Some high-earning cash back cards earn as much as 5 percent cash back in certain categories. Find out which card came out on top when comparing the top 5 percent cash back cards.
In the world of rewards credit cards, 5 percent cash back is a generous offer, one that typically comes with either rotating or flexible 5 percent back categories. But how do these cards compare to each other? Is there one that beats all the others?
Welcome to the battle of 5 percent cash back cards. We’re going to set these cards against each other, analyze their value, strengths and weaknesses, and find out which card has the most to offer.
May the best card win.
Before we begin the competition, let’s introduce the competitors:
- Round 1: Discover it® Cash Back vs. Chase Freedom Flex℠*
- Round 2: U.S. Bank Cash+® Visa Signature® Card vs. Citi Custom Cash℠ Card
Cards with rotating categories
No-annual fee cards with rotating quarterly categories are a common type of a 5 percent cash back credit card. These cards offer 5 percent back in bonus categories that change every quarter, and the categories typically require activation.
Round 1: Discover it Cash Back vs. Chase Freedom Flex
The 5 percent cash back bonus categories work identically on these two cards. You can earn 5 percent back in rotating categories (upon activation each quarter), on up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter. After you reach the limit, you’ll earn 1 percent back on purchases in these categories. General purchases earn 1 percent back as well.
The rotating categories that each card highlights can change every quarter, and the categories are usually announced a few weeks before a new financial quarter starts. This is, however, where the similarities end.
The Freedom Flex, for one, also earns rewards in additional fixed bonus categories, such as:
- 5 percent cash back on Lyft purchases (through March 2025)
- 5 percent cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards
- 3 percent cash back on dining
- 3 percent cash back on drugstore purchases
The card bears high-earning potential all-year round. Redemption options are abundant too, ranging from travel to cash to gift cards. Additionally, if you combine the Freedom Flex with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, you can boost your rewards value 25 percent or 50 percent respectively when redeeming for travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal.
The Discover it Cash Back offers none of that. The redemption options include direct deposit, statement credits, gift cards and charitable donations, but not travel.
One unique feature of the Discover it Cash Back is Cashback Match, which means the issuer will match all the cash back you earn at the end of the first year. If you maximize the rotating categories (meaning you hit the $1,500 spend cap each quarter), you’ll earn at least $300 in annual cash back and another $300 after your first-card anniversary. Comparatively, the Freedom Flex’s welcome bonus is only $200 for spending $500 in the first three months.
However, the Freedom Flex’s fixed bonus categories significantly boost its value. CreditCards.com experts estimate that if you spend the maximum $1,500 in the card’s rotating categories every quarter and $15,900 (our average spending assumption) in a year, you would end up with $493 after your first year. With the Discover it Cash Back, you’d earn $399 in cash back at the end of your first year, if you maximize the rotating categories.
Disregarding the cards’ welcome offers, the Freedom Flex would bring in nearly $100 more in cash back. This means that, beyond the first year, the Freedom Flex offers more value.
Winner: Chase Freedom Flex
Cards with a flexible 5 percent cash back category
Rotating categories can yield excellent value, but they also can be hit or miss. There can occasionally be a quarter when it’s hard to maximize any of the bonus categories. You may even wish you could just pick a category yourself.
Fortunately, there are cards that let you do just that.
Let’s welcome the U.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Signature Card and the Citi Custom Cash to the ring. These two cards allow you to pick your 5 percent categories, which makes them appealing for their flexibility and high rewards potential. Here’s how they stack up.
Round 2: U.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Card vs. Citi Custom Cash
The U.S. Bank Cash+ has a unique and lucrative rewards system. Each quarter, cardholders get to choose two categories in which they’ll earn 5 percent back on up to $2,000 in combined purchases per quarter. Additionally, they can pick a 2 percent cash back everyday category, with no spending cap. All other purchases earn 1 percent back.
Currently, eligible 5 percent categories include: fast food, home utilities, TV, internet and streaming services, department stores, cell phone providers, electronic stores, sporting goods stores, movie theaters, gyms and fitness centers, furniture stores, ground transportation and select clothing stores. As for 2 percent cash back categories, you can choose from grocery stores and grocery delivery, gas stations and EV charging stations, and restaurants.
Like other rotating category cards, you must choose and activate your 5 percent categories each quarter or else you’ll only earn 1 percent cash back. All other eligible purchases also earn 1 percent cash back.
As for the Citi Custom Cash, it is one of the most popular cards on Citi’s credit card roster. It offers 5 percent cash back on purchases in your top eligible spending category each billing cycle (up to the first $500 per billing cycle, 1 percent back thereafter) and 1 percent back on everything else.
Categories that qualify for 5 percent back include restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, select travel, select transit, select streaming services, drugstores, home improvement stores, fitness clubs and live entertainment. The interesting thing is that this card defines your top category automatically each billing cycle based on your spending.
As you can see, both cards offer plenty of flexibility. That said, the 5 percent categories on the U.S. Bank Cash+ can be hard to maximize. They may work well for big purchases, but that implies plenty of planning on your part. If you happen to spend a lot in any of these categories or are ready to plan out your spending throughout the year, you can bring in up to $400 in cash back per year in your 5 percent categories. That said, most spenders won’t be able to meet the spend cap.
The 2 percent cash back categories are more lucrative, since grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants are some of the most common expenses for many.
Some of the 5 percent categories on the Citi Custom Cash, on the other hand, are much more appealing, such as groceries, restaurants and travel. Not to mention, you’re not tied to any category. One month you can pay off your gym membership for the year ahead, and the next month you can buy a concert ticket. With a little extra thought, maximizing the card can be easy.
The maximum rewards you can get in your 5 percent categories with the Custom Cash is limited to $300 per year. That’s $100 less in potential value than what you can make from U.S. Bank Cash+ Card’s 5 percent categories. Plus, all your non-category spending with the Custom Cash will only earn 1 percent back, while the U.S. Bank Cash+ earns unlimited 2 percent back in a lucrative category.
Note, however, that due to the types of categories eligible for 5 percent back with the Cash+, maximizing the card can be a lot of work — perhaps too much for an average cardholder. Instead, let’s compare the numbers using a more realistic scenario.
Crunching the numbers
Say your annual spending is $15,900, which we consider to be the average credit card spending per year.
You pick groceries as your 2 percent category on the U.S. Bank Cash+ each quarter and spend about $5,250 at grocery stores annually, which is close to average for an American household, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
For your 5 percent categories, you select clothing stores and home improvement stores — two of the more appealing purchase categories on the list — and spend about $1,700 in them annually. The rest of your spending ($7,250) earns you 1 percent back.
In this scenario, your annual cash back will be $105 in the 2 percent category, $170 in the 5 percent categories and around $73 from everything else. Your total annual cash back will sum up to $348.
Let’s apply a similar scenario to the Custom Cash card. You spend $15,900 annually, $5,250 of which you spend for groceries — your top spending category each billing cycle — bringing in 5 percent back. There’s no 2 percent category to up your earnings, so all your general purchases will only earn 1 percent. In this scenario, you’ll earn around $263 from the 5 percent category and about $107 from general purchases. In a year, you’ll earn close to $370 in cash back.
As you can see, when you apply the math, the U.S. Bank Cash+ loses. While it offers more potential value, that value is too difficult to unlock without a lot of strategy and tailoring your spending to the card. The Custom Cash, on the other hand, doesn’t require as much maintenance and is a flexible card with more attractive 5 percent categories.
Winner: Citi Custom Cash
Final round: Chase Freedom Flex vs. Citi Custom Cash
We’ve arrived at our final round with two contenders: the Chase Freedom Flex and the Citi Custom Cash.
Both are excellent cash back cards. The Custom Cash is a good choice for both credit card enthusiasts and cardholders who prefer simplicity. The Chase Freedom Flex offers amazing value with its extra bonus categories and access to Ultimate Rewards, one of the most valuable credit card currencies.
This is going to be a tough round. Let’s see how the cards stack up.
The Custom Cash has more flexible 5 percent categories that require no activation. You can earn up to $300 from the 5 percent categories annually with either card. But with the Freedom Flex, ironically, you have less freedom. You’re tied to the categories you activate and can’t even plan for them in advance.
Extra bonus categories are where the Custom Cash gets knocked out. The extra 3 percent and 5 percent categories on the Freedom Flex have high rewards potential. The Custom Cash only offers 1 percent on everything outside of your top eligible spending category.
The Chase Freedom Flex also wins in first-year value because of its lower spending requirement. The Citi Custom Cash offers a $200 sign-up bonus after you spend $1,500 on purchases in the first six months. The Chase Freedom Flex also offers $200, but you’ll only need to spend $500 in the first three months.
The Citi Custom Cash and Freedom Flex offer similar intro APR offers: 0 percent for 15 months on balance transfers and new purchases. They differ in their regular APR rates. After the first 15 months, the Custom Cash charges a variable APR of 18.99 percent to 28.99 percent; whereas the Freedom Flex charges a variable APR of 19.74 percent to 28.49 percent.
The Freedom Flex can potentially offer better rewards value. Both the Custom Cash and the Freedom Flex, even though marketed as cash back cards, earn points. The Freedom Flex gives you access to the Ultimate Rewards ecosystem. The Citi Custom Cash earns ThankYou points.
With both cards, the point value is 1 cent per point for most redemption options. This seems to tie the cards, unless you factor in how you can stretch your Chase points when redeeming them with a Sapphire card. Combining the Flex with the Sapphire Preferred or Reserve boosts your value to 1.25 or 1.5 cents per point when redeemed for Ultimate Rewards travel.
You could combine your ThankYou points with a premium Citi travel card too, but they’d still lose to Ultimate Rewards points in value. Besides, Citi’s transfer partners are less appealing, and you won’t get a point boost for redeeming through Citi.
When all is said and done, we have to give this one to the Chase Freedom Flex. Though the Custom Cash put up a fair fight with its intro APR offer and flexible 5 percent categories, the extra earning potential on the Freedom Flex edges the Citi card out in the end.
The battle winner: Chase Freedom Flex
All of our contenders have plenty of value to offer, and this fight hasn’t been easy. Still, we have our champion.
The Chase Freedom Flex wins the battle of 5 percent cash back cards, thanks to its generous bonus categories, opportunities that come from participating in Ultimate Rewards and, of course, great value in the first year and beyond.
If you’re interested in a 5 percent cash back credit card, remember that none of our contenders charge an annual fee. This means that you can get more than one of these cards without worrying about their cost and use them in tandem to get even more cash back.
*Information about the Chase Freedom Flex has been collected independently by CreditCards.com. The issuer did not provide the details, nor is it responsible for their accuracy.