Cash-back credit cards aren’t all created equal, especially when it comes to incentives, rewards rates and terms.
Find your best match by adding some important considerations to your mental checklist. Once you find a card that complements your spending, you can watch the rewards add up.
Is a cash-back credit card right for you?
Cash-back credit cards reward your spending, but be aware that if you carry a balance on one, interest charges generally cancel out those rewards. A low-interest credit card can save you money if you have a revolving balance.
It’s also important to know your credit score so you can apply for cash-back credit cards in your league. If you aren’t approved for your first choice and then apply for another card, you could hurt your credit score. That’s because each application triggers a “hard pull” on your credit report, which puts a small dent in your score.
There’s no hard pull when you check your own credit score. Find out where your number stands and apply for the best credit card options in your score range. (Get your score for free on NerdWallet.) You usually need good credit to qualify for a cash-back credit card.
Types of cash-back credit cards
If you pay off your balances in full each month, you might be a good candidate for a cash-back card. You have three different types to choose from:
- Flat-rate cash-back credit cards offer simplicity. These cards pay the same rewards rate — such as 1.5% or 2% back — on all purchases. It’s easy to know what you’re getting, and there’s usually no limit to the amount you can earn.
- Tiered cash-back credit cards earn more in specific spending categories. These cards offer a higher rewards percentage for spending in certain categories, such as gas or groceries, and a lower rate — usually 1% — on all other purchases. Some tiered cards limit the rewards you can earn in a given category. For example, you might earn 3% cash back at the supermarket on up to $6,000 spent annually and 1% on all additional supermarket spending.
- Bonus category credit cards offer an even higher cash-back rate in specific categories. These cards earn around 5% cash back in one category — up to a certain amount of spending — and 1% on all other purchases. The specific spending category or categories that earn higher rewards rates will typically rotate every three months. You have to activate spending categories every time there’s a new offer.
What to consider in your search
There are several factors to weigh as you choose a cash-back credit card. The best one will match your preferences when it comes to rewards rates, fees, redemption options, promotional offers and more.
A 2% cash-back rewards rate is generous for a flat-rate card. For tiered or bonus category credit cards, the rewards rate can be 5% or higher. Think about how the top rate for each card you’re considering applies to your spending. Do you spend enough in those categories to earn significant rewards? Would you max out those categories? If so, the card is a match for your habits.
Once you max out a category, you can continue optimizing by using multiple cash-back credit cards strategically. For instance, once you hit the quarterly earnings cap on your bonus category card, you can start using an uncapped flat-rate card to ensure you still get more than 1% back on purchases in that category — and all others.
Cash-back credit cards typically don’t charge annual fees, but if you are considering a card that charges one, determine whether you could offset it with perks and rewards. Then investigate whether you qualify for no-fee cards with the same rewards rate.
Some cards require you to earn a certain amount of cash back — $25, for example — before you can redeem. Other cards let you redeem for any amount at any time. Decide how important it is to be able to access your rewards money quickly and on your terms.
Cash-back redemption options
Every card has different redemption policies. Depending on the card, you can redeem cash as a statement credit, a gift card, a deposit or a check. Choose a card that offers the method that’s easiest for you.
A sign-up bonus and cash rewards sound like a win-win, but don’t let the bonus steer your decision — after all, it’s a one-time deal. It pays more to focus on the card’s spending categories, because if they’re right for you, they’ll offer more cash over the long term.
An introductory 0% APR
A 0% introductory APR credit card may offer an advantage if you’re looking to make a large purchase. As long as you make your minimum monthly payments, your balance won’t accrue interest until the promotional period expires.
Make a decision
The right credit card meets your personal requirements and complements your spending habits. If you can’t decide, you don’t have to settle for just one card. Flat-rate, tiered and bonus category cash-back credit cards can pair well to maximize rewards.
Become a cash-back connoisseur and use each card strategically. Just don’t apply for multiple cash-back cards all at once. Remember that each hard pull chips off a few points, temporarily, from your credit score.
Pace yourself and get to know each card. This way, you can maintain a healthy credit score and use each card to your advantage.