How to earn at least 5% cash back on as many purchases as possible

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A surprising number of credit cards reward at least 5 percent cash back on certain purchases. If you’re willing to use a combination of cards for your daily spending, you could potentially earn a high return in many different categories. Here are some of my favorite credit cards that offer (at least) 5 percent cash back:

The best 5% cash back cards

Chase Freedom Flex℠

The Chase Freedom Flex currently allows cardholders to earn 5 percent cash back on four distinct types of purchases (five for new cardholders). It’s best known for offering 5 percent cash back on categories that change every quarter (activation is required, and the 5 percent rate applies on up to $1,500 in quarterly spending, then it drops to 1 percent cash back after that). PayPal and Walmart are the Chase Freedom Flex’s bonus categories from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, 2021.

But the Freedom Flex is just getting started since it’s also running a mostly separate “top spend bonus” promotion during the fourth quarter of 2021. Cardholders earn 5 percent cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases made in their top eligible spending category. The options are dining, gas stations, grocery stores (not including Target and Walmart purchases), travel (including transit), select streaming services, drugstores, home improvement stores, fitness clubs and select live entertainment. If your top spend category includes PayPal purchases, those will earn a total of 9 percent cash back.

I have this card, and I’ve already maxed out the $1,500 PayPal limit. A handy tool to help you maximize that category is PayPal Key. When PayPal isn’t a payment option at checkout, you can instead use PayPal’s virtual card number service, PayPal Key, which will count as a PayPal purchase.

I’m also well on my way toward spending $1,500 at grocery stores, and once I do, I will have earned $150 this quarter from $3,000 in spending I would have done anyway.

The Freedom Flex also offers 5 percent cash back on Lyft rides (through March 2022) and travel booked through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. Neither of those categories has a spending cap.

There’s still more: New cardholders get $200 after spending $500 in their first three months plus 5 percent cash back at grocery stores (not including Target or Walmart) in their first year (on up to $12,000 in spending).

If you want to get at least 5 percent cash back on as many purchases as possible, the Freedom Flex is an ideal starting point, and it doesn’t even charge an annual fee.

Citi Custom Cash℠ Card

The Citi Custom Cash is another excellent no-annual-fee selection. It only gives 5 percent cash back on one category, but its main benefit is that the category automatically changes along with your spending habits.

Cardholders get 5 percent cash back on their top eligible spending category (up to $500 in purchases every billing cycle, then 1 percent cash back after that). The possible categories are restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, select travel, select transit, select streaming services, drugstores, home improvement stores, fitness clubs and live entertainment.

Discover it® Cash Back

The Discover it Cash Back card is a no-annual-fee rotating category card that gives 5 percent cash back after activation on up to $1,500 in quarterly spending (then 1 percent after that). The issuer chooses the categories, so they’re not as flexible as the Custom Cash, but they still offer broad appeal. The Q4 2021 assortment leans hard into holiday shopping with Amazon.com, Target.com and Walmart.com. The 2022 Discover cash back calendar incorporates traditional favorites such as grocery stores, restaurants, PayPal and more.

I see the appeal of holding all three of these cards. The Freedom Flex, the Custom Cash and the Discover it Cash Back card can each zig when another zags, diversifying your earning strategy.

For instance, you could have gotten 5 percent cash back on groceries in Q3 2021 via the Freedom Flex. In Q1 2022, it’s one of Discover’s 5 percent options. In-between, you could get 5 percent cash back on groceries with the Custom Cash. There are plenty of other permutations, of course. Having more than one of these cards gives you a lot of flexibility.

U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card

Another contender for our Swiss Army Knife of 5 percent no-annual-fee cash back cards is the U.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Signature Card. Its eligible categories are more niche, but that’s actually useful if you already have a lot of the major bases covered with your other cards.

The Cash+ card allows users to select two of the following categories each quarter to earn 5 percent cash back within (on up to $2,000 in combined spending, then 1 percent cash back after that): TV, Internet and streaming services; home utilities; ground transportation; select clothing stores; cellphone providers; electronics stores; gyms and fitness centers; fast food outlets; sporting goods and department stores; furniture stores and movie theaters. It may be hard to max these out regularly, but even the occasional large electronics or furniture purchase could make this card well worth it.

Store credit cards

Plenty of retailers offer 5 percent cash back when customers use the store’s branded credit cards at their locations. The Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card is one of my favorites because it gives 5 percent cash back at Amazon.com and Whole Foods Market (technically without an annual fee, although cardholders do need an Amazon Prime subscription, which costs $119 per year). I’m mentioning this one first because Amazon sells just about everything, and it also owns a popular chain of grocery stores.

There are lots of other examples: Best Buy, Lowe’s, Staples, Target and Walmart are among the additional retailers that give 5 percent cash back when you use their branded credit cards. If you shop there a lot, the cards are well worth it.

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

Unlike these other cards, the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express charges an annual fee ($0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95), but it’s actually my favorite credit card. I’ve had it for almost a decade, and I love that it gives 6 percent cash back at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 in annual purchases, then 1 percent cash back after that). Groceries are my family’s biggest credit card spending category.

For argument’s sake, if you max out the grocery category but don’t spend any other money on the card, you’re looking at a 4.4 percent return after accounting for the annual fee. In that sense, you might be better off buying groceries with the Citi Custom Cash, but it’s not a particularly realistic scenario.

The Blue Cash Preferred also gives 6 percent cash back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions and 3 percent cash back at U.S. gas stations. Plus, it boasts strong extended warranty and purchase protection coverage and Amex’s industry-leading customer service. I get a lot of value from Amex Offers, too.

The bottom line

Although I’ve chosen to focus on their highest-earning categories, many of these cards offer additional perks. The main idea is that you should seek to match your lifestyle with the right cards, and this list should resonate with most spending profiles.

Begin with your top spending categories and decide how many cards are right for you. If you’re willing to juggle a handful of cards for different purposes, you could get 5 percent cash back on a wide variety of expenses. Just make sure, of course, to pay your bills on time and in full to avoid interest.

Have a question about credit cards? E-mail me at ted.rossman@bankrate.com, and I’d be happy to help.