It happens quickly: The lazy days of summer end, the hustle and bustle of back-to-school begins and, once more, you’re sending your little one off to class.
If you have school-age kids, there’s a good chance you’re spending a lot during back-to-school season — about $630, according to projections from the National Retail Federation. But if you pay for everything with a cash-back credit card that offers a generous welcome bonus and rewards, that extra spending could help you kick off the school year with major earnings you can use any way you like.
The Nerds give these three cash-back credit cards high marks:
Best for stocking up on lunch supplies: Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
Earn 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets, up to $6,000 per year in purchases, 3% back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores and 1% on all other purchases. The annual fee is expressed as, $95. Bonus: $200 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months. Terms Apply.
Benefits of Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express:
- Among cards offered on NerdWallet, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express offers the highest rewards rate for groceries. You’ll also earn bonus rewards for select U.S. department stores and U.S. gas stations, useful for back-to-school shopping.
- You’ll get a generous welcome bonus: $200 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months. Terms Apply.
- The card’s APR: 0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 12 months, and then the ongoing APR of 14.99% - 25.99% Variable APR.
Drawbacks of Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express:
- Welcome bonus aside, you’ll have to spend $31 on groceries per week to break even on this deal because of its ongoing annual fee: $95.
- If you spend much more than $6,000 per year at U.S. supermarkets, the annual spending cap may limit your potential earnings.
The bottom line
The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express’s competitive cash-back rewards at the supermarket can come in handy when you’re stocking up on string cheese, fruit roll-ups and other lunchbox staples. But you might want to consider another card if you spend less than $31 per week at the supermarket, or tend to shop for food at wholesale clubs instead of U.S. supermarkets.
Best for clothes, books and electronics: Discover it® Cash Back
Earn 5% cash back in rotating bonus categories up to $1,500 in combined purchases each quarter, and 1% cash back on everything else; the annual fee is $0. 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.
Benefits of Discover it® Cash Back:
- You can earn 5% cash-back rewards in popular rotating categories, such as restaurants, gas stations and Amazon.com. Here’s the current category list:
|Discover bonus categories for 2018|
|Q1 2018 (Jan. 1 – March 31)||Gas stations and wholesale clubs|
|Q2 2018 (April 1 – June 30)||Grocery stores|
|Q3 2018 (July 1 – Sept. 30)||Restaurants|
|Q4 2018 (Oct. 1 – Dec. 31)||Amazon.com and wholesale clubs|
- The annual fee is $0, so you don’t have to spend a lot to come out ahead on this deal. It also comes with a sign-up bonus: 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.
- You’ll get a 0% APR offer: 0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 14 months, and then the ongoing APR of 13.99% - 24.99% Variable APR.
- If you shop at the Discover bonus mall, you can get up to 20% cash back on purchases.
Drawbacks of Discover it® Cash Back:
- To earn 5% cash back in bonus categories, you have to reactivate your rewards options each quarter through your online portal. For some, this might be an inconvenience.
- If your largest expenses don’t match this card’s rotating bonus categories, you’d be better off with another card.
- If you’re a big spender, the $1,500 quarterly spending cap for bonus categories may be too low. Go for a card that offers unlimited rewards.
The bottom line
Each year, the Discover it® Cash Back bonus categories usually include department stores and Amazon.com, two places you’ll likely shop at while getting your student ready for school. Shop at the Discover bonus mall during back-to-school season, and you’ll rack up even more cash back, whether you’re making purchases online or in-store.
Nerd note: If you’re a college student and have the Discover it® Cash Back, you may qualify for a Good Grade bonus. Maintain a 3.0 GPA or higher, and you can apply for a $20 cash-back bonus each year, for up to five consecutive years.
Best for getting cash back on everything: Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer
Earn 1% cash back on every dollar spent, and another 1% cash back on every dollar you pay off. The annual fee is $0. Introductory APR of 0% on Balance Transfers for 18 months, and then the ongoing APR of 15.49% - 25.49% Variable APR.
Benefits of Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer:
- Among cards offered on NerdWallet, the Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer has the highest flat-rate cash back rewards. The rewards are unlimited, too, making it an excellent card for big spenders.
- The annual fee is $0, so you won’t have to pay to keep your account open.
- This card comes with a 0% APR offer: 0% on Balance Transfers for 18 months, and then the ongoing APR of 15.49% - 25.49% Variable APR.
Drawbacks of Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer:
- If you spend heavily in a certain bonus category — say, groceries or gas — you might earn more rewards with a different card.
- This card doesn’t come with a sign-up bonus.
The bottom line
If the Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer were a person, it would be that genius kid who aces every subject. Its flat-rate cash-back rewards are almost unrivaled, and its 0% APR introductory period makes it an effective balance-transfer card as well. If you don’t want to bother with rotating bonus categories or costly annual fees, this straightforward card could be the best pick.
To be sure, cash-back cards aren’t the only plastic that could help you earn big rewards this school year.
If you’re planning a family vacation, a travel rewards card like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card might be a better match. If you’re struggling with high-interest credit card debt after back-to-school shopping, a balance transfer card could help you save money on interest.
Check out NerdWallet’s Best Credit Cards to find out more about the top offers available. Once you take the time to choose the back-to-school credit card that fits your needs, you’ll reap the benefits long after classes have begun.
Updated January 20, 2016.
Image via iStock.