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What is a cashback credit card? 2022 beginner’s guide
It's a simple but powerful card that pays you back for your spending.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is the high-interest rates these cards carry. This means if you don’t pay your full balance on time, you will accrue interest, which can easily offset your rewards. To maximize your cashback, try to pay off your credit card balance before it’s due.
What is a cashback credit card?
A cashback credit card is a card that pays you back a percentage of what you spend. Typically, this ranges from 1% to 2%, though it can go as high as 6%. You may earn different percentages based on the types of purchases you make.
Despite their name, cashback credit cards don’t actually pay you in physical cash. Instead, you’ll get your cash back in other forms, such as electronic bank deposits.
How does credit card cash back work?
When you use your credit card for an eligible purchase, you’ll earn a certain amount of cash back — that is, a cash rebate. Your earnings depend on the rates set by your card provider.
Cash back is expressed as a percentage. If your card offers 1% cash back, that means you’ll earn $1 in rewards for every $100 in purchases you make with your card.
What can I earn cash back on?
If you have a cashback credit card, chances are it’ll offer at least 1% cash back on every purchase. This isn’t always the case, but it’s extremely common.
Some cards will offer different cashback percentages for different purchases, and this is where purchase categories come in. If you don’t want to worry about categories, consider a card that offers the same cash back on every purchase.
Why purchase categories matter
If you use your card to buy a plane ticket, you might classify that as a “travel” purchase. And if you use your card to pay for dinner, you might classify that as a “dining” purchase.
This is essentially what card networks do — they sort your purchases into categories. This is so your card issuer can offer you different cashback rates. For example, you might earn 3% cash back on travel and 4% cash back on dining.
Here are a few examples of credit card categories
- Purchases with specific airlines
- Purchases with specific hotels
- Online purchases
How do card providers decide which categories my purchases fall under?
The four major credit card networks — Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover — assign a four-digit number to each business that takes credit cards. This is called a merchant category code (MCC).
Because of MCCs, purchases might fall under different categories than you expect. For example, if you buy groceries at a gas station convenience store (MCC of 5541), you probably won’t earn bonus grocery rewards. Grocery stores usually have an MCC of 5411.
MCCs may vary based on the card network. A business may have a different MCC under Visa, for instance, than under American Express.
Is there a list of merchant category codes?
The IRS maintains a list of merchant category codes. Card networks and some banks have their own MCC listings.
The three types of cashback credit cards
There are many cashback credit cards out there, but they can be sorted into three categories.
1. Flat-rate cash back
You get one cashback rate on all purchases. For example, you might earn 1.5% cash back or 2% cash back on everything you buy, regardless of the purchase category. This type is a great choice if you spend evenly across many categories, or if you don’t want to deal with various cashback percentages. The Citi® Double Cash Card is a great example of a flat-rate cashback card.
Flat-rate cashback card
Citi® Double Cash Card
Finder rating 3.8 / 5 ★★★★★
|Rewards||2% cash back|
|Minimum Credit Score||670|
2. Tiered cash back
This card has multiple cashback rates. For example, it might offer 3% cash back on gas, 2% on groceries and 1% on everything else. If you spend heavily in certain categories, a tiered cashback card might offer lucrative rewards. Check whether your spending lines up with a card’s bonus categories.
Tiered cashback card
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
Finder rating 4.6 / 5 ★★★★★
Cash Back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit.
3. Rotating-bonus-category cash back
This card offers 5% cash back in specific categories during some months. In other months, it offers more cash back in new categories. You may have to opt-in each rewards period with this rewards type. Given its changing rewards structure, it’s not for everyone. But you can earn a good amount of cash back if you spend in the right categories.
If you’d like to learn more about these card types, check out our guide to cashback credit card types.
Cash back on rotating categories
Chase Freedom Flex℠
Finder rating 4.7 / 5 ★★★★★
Compare cashback credit cards
Compare your options to find the cashback card that’s right for you.
Typical cashback credit card features
- Annual fee. For most cashback cards, you won’t pay an annual fee. This differs from travel cards, which offer points or miles and often have annual fees.
- Signup bonus. Many big-bank cashback cards have signup bonuses, with a typical value of $150. However, many other products don’t offer bonuses, particularly cards from credit unions.
- Redemption options. You may be able to redeem cash back for statement credit or deposits to your bank accounts. Other rewards may include merchandise, gift cards or travel rewards.
- Intro APR. Competition is fierce among big banks, who typically offer intro APRs on balance transfers for at least 12 months. Some even offer intro APRs on purchases.
- Base cashback rate. If your card offers elevated rewards, it’ll probably offer a base cashback rate for all other purchases. For example, it might offer 3% cash back on gas and a base rate of 1% back on all other spending.
- Purchase protection and extended warranties. These come standard with many cashback cards, as most products are issued by Visa or Mastercard.
How do I redeem cash back?
You’ve had your card for a while and patiently built your cashback haul — now, how do you redeem your rewards?
Typically, you can log in to your online credit card account and redeem cash back through your rewards portal. Your provider will also likely have a phone number you can call for redemptions.
Cashback redemption options
What you can redeem cash back for depends on your provider.
Some providers redeem your cash back automatically and apply it to your account as statement credit. Others let you trade cash back for a variety of redemptions, which might include:
- A deposit to your bank account.
- Gift cards.
- Travel such as airfare and hotel bookings.
- Charitable donations.
Your provider may set a minimum of cash back you must earn before redeeming. A common minimum is $25.
What is statement credit?
Statement credit reduces the balance you owe. For example, if you have a $1,000 balance and get a $100 statement credit, you now owe just $900.
Your minimum payment due typically isn’t affected by statement credit. That means when the $100 is applied to your account, you’ll still have to pay at least the full minimum amount due.
Alternatives to cashback cards
A cashback credit card is an excellent option as your first card, or if you want simple rewards.
If you want more powerful rewards, the next step is getting a travel credit card. It’ll offer points or miles you may be able to use for a variety of redemptions, including flights and hotels, gift cards, experiences and more. And the best cards offer premium perks such as travel credits, hotel and airline elite status, airport lounge access and more.
A cashback credit card can be a lucrative product. You’ll typically pay no annual fee for it, and you can earn great rewards for your everyday purchases. To find the best cashback product for you, consider how much you want to pay for your card and which categories you spend most in.
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