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I’m certainly a fan of earning travel rewards, but it’s tough to beat plain hard cash back, especially in a year in which travel is especially difficult.
Every time you swipe a credit card, the merchant pays a fee in the neighborhood of 3%. Businesses that want to be profitable will factor those costs into the price of the products and services they offer.
If you assume you’re paying about a 3% premium on everything you purchase, you might as well do what you can to get most of that money back.
As someone who likes to optimize, I’ve often found ways to get more than 3% back on my money via a combination of welcome bonuses with new cards and efficient use of travel rewards points.
Always trying to squeeze the most out of every point can be challenging, time-consuming, frustrating, and even stressful. There are times where it’s just easier to use a good cash back card and know exactly what your return will be.
Today, I’ll review some of the best cards available for good old, simple cash back.
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If you want to jump right to the cash back cards based on category, use this handy table of contents.
Personal Cards Offering Cash Back as a Flat Percentage
It doesn’t get any simpler than getting a flat percentage back on every dollar you spend. These cards are ideal for the person who wants to have one card to use on everything. It’s simplicity at it’s finest.
The Chase Freedom Unlimited card offers up to $300 bonus from an extra 1.5% back on your first $20,000 in purchases in the first 12 months. The card also offers 3% back on restaurant and drugstore purchases, and a flat 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.
The Chase Freedom Unlimited offers 3% back on dining and drugstores and a flat 1.5% cash back on all other purchases. No annual fee.
The Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Card will also get you 1.5% back on all purchases. Like the others above, there is no annual fee, and like the HSBC card, there are no foreign transaction fees when using this card outside of the United States.
The early spend bonus on this card is $200 when you put a total of $500 on the card within the first three months.
The Quicksilver Card gives you unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases. No foreign transaction fees & no annual fee.
The Citi Double Cash Card offers a total of 2% cash back on all purchases: 1% when you charge and 1% when you pay.
The card carries no annual fee and a 0% introductory APR on balance transfers for 18 months (fees apply).
Since the card offers no welcome bonus, one must do the math to determine how long it will take to break even when comparing to one of the cards above with a $150 or $200 welcome bonus.
The Citi Double Cash Card pays an extra 0.5%, or 50 cents on every $100 spent on the card as compared to those giving you 1.5%. That’s $5 extra per $1,000 spend, and $50 per $10,000.
The breakeven point, therefore, occurs when you’ve spent $30,000 on the Double Cash card as compared to those offering a $150 welcome bonus, and $40,000 as compared to a card like the Chase Freedom Unlimited offering a $200 welcome bonus.
Business Cards Offering Cash Back as a Flat Percentage
The Chase Ink Business Unlimited card gives you unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases. The card has no annual fee.
The welcome bonus is quite generous for a no-annual-fee card at $750 after a $3,000 spend within the first three months.
If you prefer a card with no annual fee, the Capital One Spark Cash Select for Business card is just that. The downside is that you get 1.5% cash back instead of the 2% you earn with the non-Select version of the card. This card is also not currently available via CardRatings.
This card also has a smaller welcome bonus of $200 after a $3,000 spend in the first three months.
How do you determine which card is best betwee the Spark Cash and Spark Cash Select?
The break-even point is at about $20,000 in annual spending on the card.
1.5% cash back would be $300.
2% back would be $400.
It makes sense to pay a $95 annual fee to get an extra $100 in cash back, not to mention the larger welcome bonus.
If you spend less than $20,000 on a business card, the Cash Select card may make more sense for you, although the Chase Ink Business Unlimited card has the same cash back percentage, also has no annual fee, and a welcome bonus of $750 rather than $200.
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Personal Cards Offering Variable Cash Back in Different Categories
The cards above are the simplest for earning cash back rewards. It doesn’t matter what you spend your money on; the cash back is the same.
The following cards take a little more effort to optimize. Many will offer 1% cash back in certain categories and 2% to 6% cash back in others. Those categories are static in some cards, rotate quarterly in others, and some cards let you choose the categories for increased cash back.
Let’s look at some of the top cards in this category.
There’s a new cash back card from Chase, the Chase Freedom Flex. Like its predecessor, the Chase Freedom card, it offers 5% back on rotating categories that you activate quarterly.
Unlike the Freedom Card, it’s branded as a Mastercard rather than a Visa. That gets you World Elite perks specific to Mastercard like a complimentary ShopRunner subscription and additional Lyft perks ($10 credit when you use Lyft 5 times a month). You’ll also get 3% back at drug stores and restaurants at all times.
The card comes with a strong $200 cash back bonus once you spend $500 in your first three months with the card. Think of the Flex as the new and improved Freedom card from Chase.
The Chase Freedom Flex offers 5% cash back on rotating categories, 5% back on travel booked via Chase, 3% back on dining & drugstores. 5% back on up to $12,000 in grocery store purchases your first year. 1% back elsewhere. No annual fee.
You get a full 6% back at U.S. supermarkets on the first $6,000 in annual U.S. supermarket purchases and many popular streaming services.
U.S. Gas station purchases and other ground transit will net you 3% in cash back, and all other purchases give you 1% back.
The card does have a $95 annual fee and a $350 welcome bonus when you spend $3,000 in the first 6 months after opening your account. Terms apply.
The Blue Cash Preferred card offers 6% back on up to $6,000 a year in US supermarket purchases and 6% back on select U.S. streaming services. 3% back on US gas station & transit purchases, 1% back on other purchases. Terms apply. $95 annual fee.
The perks are lower, but you will get 3% back on U.S. supermarket purchases (with the same $6,000 limit), 2% back at U.S. gas stations, and 1% elsewhere.
The welcome bonus is $200 after meeting a minimum spend of $2,000 in the first 6 months. Terms apply.
The Blue Cash Everyday card offers 3% back on up to $6,000 a year in U.S. Supermarket purchases, 2% back on gas station & select department store purchases, 1% back on all else. No annual fee.
US Bank also has a new card, the US Bank Altitude Go Visa Signature Card.
It’s a no annual fee card with some unique features, including an annual $15 credit for popular streaming services. The cash back rewards operate on a point system where 100 points = $1.
The welcome bonus is 20,000 points ($200 worth) after a spend of $1,000 in the first 90 days. You’ll receive 4x points on restaurants and food delivery, 2x on grocery stores and delivery, gas stations, and streaming services, and 1x (i.e. 1% back) on everything else.
This is a great no-fee card for someone who frequently dines out or orders takeout and would like a free month of Netflix each year.
The Altitude Go card gives you 4% back on restaurants, 2% at grocery stores, gas stations, and streaming services. 1% on all else plus a $15 annual streaming credit. No annual fee.
The Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi is for Costco members exclusively. There is no welcome bonus and no annual fee if you have a paid Costco membership.
The cash back perks are pretty sweet with 4% back on the first $7,000 in gasoline. If you’re spending more than that, you should drive less or get a more fuel-efficient vehicle.
Restaurants and eligible travel purchases will get you 3% cash back, you’ll receive 2% cash back on Costco purchases, and 1% back on everything else.
The Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi is a no-brainer for Costco members. Get 4% back on up to $7,000 in gasoline per year, 3% back at restaurants & travel, 2% at Costco, and 1% on all else. No annual fee (with paid Costco membership).
Business Cards Offering Variable Cash Back in Different Categories
The Chase Ink Business Cash card is, in my opinion, the best business credit card with variable cash back.
The card has no annual fee ever, a $750 welcome bonus with a $3,000 spend in three months, and offers up to 5% cash back.
You’ll earn 5% on the first $25,000 spent (that’s $1,250 cash back) on purchases at office supply stores (Staples, Office Depot, Office Max), cellular and landline telephone service, internet, and cable TV services.
Gas station purchases are rewarded with 2% cash back and you’ll get 1% back on everything else.
The Chase Ink Business Cash offers 5% back on up to $25,000 spent on cell and landline service, internet, cable TV, and at office supply stores. 2% back on first $25,000 combined at gas stations & restaurants. 1% back on all else. No annual fee.
You’ll receive 2% cash back on all eligible purchases on up to $50,000 per calendar year, and after that, 1% cash back earned is automatically credited to your statement.
There’s no cash welcome bonus like the Ink Business Cash‘s generous $750, but they will give you a credit of $250 statement credit after you make $3,000 in purchases on your Card in your first 3 months. Terms apply.
Cards with Points That Can Be Converted to Cash
For the most part, the cards above offer cash or cash equivalents as your only reward option. There are lots of other great cards that work on a point system, and those points can often be converted to cash or cash equivalents, often on a 1 point = 1 penny conversion factor.
In many cases, cash is not the best redemption option for these points, and it’s not unusual for people to get 1.5 to 2 cents or more in value per point when redeemed for travel or other perks.
There are too many cards to go into the same level of detail as we have with the other cards, but some of the top cards that fit this category are worth mentioning, and you can follow the links for all you’ll need to know.
Personal Cards with Flexible Points
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- American Express® Gold Card (rates and fees)
- The Platinum Card® from American Express (rates and fees)
- Capital One Venture
Business Cards with Flexible Points
- Chase Ink Business Preferred
- Blue Business Plus Card from American Express (rates and fees)
- American Express Business Gold Card (rates and fees)
- The Business Platinum Card® from American Express (rates and fees)
Developing Your Cash Back Strategy
One Card Strategies:
If simplicity is your thing, I recommend getting a single card with a flat percentage of at least 1.5% back and using it for everything you buy. If you put $50,000 on a card in a year, that will net you $750 back annually, and you may get a welcome bonus on top of that.
If you’ve got a small business, and you plan to spend $50,000 in a year (with half of that coming in eligible categories), the Chase Ink Business Cash card could net you $1,250 on the 5% cash back category, and at least another $250 (more if you spend at gas stations).
Add on the $750 welcome bonus for meeting the minimum spend of $7,500 in three months and you could earn at least $2,000 cash back in your first year with the Chase Ink Business Cash card.
Two Card Strategies:
If you’re willing to use two or more cards to optimize your cash back, consider getting additional cards. Choose from cards that always give a higher return on certain categories and those that give more cash back in rotating categories. A label maker can come in handy to update the categories offering increased cash back four times a year.
It makes sense to pair your choice of flat cash back cards above with a variable cash back card.
Small business owners pursuing a two-card strategy could pair the Chase Ink Business Cash card (variable cash back) with the Chase Ink Business Unlimited (flat rate cash back) or Chase Ink Business Preferred (valuable Chase Ultimate Reward points) and $1,500 in combined welcome bonuses between the two cards (when spending $7,500 on each in the first three months).
The Chase Freedom Flex offers a 5% cash back on categories that rotate quarterly, 3% back at restaurants and drug stores, and 1% back on all else. No annual fee.
Three Card Strategies:
The point of this article is finding a card or two that can give you simple cash back for those who don’t want to fuss too much with credit card rewards. Adding a third card to your armamentarium may be counter to our goals here.
Nevertheless, it may be as simple as adding a business card to a two-card personal credit card strategy or vice versa.
If we’re looking solely at personal cards, you’ll want to add a card that gives you increased cash back in one or more categories that the other cards don’t.
A pretty sweet three-card strategy could look like this:
- 6% back on up to $6,000 in groceries with the Blue Cash Preferred.
- 4% back on dining with the US Bank Altitude Go Card.
- 3% back on gas with the Blue Cash Preferred.
- 2% back on everything else with the Citi Double Cash Card.
The welcome offers after meeting minimum spending requirements in the first year for these two cards that offer them add up to $500. You’ll have no annual fee in the first year, and a $95 annual fee for the Blue Cash Preferred card each year thereafter.
For a no annual fee option, you could downgrade to the Blue Cash Everyday card with a phone call at the end of that first year.
Additional options to swap for those above for a no-annual-fee setup include the two Chase Freedom Cards. Each of these has a $200 when you spend just $500 in the first three months with the card.
- 5% back on rotating categories that change quarterly with the Chase Freedom Flex card.
- 1.5% back on everything else with the Chase Freedom Unlimited Card.
The Altitude Go card gives you 4% back on restaurants, 2% at grocery stores, gas stations, and streaming services. 1% on all else plus a $15 annual streaming credit. No annual fee.
Four Card Strategies:
Did you not read what I said about simplicity?!?
If you’re looking to carry four or more cards, it’s time to look beyond cash back cards to cards that offer travel rewards and other perks. You can find them here:
- Credit Cards for People Who Love Free Travel and Money
- The Best Business Credit Cards for Your Small Business
- Travel Insurance: Evacuation Coverage & Other Credit Card Perks
Chase 5 / 24
As you devise your cash back strategy, keep in mind the fact that Chase usually will not issue a new card to someone who has opened 5 new credit card accounts in the last 24 months (the 5 / 24 Rule).
Business cards from Chase, American Express and Citi Bank do not count, but most other business cards and personal cards do.
Note that while new Chase business cards may not count against your total, they typically will only approve you for a Chase business card if you have had fewer than five new accounts in the last two years.
Given this limitation, if there’s a chance you’ll apply for more than five cards in the next two years, I recommend starting with Chase cards.
It’s also a good idea to pick up no more than two or maybe three personal cards in a year. I also have a preference for certain business cards that will not count against your total.
Also, keep in mind that other banks will look at your total new accounts and you can be denied no matter how good your credit is. It’s not just Chase, but their limitations seem to be the most well-known and best-defined.
Other recommendations for managing multiple credit cards include:
- Always autopay.
- No companion cards.
- Don’t carry a dozen cards.
- Always pay your balance in full.
- Don’t stress. Perfection is not required.
For rationale and more details, please read the tips section in my master post, Credit Cards for People Who Love Free Travel and Money.
Earn that Cash Back!
We’ve covered a lot of ground today. To jump back to the different categories of cash back cards, use these handy buttons.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is an excellent first (or only) rewards card. $50 annual hotel credit for bookings via the Chase UR tavel portal & 5x points for all travel via the portal. 3x points on dining, 2x on other travel. Flexible rewards good for cash, travel, or transfer to travel partners, great travel protection & new Peloton, Lyft & DoorDash perks! $95 Annual Fee
The Chase Sapphire Reserve offers great travel perks including Priority Pass lounge access, a credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ and a $300 annual travel credit. When using Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, get 10x points on hotels and car rental & 5x points on air travel. 3x points on other travel & dining. Elevated Peloton, Lyft and DoorDash benefits. $550 Annual Fee
Do you prefer cash back credit cards? Share your strategies and tips with your fellow readers below!
To see rates and fees for featured cards from American Express: Blue Cash Preferred Card (rates and fees), Blue Cash Everyday Card (rates and fees), American Express Blue Business Cash (rates and fees), American Express Gold Card (rates and fees), American Express Platinum Card (rates and fees), Blue Business Plus Card from American Express (rates and fees), American Express Business Gold Card (rates and fees, and AmEx Business Platinum (rates and fees).
Physician on FIRE has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Physician on FIRE and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.