If your credit card offers cash back of 2% or less, you can do better—a lot better—for most purchases. The catch: You must use more than one card and keep track of which one offers the biggest reward for each type of purchase. It’s worth the hassle—cards offer cash back (or other rewards) as high as 4%…5%…even 6% on certain types of purchases. But no single card is that generous on all purchases. And keep in mind that if you don’t pay the monthly balance in full, you are stuck paying high interest rates (ranging from 10% to 26%) that could negate the value of the rewards, although some cards offer a 0% introductory period, as noted below.
Helpful: To keep track of which card is best for what, carry a cheat sheet in your wallet…attach a small color-coded sticky note to each card…or download the Wallaby app on your smartphone—it uses location tracking to determine what store you’re in and then recommends the card that will deliver the best reward (free for Android or iOS).
Also keep in mind that some credit cards are available only to consumers with very high credit scores…some have annual fees (as noted below) that cut into the value of the rewards…and some limit the level of annual purchases that provide the biggest rewards, which might mean that it’s best to switch to a different card at that point. But don’t stop using a card for too long—your rewards may expire before you cash them in.
Here are the cards with the biggest rewards for each type of purchase. (For types of purchases not specified, they generally pay 1% or 2%.)
American Express Blue Cash Preferred: 6% cash back on supermarket purchases up to $6,000 per year, then 1%.* (Also, 3% back on gas at US stations and 3% at select department stores.) Recent sign-up bonus: $150 for spending at least $1,000 in the first three months. And the card has been offering a 12-month 0% introductory rate. Annual fee: $95. AmericanExpress.com
American Express Blue Cash Everyday: 3% cash back on supermarket purchases up to $6,000 per year—and no annual fee. Recent sign-up bonus: $100 for spending at least $1,000 in the first three months. And the card has been offering a 12-month 0% introductory rate.
PenFed Platinum Cash Rewards Plus Visa: 5% on gas purchases at most US gas stations. Recent sign-up bonus: $100 for spending at least $1,500 in the first 90 days. Drawbacks: To qualify for the top rewards and avoid an annual fee, you must have another account with PenFed, such as a money-market account. To get a card, you must be a member of the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, which is easy to join—just make a onetime donation of as little as $15 to a specified nonprofit. PenFed.org
Sam’s Club MasterCard: 5% cash back at most US gas stations on up to $6,000 in gas purchases each year, then 1%. (Also, 3% back at restaurants and on most travel purchases.) To get the card, you must have a Sam’s Club membership, which typically costs $45 a year. SamsClub.com
Costco Anywhere Visa by Citi: 4% cash back on up to $7,000 in gas purchases at stations worldwide each year, then 1%. (Also, 3% back at restaurants and on travel purchases.) To get the card, you must have a Costco membership, which typically costs $55 a year. The card has been offering a seven-month 0% introductory rate. Citi.com
Discover it/Chase Freedom Visa: 5% back on gas purchases up to $1,500—but only during specified three-month bonus periods, which typically occur at least once a year. (Other oft-featured rotating bonus categories include restaurants, department stores, warehouse clubs and Amazon.com purchases.) During the remainder of the year, only 1% cash back is earned. Recent sign-up bonus: $150 for spending $500 in the first three months with Chase Freedom. Discover has no sign-up bonus, but it has been offering a 12-month 0% introductory rate (Discover.com)…and Chase Freedom has been offering a 15-month 0% introductory rate (CreditCards.Chase.com).
AARP Visa from Chase: 3% back at restaurants without limit (3% on gas, too). This card is officially “designed for AARP members,” but you don’t have to be an AARP member to apply. Recent sign-up bonus: $100 for spending $500 in the first three months. The card has been offering a 12-month 0% introductory rate. AARPCreditCard.com
Alternatives (see under “Gas” for details)…
Costco Visa: 3% back at restaurants.
Sam’s Club MasterCard: 3% back at restaurants.
Discover it/Chase Freedom Visa: 5% back at restaurants during bonus periods.
American Express Blue Cash Preferred: 3% cash back at department stores (see under “Supermarkets” for details).
Discover it/Chase Freedom Visa: Up to 5% back at department stores during designated quarters (see under “Gas” for details).
Target REDcard: 5% back on most Target purchases. Target.com
Amazon.com Prime Store Card: 5% back on Amazon.com purchases. Amazon Prime membership, which costs $99 a year, is required. Amazon.com
Some rewards cards provide great travel perks and, often, big sign-up bonuses. Among the best are Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa (CreditCards.Chase.com) and Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard (Home.BarclaycardUS.com). But travel rewards cards tend not to offer especially attractive rewards for travel-related purchases…and their rewards programs can be complicated to use. In general, it’s best to use a standard 2% cash-back card for travel spending…or Sam’s Club MasterCard or Costco Anywhere Visa by Citi, both of which offer 3% cash back on most travel purchases, as noted earlier under “Gas.”
Exceptions: Certain hotel chain-branded credit cards provide impressive rewards if the cards are used to book stays at those chains and the points earned later are redeemed for free nights at those chains. These include Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card for use at Radisson and Country Inns & Suites hotels ($75 annual fee, ClubCarlsonVisa.com)…Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Card ($95 annual fee after the first year, AmericanExpress.com) for use at Sheraton, Westin and other Starwood-owned hotels…and Hilton HHonors Surpass from American Express ($75 annual fee, AmericanExpress.com).
Citibank Double Cash: 2% cash back on all purchases—which includes 1% when you make the purchase plus another 1% when you pay the bill. This card is the simplest, easiest way to get 2% cash back on purchases without limits or annual fees. It has an 18-month 0% introductory rate. Citicards.Citi.com
Fidelity Cash Rewards Visa Signature: 2% cash back on all purchases. Rewards are deposited into an eligible Fidelity investment account. Fidelity.com
*Credit card issuers change details of offers frequently.