We crunched the numbers for the Citi Double Cash card and the Chase Freedom Unlimited card to help you decide which one takes the prize for best cash back card.
In the showdown between the Citi Double Cash Card and the Chase Freedom Unlimited card, how do you decide which card takes the prize for best cash back card?
When you compare the Citi Double Cash card’s 2 percent cash back to the Chase Freedom Unlimited’s 1.5 percent cash back, the Citi Double Cash card appears to be the clear winner.
But wait: You also need to figure in the Chase Freedom Unlimited card’s unique sign-up bonus for new cardholders – 3 percent cash back on up to $20,000 in purchases in the first year. If you max out the cap, that means you can bring home $600 in rewards in the first year alone.
Actually, our math gives the edge to the Citi Double Cash in most instances for most cardholders. But the Chase Freedom card has a secret up its sleeve: You can pair it with other Ultimate Rewards cards to optimize your points value.
Citi Double Cash vs. Chase Freedom Unlimited
|Rewards rate||Up to 2% cash back:|
|Average earnings over three years ($15,900 spend. Includes sign-up bonus)||$318||$318|
|Who should get this card?|
Citi Double Cash overviewThe Citi Double Cash is the original 2 percent cash back card. You get 1 percent cash back when you make a purchase and another 1 percent back when you pay your bill on time. While a few similar cards have recently entered the market, none of them beat the simplicity and ease of use of the Citi Double Cash card. The card doesn’t require you to have a bank account with Citi or to deposit your rewards into a Citi bank account – once you hit the $25 minimum redemption threshold, you can redeem your cash back as a statement credit, check, gift card or deposit into a checking or savings account.
Upsides: Simplicity and a 2 percent cash back rate that few cards can match, even cards with category bonuses. Since you earn the same rate on every purchase, you don’t have to keep track of bonus categories, nor do you have to worry about enrolling in categories each quarter.
Downsides: You have to pay your bill on time to earn the full 2 percent rate (but is that a really a downside? Or a good incentive to pay your bill?). You can’t redeem your cash back until you hit the $25 redemption threshold, though it’s a pretty reasonable threshold. Since you can’t transfer your rewards to other cards, you can’t maximize your rewards value – you always earn 2 cents on every dollar.
Chase Freedom Unlimited overview
Like the Citi Double Cash card, the Chase Freedom Unlimited card is a flat-rate cash back card that offers the same percent of cash back on all your spending, but at a slightly less impressive rate: 1.5 percent, to be exact. Unlike the Citi Double Cash card, the card includes an introductory offer of 3 percent cash back on up to $20,000 in purchases in the first year. This can be a very lucrative bonus for heavy spenders, adding significant value to the card for the first year of ownership. Probably its best feature, the Freedom Unlimited card earns Ultimate Rewards points, which you can transfer to certain Chase cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, and redeem for travel rewards to get better point values.
Upsides: Simplicity and ease of redemption – you earn the same cash back rate on every purchase, and you can redeem any number of points at any time for a variety of options, including cash back, gift cards, travel and Amazon.com merchandise. The card’s bonus makes it very valuable in the first year. Also, the ability to transfer points to other Chase Ultimate Rewards cards means you can get more than 1 cent of value out of each point.
Downsides:Since the card doesn’t offer any category bonuses, you can’t use it to earn extra cash back in categories where you spend heavily.
Best for first year cardholders: The Chase Freedom Unlimited card
Thanks to its unique introductory offer, the Chase Freedom Unlimited is by far the best card for new cardholders. As you can see from the chart below, the Chase Freedom Unlimited offers close to $480 in cash back to the average user in the first year – that’s more than $100 more than the Citi Double Cash card, despite the Double Cash card’s higher cash back rate.
Average cash back in first year ($15,900 spend)
|Citi Double Cash||Chase Freedom Unlimited|
|2% x $15,900 = $318||3% x $15,900 = $477|
If you can afford to max out the $20,000 spend limit on the Chase Freedom Unlimited card’s bonus, you can earn up to $600 in the first year.
Best for third year cardholders: The Citi Double Cash Card
However, it pays to stick with the Citi Double Cash card in the long haul. As you can see from the table below, it doesn’t take long for the higher cash back rate on the Citi Double Cash card to catch up. After the third year of rewards, the earning on the Double Cash Card catches up to the Freedom Unlimited, despite the Freedom card’s higher rate in the first year:
Rewards value halfway through year two ($15,900 yearly spend)
|Citi Double Cash||Chase Freedom Unlimited|
|3 years x (2% x $15,900) = $954||(1 year x (3% x $15,900)) + (2 years x (1.5% x $15,900)) = $954|
After the third year, the bonus on the Freedom Unlimited won’t be enough to put its earnings on par with the Double Cash card.
Best for pairing with most back cards: The Citi Double Cash card
The Citi Double Cash card isn’t just a great standalone card. It also works well as a companion to a card with category bonuses.
In the table below, we’ve paired it with the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express – a great grocery card that earns 6 percent cash back on U.S. supermarket purchases (on up to $6,000 in purchases annually, then 1%) and select U.S. streaming services and 3 percent on transit and U.S. gas station purchases. If you use the Blue Cash Preferred card for your U.S. supermarket, streaming services, transit and gas station purchases and swap in the Citi Double Cash card to earn 2 percent on the rest of your purchases, you can seriously boost your cash back rate.
We estimate that the average cardholder can earn a rewards rate of 3.19 percent per year with the two cards combined, for an average of $412 cash back minus the Blue Cash Preferred card’s $95 annual fee. That’s $94 more than the value of the Citi Double Cash card on its own.
Scenario: Pair Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express with Citi Double Cash
($15,900 yearly spend)
|Average rewards rate||Cash back earned||Total minus annual fee|
Best for pairing with Chase Cards: The Chase Freedom Unlimited card
That said, if you’re looking for the highest rewards value, your best option is to pair the Chase Freedom Unlimited card with other cards that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
Chase Ultimate Rewards points are some of the most valuable and versatile rewards points. You can transfer them to certain Ultimate Rewards cards – such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve cards – where you have a plethora of options to redeem your points for travel rewards. You can redeem them for statement credits at a value of 1 cent per point, redeem them for travel through the Chase Ultimate rewards portal to earn a 25 to 50 points bonus, or transfer them to one of Chase’s many travel partners to get even higher point values.
Our table below shows the value of combining the Chase Freedom Unlimited card with the Chase Freedom and Chase Sapphire Reserve card. The combined bonus categories push the rewards rate for the average cardholder to 1.6 percent. When you transfer the points that you earn on $15,900 of spending to an airline partner such as Singapore Airlines, it’s possible to get values of $600 or more on those points:
Scenario: Combine 3 Ultimate Rewards cards ($15,900 yearly spend)
|Average rewards rate||Estimated points/year||Sample redemptions: estimated value|
Overall, the Citi Double Cash card pretty much rules the cash back category, both as a standalone card and card for pairing with bonus category cards.