In 2023, my family racked up $2,336 in cash back credit card rewards — the most we’ve ever earned. That represented a 2.8 percent return on $84,084 in spending we would have done anyway.

In 2022, we earned $1,701 in cash back (a 2.1 percent return). The biggest difference this year was that we finally took my own advice in February 2023 and signed up for a card that gives 2 percent cash back on everything we buy. While my wife and I liked the simplicity of our previous two-card strategy, I noticed there were a lot of holes. Many of our purchases only earned 1 percent cash back, and I knew we could do better.

How we did it

This year, our biggest workhorse was our newest card: the Wells Fargo Active CashⓇ Card. We love the simple, generous return it offers: unlimited 2 percent cash rewards on all purchases. We also received a $200 welcome bonus after spending at least $500 in our first three months with the card.

In total, we spent $49,291 on this card in 2023 and redeemed $1,202 in cash back. That’s a 2.4 percent return, which exceeds the standard 2 percent ratio mostly because of the sign-up bonus. We also got more than 2 percent back on a few purchases through the “My Wells Fargo Deals” digital coupon program.

Our second-most frequently used card was the Chase Freedom FlexSM*. We spent $22,573 on this card and earned $608 in rewards (a 2.7 percent return). We used this primarily for the rotating 5 percent quarterly bonus categories and came close to maxing out all four quarters in 2023 (the 5 percent payout is capped at $1,500 in quarterly bonus spending; activation is required and cardholders earn 1 percent back after hitting the threshold). This was also our go-to card for dining (3 percent cash back), and I like the Shop Through Chase portal, which often yields extra cash back on online shopping purchases.

The Blue Cash PreferredⓇ Card from American Express is our third and final card. I’m a huge fan of this card for groceries, since it gives 6 percent cash back at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 in annual spending, then 1 percent back after that). This is also our primary card for select streaming subscriptions (6 percent cash back), gas (3 percent cash back at U.S. gas stations) and transit (3 percent cash back including parking, tolls, trains and more).

I’m always on the lookout for good Amex Offers, too. We spent $12,220 on this card and earned $527 in rewards (a 4.3 percent return, although if you subtract the $95 annual fee from the rewards, then it was 3.5 percent). Our other two cards don’t charge annual fees.

How this applies to you

Your spending habits are undoubtedly different, but I still think there are several broad lessons that everyone can take away from this exercise.

One is that a no-annual-fee 2 percent cash back card is a surprisingly lucrative option for a wide variety of cardholders. Cash back is Americans’ favorite credit card feature, and most people don’t want to juggle too many cards. My wife, for example, always gets confused about which cards are best for which types of purchases. She wants to keep things simple.

Almost all of the $49,291 in purchases that we charged to our Active Cash Card in 2023 would have earned just 1 percent cash back on our other two cards. By earning 2 percent instead of 1 percent, that added up to an extra $493 over the course of the year.

It’s also important to prioritize your top spending categories. Groceries are a big one for us, and truthfully, we should probably add a second grocery rewards credit card to get around the spending caps.

Another hole in our credit card rewards strategy is that we spend a lot on travel but aren’t maximizing many of these purchases with the three cards we’re currently using. The Wells Fargo AutographSM Card is my favorite travel card that emphasizes cash back. There are tons of cards that offer transferable travel points and airline miles, too, but I’d rather stick with cash back due to the flexibility and simplicity. I also like that the Autograph card doesn’t charge an annual fee. This is one we are considering adding to our wallets in 2024.

The bottom line

Ultimately, everyone needs to figure out what works best for them. As long as you’re avoiding interest by paying in full each month, and as long as you’re only spending money you would have spent anyway, then any rewards you earn represent free money.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but if you’re looking for direction, cash back tends to offer the most universal appeal. And if you want to keep it really simple, getting 2 percent back on everything is a really nice starting point — either as your only card or as a foundation upon which you can layer additional cards that emphasize your top spending categories.

Have a question about credit cards? Email me at and I’d be happy to help.

Issuer-required disclosure statement

Information about the Chase Freedom Flex has been collected independently by Bankrate. Card details have not been reviewed or approved by the issuer.