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Sallie Mae MasterCard: Not Just For Student Loans

July 13, 2018
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The Sallie Mae MasterCard offers abundant cash-back rewards for spending at gas stations, supermarkets and bookstores – and you don’t even need to have Sallie Mae student loans to qualify for this card. If these bonus categories are a major part of your budget, chances are, you’ll be able to get hundreds in cash back each year. Here’s what you should know before applying.

At a glance
Annual fees The annual fee is $0
Foreign transaction fee 3%
Rewards program Cash back
Sign-up bonus $25 Cash Bonus - after first purchase, made within 90 days of account opening
Verdict: If you spend a lot at gas stations, grocery stores and bookstores, this could help you maximize your savings.
Good for:
  • Someone who spends money at gas stations, grocery stores and bookstores regularly.
  • Someone who doesn’t want to deal with rotating bonus categories.
Bad for:
  • Someone who spends much more than $250 per month on either gas or groceries.
  • Someone looking for a big sign-up bonus.
  • Someone who wants to use the card abroad.

In this article

Sallie Mae MasterCard basics
Where the Sallie Mae MasterCard shines
Earn more through Upromise
Where the Sallie Mae MasterCard falls short
Sallie Mae MasterCard vs. its competitors
Should I get the Sallie Mae MasterCard?

Sallie Mae MasterCard basics

The Sallie Mae MasterCard is a no-fuss card with a lot of earning potential. Here’s a look at what it offers:

  • You’ll be able to redeem your rewards as statement credit, credit toward your Sallie Mae loans or credit toward your Upromise account.
  • Your rewards will never expire.
  • The $0.

All in all, the Sallie Mae MasterCard could potentially net you hundreds of extra dollars per year, assuming you can max out all the bonus categories. It boasts top-notch value with minimal cost.

Where the Sallie Mae MasterCard shines

The Sallie Mae MasterCard has plenty of perks. Here’s a look at what makes this card stand out:

Ample rewards. With the Sallie Mae MasterCard, you’ll get one point per dollar on general purchases, five points per dollar on gas and groceries, both up to $250 spent per month, and five points per dollar on bookstores up to $750 a month. Points are redeemed for one cent each in statement credit or credit to your Upromise account or Sallie Mae loan, effectively making it a cash-back card – and an excellent one, at that.

With 5% earnings at bookstores, you could earn up to $450 cash back per year on purchases from places like (which is generally coded as a bookstore) even if you’re not purchasing books. You’ll earn another $300 per year if you max out your gas and grocery bonus categories. These earnings don’t even account for the 1% cash back you’ll earn on other purchases.

No annual fee. The Sallie Mae MasterCard has a high ongoing value, partly because the $0. The sign-up bonus isn’t much, but as noted, you’ll be able to earn up to $750 a year, if the card’s bonus categories match your spending habits.

Low maintenance. With this card, you don’t have to deal with rotating rewards or opting into bonus categories each quarter. You can count on consistent earnings from everyday purchases without doing much legwork.

Earn more through Upromise

Sallie Mae’s free Upromise program helps people save for student loans and other educational expenses by offering unlimited cash back deals through certain vendors. After registering your debit or credit card in the program, you’ll be able to start earning more on your everyday purchases. Similar to a credit card, you’ll also be able to track your cash back balance online.

You don’t need a particular card or even a Sallie Mae account to benefit from the savings, but if you do have the Sallie Mae MasterCard, it’s worth noting that you can redeem your card’s cash back rewards to your Upromise account. This is faster than redeeming them in other ways, and you’ll be able to collect a larger check once you’re ready to redeem the credits.

With no spending caps, Upromise lets you maximize your earnings for everyday spending, offering cash-back bonuses for several hotels, restaurants and online stores, such as, 1-800-CONTACTS and Depending on how much you spend, you can also earn up to 8% cash back on several large and small restaurants with no spending caps. Your cash-back earnings likely won’t be enough to cover a whole year of education expenses, but a few hundred bucks can only help chip away at those loans.

Where the Sallie Mae MasterCard falls short

The Sallie Mae MasterCard isn’t the perfect pick for everyone. Here are some reasons you may want to pass on it:

It doesn’t provide many special benefits to Sallie Mae customers. If you do have a Sallie Mae account and you’re hoping that this card will offer you some extra help, you may be disappointed to find out that you won’t earn any more rewards than someone without any loans. You’ll still earn plenty of cash back, but you’ll only get a value of one cent per point, even if you redeem it as a loan credit.

Rewards take a long time to post. You won’t get your rewards as a statement credit or student loan credit until six to eight weeks after making the redemption request, and if you choose to deposit your rewards into a Upromise, the transaction will be posted as pending within thirty days. If you’re already committed to this card, this probably isn’t a deal-breaker for you – but it could be an inconvenience.

It has a small sign-up bonus. The Sallie Mae MasterCard comes with a meager $25 Cash Bonus - after first purchase, made within 90 days of account opening. That’s better than no sign-up bonus at all, but it doesn’t exactly give the card a big boost in value. That’s why it’s better suited towards people looking for a card to use long-term.

Sallie Mae MasterCard vs. its competitors

Depending on your spending habits, you may be better off with another cash-back card. Here are some to consider:

Sallie Mae MasterCard vs. Chase Freedom®

The Chase Freedom®, which offers 5% back on rotating categories up to $1,500 in combined purchases per quarter, may be a better choice if your spending matches those rotating categories. It also offers a more generous sign-up bonus than the Sallie Mae MasterCard: Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening. If you have less-than-excellent credit, you may have an easier time qualifying for it, too.

But even though the Sallie Mae MasterCard’s sign-up bonus isn’t as big, it still wins for long-term value because of its many additional rewards categories and higher earning potential. And unlike the Chase Freedom®, you don’t have to re-activate your rewards every quarter to earn big in your bonus categories.

Sallie Mae MasterCard vs. Amazon Credit Card 

If you spend more than $1,250 per month on Amazon purchases, you’ll earn more rewards with the Amazon Credit Card than the Sallie Mae MasterCard. That’s because the Amazon Credit Card, which earns 3% cash back on purchases, has no spending caps on rewards. It also has no foreign transaction fees, making it a slightly better card to travel with internationally than the Sallie Mae MasterCard.

If you don’t spend that much at, though, you’ll likely earn more with the Sallie Mae MasterCard, which offers 5% rewards on bookstores (including for up to $750 a month, and 5% cash back on up to $250 for both gas and groceries a month. The Amazon Credit Card offers 2% cash back for gas, but just 1% for groceries.

Sallie Mae MasterCard vs. Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer

The Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer’s rewards program is simple: You earn an unlimited 1% cash back on all your purchases, and another 1% when you pay them off. Because there’s no cap on spending and no limitations on what you can earn cash back on, it may be a better fit if you don’t shop at bookstores, gas stations or grocery stores frequently. The Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer doesn’t come with a sign-up bonus, but like the Sallie Mae MasterCard, it offers high ongoing rewards.

If you do tend to visit outlets coded to match the Sallie Mae MasterCard’s earnings categories often, the Sallie Mae MasterCard could potentially help you save much more than the Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer – especially if you’re more frugal. But if you do all your shopping at warehouse outlets, such as Target and Wal-Mart, which aren’t generally coded as grocery stores, gas stations or bookstores, the Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer may be a better pick.

Should I get the Sallie Mae MasterCard?

If you’re hunting for a huge sign-up bonus or some kind of automatic loyalty status, you may want to keep looking. But if you want long-term value, the Sallie Mae MasterCard is hard to beat, especially if gas, groceries and books are major monthly expenses for you. So don’t let its name fool you – you don’t have to take out a student loan to rake in these generous rewards.

Claire Davidson is a staff writer covering personal finance for NerdWallet. Follow her on Twitter @ideclaire7 and on Google+.

Image via iStock.