Cash back credit cards can help you avoid annual fees and use the same card to earn the most rewards. Read for our ‘dream team’ of cards, and which one(s) might be best for you.
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Most Americans prefer cash back credit cards, they avoid annual fees and they want to use the same card or two as widely as possible, according to our research. With that in mind, here are my suggestions for your cash back “dream team.”
If you only want one card
For those who prefer simplicity above all else, the best bet is a no-annual-fee card that gives 2% cash back on all purchases. Examples include the Citi® Double Cash Card (technically 1% cash back when you make a purchase and another 1% when you pay it off), the PayPal Cash Back Mastercard and the Wells Fargo Active Cash℠ Card.
While many cards give 3%, 4%, 5% or even 6% cash back in certain categories, they have a much lower floor (often 1%) on other purchases. The top earning category might have a spending cap, too. If you want to keep it simple and maximize your rewards, a card that pays 2% rewards on everything is an excellent choice.
If you’re willing to add a second card
With a second card, you can lean into bonus rewards categories. Groceries, dining out and travel are common examples. Your no annual fee 2% cash back card is a really strong foundation that will maximize all your spending on everything else.
The average American household spends $4,643 annually on “food at home” (as in groceries) and $3,526 per year on “food away from home” (aka dining), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Travel is harder to benchmark but is undoubtedly a large expense for many families. (By the way, you might spend more on housing and car payments, but remember that those generally can’t go on a credit card, and even if you find a way, there’s probably a surcharge that would outweigh the value of your rewards.)
For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to stick with no annual fee cash back cards since that’s what most people told us they want. So as much as I love the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express and its 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 in annual spending, then 1% after that), I can’t pick that one here. Apologies also to the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card*, which gives 4% cash back on dining and 3% at grocery stores. Both cards charge $95 annual fees, though the Blue Cash Preferred has a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
If I were sticking with two no-annual-fee cash back cards, I’d go with the Chase Freedom Flex™ to complement my 2% flat-rate card. It gives 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in quarterly spending (activation required, then 1% cash back beyond the cap).
One downside is that Chase preselects the categories. I have this card, and some quarters are easy to max out, while I fall short in others. For instance, the Q3 categories are grocery stores and select streaming services. I’ll have no trouble with that one. But I only made it about halfway to the Q1 limit (wholesale clubs, internet, cable and phone services and select streaming services) and about a third of the way to the Q2 limit (gas stations and home improvement stores).
Still, there’s more: I really like that the Freedom Flex gives 5% cash back on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 5% on Lyft rides (through March 2022), 3% on dining and at drugstores and 1% on all other purchases. Plus, I save even more money via Chase Offers and the Shop Through Chase portal. And the card has great purchase protection and extended warranty benefits, too. The Freedom Flex is an exceptionally well-rounded card.
The Citi Custom Cash℠ Card is an interesting no-annual-fee option because it gives 5% cash back on your top eligible spending category each billing cycle (up to $500 in purchases, then 1% cash back after that). This is appealing because it offers a high cash back rate that can adapt along to your lifestyle. Maybe one month you use the card to maximize your travel rewards, but if you’re more of a homebody the next month, you could get 5% cash back on groceries instead.
It pays to be thoughtful with when and where to use the Custom Cash. If you spend more than $500 in a billing cycle, or if you use this card for anything outside of your top eligible category, then you’ll earn just 1% cash back on those purchases. The best way to maximize rewards with this strategy would be to use the Custom Cash for exactly $500 in purchases that are eligible for the 5% payout that billing cycle. Everything else should go on your 2% card.
I prefer the Freedom Flex because it has more perks beyond the rotating 5% categories, but your situation might be different. And there’s nothing preventing you from carrying three cards: A 2% card, the Freedom Flex and the Custom Cash would be a formidable trio.
This is a sample scenario meant to target what most people told us they want from their credit cards. Your situation might be different – for instance, your spending habits are unique, you might be willing to pay an annual fee, you might want to incorporate a third or fourth card for added benefits and so on.
The big questions to ask yourself are: How do you spend your money? What do you want to get out of your rewards? And how much complexity are you prepared to handle?
Have a question about credit cards? Email me at email@example.com and I’d be happy to help.
*All information about the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card has been collected independently by CreditCards.com and has not been reviewed by the issuer. This card is no longer available through CreditCards.com.