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Best credit cards — and shopping tips — for back-to-school days

Some shopping savvy and the right card can earn you plenty of rewards as you shop for the inevitable

Summary

Whether you’re shopping for yourself or your children, back-to-school shopping can be overwhelming — but these tips can help you score savings as you earn rewards on the best credit cards for back to school.

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There’s nothing cheap these days about back-to-school spending. In 2021, the National Retail Federation said families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $848.90 on school supplies — $59 more than the previous year.

It’s even worse for families with college students. The National Retail Federation says these families will spend an average of $1,200.32 on back-to-school supplies this year. That’s up $141 compared to 2020.

Since you already plan to spend on pencils, backpacks, clothing and scissors this summer, why not earn extra rewards or bonuses? You can — if you use your credit cards wisely.

Here are the best credit cards and spending tips for boosting your back-to-school rewards and savings this year.

Citi Double Cash Card: Best everyday card

Why we picked it: You’ll get effectively 2 percent cash back on all purchases with the Citi® Double Cash Card — 1 percent when you make your purchase and an additional 1 percent when you pay your bill. This means you’ll earn cash back whether you’re buying notebooks, glue and folders or bigger-ticket items such as computers, gym shoes or shirts.

Pros

  • 1 percent cash back on general purchases, plus an additional 1 percent back when you pay off your purchases
  • No annual fee
  • No category restrictions
  • This card technically earns basic ThankYou points

Cons

  • 3% foreign transaction fee
  • Rewards expire if card not in use for over 12 months

Who should apply: Busy parents — who, between baseball practice, violin lessons and school, don’t want to spend too much effort on maximizing rewards — will appreciate this flat-rate cash back card. The Citi Double Cash is also good for cardholders who make many purchases across different stores, both online and in person.

Who should skip: Loyal customers of one retailer, like Amazon or Target, may want to pass on this card in favor of a co-branded option. And, of course, if up to 2 percent cash back sounds like too little rewards, you can keep shopping around for bonus category cards with higher rewards rates.

Bank of America Customized Cash Rewards credit card: Best for online shopping

Why we picked it: Consistently named one of the best cash back cards, the Bank of America® Customized Cash Rewards credit card rewards fans of online shopping. Not only does it offer 2 percent cash back in everyday categories like grocery stores and wholesale clubs, but it also gets you 3 percent back in a category of your choice (gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drug stores or home improvement and furnishings). Note, there’s a $2,500 combined spending limit on the 2 percent and 3 percent categories each quarter.

Many online stores are good for purchasing back-to-school supplies. For example, Amazon.com, Target.com and Apple.com qualify under the online shopping category for Bank of America.

The best part is that you can change your choice category up to once a month, so once back-to-school season is over and your household starts on a new project, like a bathroom remodel, you can easily change your 3 percent category to home improvement and furnishings.

Pros

  • $200 online cash rewards if you spend $1,000 in 90 days
  • No annual fee
  • Ability to choose the category you want to earn heightened rewards in once a month
  • Option to boost your rewards rate up to 75 percent through the Preferred Rewards program

Cons

  • $2,500 spending cap on the 2 percent and 3 percent categories each quarter

Who should apply: For parents who spend in a variety of categories, the Bank of America Customized Cash card is a great option due to its flexible choice category.

Who should skip: Cardholders who prefer shopping in person will find it difficult to maximize rewards on this card during back-to-school season. Plus, if you’re loyal to a specific superstore, getting a store card might be a better move.

Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card: Best for Amazon fans

Why we picked it: The Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card* is perfect if you already have an Amazon Prime membership and do a lot of shopping via Amazon — including for your children’s clothing or school shopping. You’ll receive 5 percent back on all purchases you make at Amazon.com and Whole Foods purchases. The card also provides a solid 2 percent cash back at drugstores (which can be helpful if you pick up school supplies there), restaurants and gas stations as well as 1 percent back on all other purchases.

Pros

  • $100 Amazon.com gift card upon approval
  • Unlimited cash back and no expiration date
  • No minimum required to redeem points on Amazon.com

Cons

  • Must have Amazon Prime membership to qualify ($139 per year)
  • May only link card to one Amazon Prime account

Who should apply: If you love shopping on Amazon.com enough to sign up for an Amazon Prime membership, you might as well also sign up for the Amazon Prime Rewards card to earn rewards on purchases you’re already making. Fans of shopping online, who are willing to make Amazon.com their primary store, should consider this card.

Who should skip: Those who dislike online shopping should steer clear of this card. And, of course, non-Amazon Prime accountholders won’t qualify for this card.

Target Redcard: Best for in-person shopping

Why we picked it: The back-to-school aisle at a Target store is another level of beautiful, colorful selection like no other. Does 5 percent off all Target purchases, in store and online, sound good? That’s quite a deal, which makes the Target Redcard* awfully attractive. You’ll also get free shipping on most items when ordering on Target.com (instead of the usual $35 minimum for free shipping) and an additional 30 days for returns or exchanges.

Pros

  • 5 percent off at Target (including in-store Starbucks locations and gift cards)
  • Free shipping on most Target.com items
  • Add your Redcard to the Target app for contactless checkout
  • No annual fee

Cons

  • No rewards in non-Target categories

Who should apply: Die-hard Target fans who easily spend hours inside a Target store should apply for this card. Also, cardholders who prefer to shop in person, rather than online, will like this card, especially since Target is known for its many brick and mortar stores.

Who should skip: If you prefer another superstore, like Walmart, you can skip this one. Plus, those who tend to make purchases at different places rather than sticking to a single store should also keep shopping around.

Comparing cards best for back-to-school shopping

We know it’s difficult to keep track of credit card benefits — which one earns points or cash back, and on which bonus categories? Check out the following table to see our side-by-side comparison.

CardRewardsSign-up bonusAnnual fee
Citi® Double Cash Card
  • 1% cash back on general purchases and an additional 1% back as you pay off those purchases
$200 cash back if you spend $1,500 on purchases in the first 6 months of account opening for a limited time$0
Bank of America® Customized Cash Rewards credit card
  • 3% cash back on a category of choice (gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drug stores or home improvements and furnishings)
  • 2% back on grocery store and wholesale club purchases
    ($2,500 combined spending limit on 2% and 3% categories each quarter)
  • 1% back on all other purchases
$200 online cash rewards if you spend $1,000 in 90 days$0
Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card*
  • 5% cash back on Amazon.com and Whole Foods purchases
  • 2% back on restaurant, gas station and drug store purchases
  • 1% back on other purchases
$100 Amazon.com gift card upon approval$0 ($139 Amazon Prime membership required)
Target Redcard*
  • 5% discount at Target and Target.com
None$0

Back-to-school shopping tips

Using the right credit card is just one step. It also helps to practice other shopping strategies in conjunction with a rewards-heavy credit card to maximize your back-to-school savings.

Layer your perks

John Sellers, Rewards executive at Bank of America, said in a previous interview that consumers can layer together their in-store rewards, credit card and banking rewards programs to maximize the cash back or points they earn on back-to-school shopping.

One example is the Bank of America Preferred Rewards program — qualifying for the Platinum Honors tier gets you a 75-percent boost on your rewards rate. That bumps your cash back rate on online shopping, for example, from 3 percent to 5.25 percent.

Get creative with your favorite store

Most experts don’t recommend branded department store cards, but they pay off if you have a favorite store that you shop at frequently.

And that’s the case with Karen Hoxmeier Murphy, founder of coupons and savings site MyBargainBuddy.com, who said in a previous interview that Kohl’s is one of her favorite stores for children’s clothing. The clearance section in this store is often overflowing with items that are 50 percent to 75 percent off, she stated, and you can boost these savings even more when you use the store’s branded credit card. Those savings can add up significantly — especially when combined with Kohl’s in-store sales and Kohl’s Cash offers.

Search for sales

April Lewis-Parks, director of corporate communications for Consolidated Credit, a nonprofit credit counseling agency, said in a previous interview that it might be more cost effective to spend time researching retailers that offer back-to-school deals than it is to hunt for the best possible credit card to use when buying these supplies.

Rather than use a business credit card, which offers extra rewards at an office supply store, you could buy your children’s back-to-school supplies at a less expensive retailer like Walmart or Target, said Lewis-Parks.

She also recommended using a cash back card that rewards you for all purchases. That way, you can shop at less expensive retailers and still earn at least some bonus money from your credit card provider.

Bottom line

Depending on where you do most of your shopping, certain cards may offer better rewards than others. Keep in mind where you already utilize your card benefits so you’re not spending extra money in an effort to build out rewards.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

Credit Card Rate Report
Reward
18.00%
Student
18.66%
Airline
17.81%
Business
16.07%
Cash Back
17.95%

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