What is a Cash Back Credit Card? (And Why Your Wallet Needs One)

CREDIT CARDS - CASH BACK CREDIT CARDS
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Updated April 12, 2024
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Cash Back Credit Cards

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You don’t have to be a travel-rewards aficionado to benefit from using a rewards credit card for your day-to-day spending. Your purchases, big or small, all have earning potential. Everything you’re already spending money on — be it gas, groceries, restaurants, you name it — can be purchased using a cash back credit card, and it’s one of the easiest ways to save money.

Think about this: If you go grocery shopping, check out, and drive home, only to realize you didn’t scan any of the coupons you brought with you, there’s a good chance you’ll view that as lost savings. But that’s exactly what happens when you don’t use a rewards credit cards for every purchase — you leave money on the table.

The wonderful thing is that the rewards credit card space is a competitive one, which means there are plenty of options to choose from — and one that’s bound to fit both your spending style and financial goals.

But before settling on any old cash back credit card, and in order to maximize your savings, you may want to start with the simple question: “What is a cash back credit card?” Glad you asked.

In this article

What is a cash back credit card?

A cash back credit card is just one type of rewards credit card. It’s designed to incentivize you to spend more with your credit card, and less with cash or debit cards. These cards are also designed to make credit card companies more money. This is because every time you purchase something from a merchant, the merchant must pay the credit card company a processing fee on that transaction. It would be unwise to think credit card companies aren’t in the business of making money, but that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from each transaction too.

Most cash back credit cards tend to pay anywhere from 1.5%-2% of your purchase in cash back, with some credit cards offering up to 6% cash back. Some may have limitations on how much cash back you can earn in a given time period or what sort of purchases you can earn on, while others reward you for every purchase you make, no matter how much you spend. But because you aren’t limited to having just one credit card, you can easily maximize your earning potential with just a little bit of planning and organization.

That said, cash back credit cards are best for those who pay their balances in full every month, otherwise the cash you receive won’t come anywhere near the cost of paying interest. But when you practice smart financial habits, the rewards are undoubtedly valuable.

How does a cash back credit card work?

While the things you purchase may differ, the actual process of earning cash back is generally the same. We’ll keep it simple and use a trip to the grocery store as an example:

  • Step 1: You head to the grocery store and do your regular shopping. When you’re ready to check out, you reach into your wallet and pull out your new cash back credit card.
  • Step 2: After you swipe your card, your credit card issuer automatically tracks your spending and notes that you earned cash back on your purchase.
  • Step 3: When your credit card issuer awards cash back, typically every statement cycle, your cash back is automatically added to your rewards balance.
  • Step 4: You can choose how and when to redeem your cash back based on the redemption methods offered by the card.

“Redeem” and “redemption” — what do those even mean? Keep reading.

How do you get your cash from your cash back credit card?

When you’re ready to cash out your earnings, you’ll see your rewards balance right on your credit card’s dashboard once you’re signed into your account. From here, it will take just a few clicks to get your cash. Keep in mind that some cards set a minimum amount that must be reached before you can cash out your earnings. Others allow you to redeem as soon as you receive your cash back.

Most credit cards offer a handful of redemption options to choose from to give you full control over what you do with your earnings. In other words, your cash back will accrue until you choose to withdraw it, and there is more than one way to actually receive your earnings. So when you hear “redemption” or “redeem,” it simply means the form of payment you choose to receive your earnings.

While these may vary from card to card, the following are typical options for redeeming your cash back:

  • Statement credit: When you redeem for a statement credit, the cash back amount you choose to redeem is applied to the balance on your card, essentially paying off some or all of the purchases you’ve made.
  • Direct deposit: You can choose to have your cash back deposited directly into your bank account, putting your earnings right back into your pocket.
  • Check in the mail: If prefer to receive your cash back earnings in its physical form, go ahead and have your credit card issuer cut you a check.
  • Gift cards: Many credit card issuers give you the option to redeem cash back for gift cards. Depending on the credit card, you may be able to purchase a gift card at a discount, though they could be more expensive as well.
  • Donate to charity: Some credit card issuers make it possible to redeem your cash back as a donation to a charity. Exactly which charity will vary from card to card.

Who are cash back credit cards good for?

Cash back credit cards are good for anyone who practices smart use of their card. This means avoiding carrying a balance from month-to-month and paying your bill on time. Otherwise, the interest rate on the card will likely far exceed the percentage of cash back you receive.

If you always pay your balance in full and on time, not using a rewards credit card like a cash back card means you’re leaving money on the table.

Are there different types of cash back credit cards?

Why yes, there are. Three types, actually — each with its own set of benefits and drawbacks. But since there are several types of cash back credit cards, that means you have options for maximizing your earnings depending on your spending habits.

You’ll also find that each of the individual credit cards that fall within these categories offers its own perks and earnings structure. So for example, not only does Chase offer different cash back cards than Capital One, but each card Chase offers also differs in how you can earn. This gives you a wide-ranging selection to choose from. So it’s important to do your research on all the cards available, and also examine your own spending and goals, as well.

But, to start you off, here are the three types of cash back credit cards:

Revolving category cards

These types of cash back cards have a revolving bonus category (or categories), that typically change every quarter. This means for three months you can earn a certain percentage, often 5%, when you spend within that category.

Take the Chase Freedom Flex℠, for example. Here are the card’s quarterly categories for 2023:

Year/Quarter Bonus categories
2023 - Q1 Grocery stores (excluding Walmart), Target, and Fitness Clubs & Gym Memberships
2023 - Q2 Amazon and Lowe's
2023 - Q3 Gas stations, electric vehicle charging, and select live entertainment
2023 - Q4 Paypal, wholesale clubs, and select charities

These types of cards often have a per-quarter spending cap. For example, you may only earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in spending per quarter. Once you reach that cap, your earning rate will lower, usually to 1% cash back. But that doesn’t mean these cards aren’t worthwhile. In the example of the Chase Freedom Flex, if you max out the 5% bonus each quarter, you can earn up to $300 for the year, plus any additional earnings.

Aside from the Chase Freedom Flex card, another example of a revolving category credit card is the Discover it® Cash Back card. 

Get more details at our Chase Freedom Flex card review.

Tiered category cards

Tiered category cards typically come with assigned cashback categories, but the earnings rate for each category is tiered. So, for instance, you might earn 5% cash back on groceries, 2% back at gas stations, and 1% on everything else. These cards also often have a per-year spending cap that once reached will lower your earnings rate for those categories to 1%.

Examples of tiered category cards are the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express or the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card. The American Express Blue Cash Preferred® is considered to be one of the best credit cards for groceries, cardholders earn 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (for first $6,000 per year, after that 1%) and on select U.S. streaming services, 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and on eligible transit, and 1% cash back on other eligible purchases. For even more options, check out our list of the best credit cards for gas.

Get more details at our American Express Blue Cash Preferred® review.

Unlimited flat-rate cards

With an unlimited, flat-rate card, you’ll typically find a lower earnings rate, but these cards also don’t tend to come with a cap on the amount you can earn. Not to mention you won’t have to track any categories along the way. 

So while you may not earn 5% on certain spending, you can generally earn between 1.5%-2% on every purchase and not have to sort through your credit cards every time you’re in the checkout line trying to remember which card is for which thing. An example of this kind of card is the Citi Double Cash® Card.

Get more details in our Citi Double Cash® Card review.

What is the highest paying cash back credit card?

The cash back credit card space is a competitive one, and you can find credit cards offering anywhere from 1.5%-6% cash back. The American Express Blue Cash Preferred®, for instance, offers 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (for first $6,000 per year, after that 1%) and on select U.S. streaming services, while the Chase Freedom Flex℠ offers 5% cash back on rotating quarterly categories you activate (on up to $1,500 spent) and travel purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. 

While 6% cash back is above average, the 1.5%-2% cash back that is typical is better than you’re likely getting in your savings account — and definitely better than what you’re getting if you’re not currently using a cash back credit card at all. In fact, depending on how much you spend and the cards you choose, cash back credit cards can be fairly lucrative.

In 2021, for instance, Americans spent an average of $8,289 on food per year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you were to only use a flat-rate card like the Citi Double Cash for your food spending, which earns 2% on every purchase with unlimited 1% cash back when you buy, plus an additional 1% as you pay for those purchases; plus, for a limited time, earn 5% total cash back on hotel, car rentals and attractions booked on the Citi Travel℠ portal through 12/31/24, you’d earn $165.78 in cash back for the year on food alone. Add in the rest of your expenses, and you can see how quickly your cash back can add up.

That said, if you were to use the American Express Blue Cash Preferred®, which gives you 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (for first $6,000 per year, after that 1%) and on select U.S. streaming services, your earnings would be even higher.  

How do you pick a cash back credit card?

There is no one “right” cash back credit card; the right card will depend on your spending habits. To determine a good starting place for your first cash back credit card, take a look at your previous month’s expenses and consider where the bulk of your spending is going.

  • If you spend the most on gas each month, or groceries, for example, a category-based cash back credit card might deliver the most value.
  • If you want to be rewarded for all your spending, without earnings limitations or the need to track categories, a flat-rate credit card will likely be your best bet.
  • If you want to maximize your earnings, using a category-based card in conjunction with a flat-rate card will ensure most, if not all, of your spending is earning cash back.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these choices — it’s all a personal preference. The important thing is that you’re getting money back when you weren't before!

There are also some other special things to consider before applying for a card, such as a card’s welcome bonus, annual fee, and special perks. That’s right, you might have to pay to use some of these cards — but but some of these cards will also reward you with a welcome offer. Let’s look at some of the best cash back credit cards out there so you can decide which one is a good fit for you.

The 6 cash back credit cards we recommend

Card name Welcome bonus Reward rate Annual fee
Chase Freedom Flex℠ Earn a $200 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening  5% cash back on rotating quarterly categories you activate (on up to $1,500 spent) and travel purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal; 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants (including takeout and eligible delivery service); and 1% cash back on all other purchases $0
Chase Freedom Unlimited® Earn an extra 1.5% on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases $0
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express Earn a $250 statement credit after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first 6 months 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (for first $6,000 per year, after that 1%) and on select U.S. streaming services, 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and on eligible transit, and 1% cash back on other eligible purchases $0 intro annual fee for the first year, $95 per year thereafter (Terms apply)
Discover it® Cash Back Discover will match all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year. Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places you shop each quarter like grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, and more, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases—automatically. $0
Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card Earn a one-time $200 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day; and 5% cash back on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel (terms apply) $0
Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card Earn a $300 cash bonus after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months 10% cash back on purchases made through Uber & Uber Eats (through 11/14/2024); 8% cash back on Capital One Entertainment; 4% cash back on dining, entertainment, and select streaming services; 3% at grocery stores (excluding superstores such as Walmart® and Target®), and 1% cash back on all other purchases $95

Chase Freedom Flex℠

The Chase Freedom Flex card allows cardmembers to earn 5% cash back on rotating quarterly categories you activate (on up to $1,500 spent) and travel purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal; 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants (including takeout and eligible delivery service); and 1% cash back on all other purchases. As mentioned, categories need to be activated every quarter. Otherwise, you’ll miss out on the 5% earning potential. Category announcements can be exciting, especially if they align with your spending, but you may also not want to have to remember to activate them each quarter.

After reaching the $1,500 in combined purchases per quarter, you’ll continue to earn an unlimited 1% cash back on those purchases.

There’s no annual fee with this card, and your cash back rewards never expire. New cardmembers can receive a $200 cashback bonus after spending $500 in the first 3 months. In addition, you'll have a 0% intro APR on purchases for 15 months (then 20.49%-29.24% Variable).

Chase Freedom Unlimited®

Similar in name to the Chase Freedom Flex, the Chase Freedom Unlimited® sets itself apart with a slightly different rewards structure. With 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases, instead of the rotating categories you get with the Chase Freedom Flex card, you earn cash back no matter what you’re spending on. 

As a new cardholder, you can earn an extra 1.5% on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year). You'll also have a 0% intro APR on purchases for 15 months (then 20.49% - 29.24% Variable). There’s no annual fee for this card, so all of your earnings will stay right in your pocket.

As you can probably guess, pairing the two cards is a great way to ensure that most, if not all, of your day-to-day spending is covered by a cash back-earning credit card. You’ll be able to maximize your spending within certain categories with the Chase Freedom Flex while always having the Chase Freedom Unlimited handy to ensure you earn on every other purchase.

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is a tiered category card that rewards spending in a handful of categories. This can be a great option if the categories align with your normal day-to-day spending.

This card does have a $0 intro annual fee for the first year, $95 per year thereafter. However, you can earn 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (for first $6,000 per year, after that 1%) and on select U.S. streaming services and 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and eligible transit expenses. This is in addition to the 0% intro APR on purchases for 12 months, then an APR of 19.24% - 29.99% Variable.

For new cardmembers, this card also offers a generous welcome bonus: Earn a $250 statement credit after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first 6 months.

Discover it® Cash Back

Like the Chase Freedom Flex card, the Discover it® Cash Back card’s earning structure is made up of quarterly rotating categories. Turn to this card for your spending, and you can earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places you shop each quarter like grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, and more, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases—automatically.

There’s no annual fee, but you do have to remember to activate your cash back category each quarter. This card can be a great option if you enjoy the thrill of having new categories to earn cash back with, but could also prove burdensome if you don’t want to have to remember to activate each category.

While there’s no sign-up bonus, Discover will match all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year.

Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card

The Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card is another flat-rate credit card that rewards you with unlimited earnings on your everyday spending, no matter what you purchase. Earn 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day; and 5% cash back on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel (terms apply), and there’s no annual fee to boot. Sign up as a new cardmember, and you can earn a $200 cash bonus bonus after spending $500 in the first 3 months.

With a 0% intro APR on purchases for 15 months (then 19.99% - 29.99% (Variable)), it can be a great option if you’re looking to make a major purchase, but don’t have the funds readily available to immediately pay off your balance.

Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card

Foodies will rejoice knowing there’s a cash back credit card designed specifically with them in mind. Ready for this?

When you use the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card, you can earn 10% cash back on purchases made through Uber & Uber Eats (through 11/14/2024); 8% cash back on Capital One Entertainment; 4% cash back on dining, entertainment, and select streaming services; 3% at grocery stores (excluding superstores such as Walmart® and Target®), and 1% cash back on all other purchases.

Hungry for more? When you sign up, you can earn a $300 cash bonus after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months. There is a $95 annual fee for this card, but you’ll also receive a monthly statement credit for a Postmates Unlimited monthly membership through December 2019.

The top 2 business cash back credit cards we recommend

Cash back isn’t reserved only for consumer credit cards. In fact, there are a ton of great business credit cards that offer cash back as well. Businesses aren’t just “companies” either. They can also be for people who take on side hustles or freelance work. If this sounds like you, you might be able to benefit from opening one of these business cash back credit cards.

Capital One Spark Cash Plus

If you like the idea of having a no-frill, flat-rate cash back credit card to cover your business expenses, you might want to consider what the Capital One Spark Cash Plus brings to the table. While there are no fancy perks or bonus categories you have to remember or enroll in, this card offers a straightforward solution to your business spending: you earn a flat 2% cash back on every purchase, every day; plus 5% cash back on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel with no cap on your earning potential.

While there is a $150 annual fee, you can also earn $1,200 after spending $30,000 in the first 3 months. Employee cards come at no additional cost, and you can rest easy knowing you’re covered by a handful of protection perks, such as an auto rental collision damage waiver, purchase security, and an extended warranty.

Ink Business Cash® Credit Card

You don’t have to be a big spender to benefit from the Ink Business Cash® Credit Card. If the bulk of your spending is on internet, cable, phone services, and office supplies, you should find plenty of value in this card. You’ll earn 5% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on internet, cable and phone services each account anniversary year; 2% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations and restaurants each account anniversary year; and 1% cash back on all other purchases. There’s also no annual fee for this card, employee cards are free, and you can earn $350 when you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months and an additional $400 when you spend $6,000 on purchases in the first six months after account opening.

Explore more benefits at our Ink Business Cash® Credit Card review.

So, what is the catch with cash back credit cards?

None, really. Like any credit card with rewards, you want to use it wisely and pay off your balance in full every month. But with good financial habits, it’s a win-win situation.

You don’t have to change your spending habits to benefit from a cash back credit card. You simply earn on the spending you already do.

The bottom line on cash back credit cards

If cash back credit cards are new for you, start simply and pick one card. A good place to start might be a straightforward, flat-rate cash back credit card that rewards you for all your purchases, such as the Citi Double Cash® Card. You won’t have to keep track of categories, and your earnings rate won’t drop after hitting a spending cap.

Spend some time using your first cash back credit card, whichever one you choose, and see how it best aligns with your spending habits and where it falls short. Once you’ve identified any additional opportunities for earning cash back, you can then look to add a second card.

As you get more comfortable, you may decide to add even more cards into the mix, or you may not, and that’s fine, too. The point is you’re taking charge of your finances in a simple way to get money in your account, and that’s just too easy to pass up.

Seriously Powerful Cashback Card

Chase Freedom Flex℠
4.7

Chase Freedom Flex℠

Current Offer

Earn a $200 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening

Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

5% cash back on rotating quarterly categories you activate (on up to $1,500 spent) and travel purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal; 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants (including takeout and eligible delivery service); and 1% cash back on all other purchases

Benefits and Drawbacks
Card Details

Author Details

Matt Miczulski Matt Miczulski is a personal finance writer specializing in financial news, budget travel, banking, and debt. His interest in personal finance took off after eliminating $30,000 in debt in just over a year, and his goal is to help others learn how to get ahead with better money management strategies. A lover of history, Matt hopes to use his passion for storytelling to shine a new light on how people think about money. His work has also been featured on MoneyDoneRight and Recruiter.com.

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