarter, which can be a hassle. The rotating 5% categories might not be a good fit for everyone, and in recent years, they've shifted a bit toward lower-spending areas: Restaurants dropped out of the rotation entirely (although dining is now a permanent 3% category), and gas stations have been included for two quarters a year.

  • Earn a $200 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.
  • Earn 5% cash back on grocery store purchases (not including Target® or Walmart® purchases) on up to $12,000 spent in the first year.
  • 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!
  • Earn 5% on travel purchased through Chase, 3% on dining at restaurants and drugstores, and 1% on all other purchases.
  • No annual fee.
  • 0% Intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases, then a variable APR of 14.99 - 23.74%.
  • No minimum to redeem for cash back. Cash Back rewards do not expire as long as your account is open.
  • See if you qualify for a better offer with Chase:

Our pick for

Side hustles and gig work

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

1.5%

Cashback

Intro offer

$500

Recommended Credit Score

If you have a side business that incurs expenses — be it freelance work, deliveries, rideshare driving or something else — it makes sense to have a dedicated small-business card for it to keep business and personal spending separate. The $0-annual-fee Ink Business Unlimited℠ Credit Card is an ideal choice.

Pros

You earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases, with no restricted categories to worry about (something that makes a lot of small-business credit cards a bad fit for gig workers). There's a 0% introductory period for purchases and a fantastic bonus offer for new cardholders, and you can get free cards for people who work with you in your business.

Cons

The application asks for information about your business. Your business doesn't need a separate name or a formal structure like a corporation or LLC (most small businesses aren't), but you'll need to be able to answer questions like how much money it brings in, what it does and how long you've been at it.

  • Earn $500 bonus cash back after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase made for your business
  • 0% introductory APR for 12 months on purchases
  • Employee cards at no additional cost
  • No Annual Fee

FULL LIST OF EDITORIAL PICKS: BEST CASH BACK CARDS

Click the card name to read our review. Before applying, confirm details on the issuer’s website.

Our pick for: Flat-rate cash back — high ongoing rate

Year after year, the Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer has been our choice for the best flat-rate cash-back card. You earn 2% cash back on every purchase — 1% when you buy something and 1% when you pay it off. There's no 0% intro period for purchases and no sign-up bonus, but the high rewards rate more than makes up for the lack of bells and whistles. Read our review.

Our pick for: Flat-rate cash back — bonus offer + 0% period for purchases

The American Express Cash Magnet® Card pays a simple, flat cash-back rate on all purchases, with no limit to how much cash back you can earn. Plus, get a decent bonus offer and an introductory 0% APR period. If you want an AmEx card with a no-hassle rewards structure, this is your card. Read our review.

Our pick for: Flat-rate cash back — high rewards for bigger spenders

The Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card is designed for big spenders, although perhaps not the biggest spenders. It offers the highest ongoing rewards rate of any flat-rate cash-back card, but it also charges an annual fee, and it limits the amount of spending that earns rewards. (That limit is high, but it's still a limit.) If you're expecting to put more than $2,500 a month on a credit card, this is an excellent one to put it on. Read our review.

Our pick for: Bonus rewards — 5%/3% categories + high ongoing rate

The Chase Freedom Unlimited® was already a fine card when it offered 1.5% cash back on all purchases. Now it's even better, with bonus rewards on travel booked through Chase, as well as at restaurants and drugstores. On top of all that, new cardholders get a 0% introductory APR period, bonus rewards at grocery stores and the opportunity to earn a sweet cash bonus. Read our review.

Our pick for: Bonus rewards — groceries, gas, commuting, streaming

If your household spends a lot on groceries, gas, transit and streaming services, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is for you. The rewards it pays in those categories — particularly at U.S. supermarkets and on select streaming services — are among the richest of any card. There's a nice bonus offer for new cardholders and an introductory 0% APR period, too. The generous benefits come at a cost, though: Unlike most cash-back cards, this one charges an annual fee. Read our review.

Our pick for Bonus categories — groceries and gas + no annual fee

The Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express pays elevated rewards at U.S. supermarkets, U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores. The rewards aren't as rich as on the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, but this card doesn't charge an annual fee. New cardholders get a decent bonus offer and an introductory 0% APR period. If you're buying groceries regularly but not necessarily all the time, it's worth a look. Read our review.

Our pick for: Bonus rewards — quarterly categories + cash bonus 

The Chase Freedom Flex℠ offers bonus cash back in quarterly categories that you activate, as well as on travel booked through Chase, at restaurants and at drugstores. Category activation can be a hassle, but if your spending matches the categories — and for a lot of people, it will — you can rack up hundreds of dollars a year. There's a fantastic bonus offer for new cardholders and a 0% intro APR period, too. Read our review.

Our pick for: Bonus categories — quarterly categories + cash-back match

The Discover it® Cash Back earns bonus cash back in quarterly categories that you activate. In past years, those categories have included common spending areas like grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations and Amazon.com. Category activation can be a hassle, but if your spending aligns with those categories (and for most households, it probably will), you can rake in serious rewards. You also get the issuer's signature "cash-back match" bonus in your first year. Read our review.

Our pick for: Bonus categories — dining and entertainment 

If a night out is more than a once-in-a-while proposition for you, consider the Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card. You get a best-in-class cash-back rate on dining and entertainment, plus bonus rewards at grocery stores. The sign-up bonus is one of the best you can get on a cash-back card. Read our review.

Our pick for: Customizable cash back — 3% categories you can adjust monthly

The Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card gives you a little more control over your credit card rewards by letting you choose which category earns the highest cash-back rate, from a list that includes gas stations, restaurants, travel and others. You also get bonus rewards at grocery stores and supermarkets, plus a great new-cardholder bonus offer. Read our review.

Our pick for: Customizable cash back — wide selection of categories

If you don't mind putting some work into your rewards, check out the U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card. It might be the most customizable cash back card available. You pick which categories earn the most cash back — you get two 5% categories and a 2% category — and you can change those options every quarter. There's a good bonus offer for new cardholders, too. Read our review.

Our pick for: Side hustles and gig work

The Ink Business Unlimited℠ Credit Card earns a simple, flat cash-back rate on every purchase, with no limit on how much you can earn. The sign-up bonus is outstanding for a cash-back card, particularly one with no annual fee, and there's an introductory 0% APR period for purchases. Read our review. 

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.

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.

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. A 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.

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.

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.

Last updated on October 19, 2020

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