Life is expensive, there’s no getting around it. Which is why it can feel like such a win when you get cash back simply for using a credit card to make purchases you were going to make anyway, such as buying gas or dining out.
How cash back credit card rewards work is pretty straightforward. You spend money on your credit card and the issuer gives you a few cents back in credit for every dollar you spend.
If a cash back credit card is calling your name, before you start swiping, it’s important to understand how these credit cards work when it comes to earning and redeeming cash back rewards. That way, you can determine which cash back credit card is right for you and learn how to get the most bang for your buck.
How to get cash back from a card with a flat-rate rewards structure
To get cash back from a credit card, all you have to do is spend money on an eligible purchase. Whenever you make an eligible purchase with your cash back card, you’ll automatically earn a percentage back based on the rules of your card.
Cash back credit cards typically offer cash rewards at a flat-rate or a bonus (or rotating) rewards structure. With a flat-rate cash back credit card, every purchase leads to earning the same amount of cash back, no matter what the purchase is. The best flat-rate cards give cardholders 1.5 percent to 2 percent cash back on all of their purchases.
The Citi® Double Cash Card, for example, is a cash back card with a cash back reward return of 2 percent (1 percent when you spend, and another 1 percent when you pay off your purchases). That means that for every $100 you spend on your card, Citi will give you $2 back.
Flat-rate credit cards offer consumers a hassle-free approach to cash back because the process to earn cash back is quite simple. Every time you swipe your card, no matter the purchase, you’ll receive the same rewards rate.
Flat-rate credit cards appeal to individuals who prefer flexible spending, especially if you don’t want to think about juggling different types of credit cards for different categories of spending.
Consider the many recurring expenses you have every month, such as a utility and wireless internet bill. These categories typically aren’t covered by bonus rewards categories so a flat-rate credit card could come in handy if you’re looking to get cash back on expenses you know you are going to have every month.
How to get cash back from a card with a bonus or rotating rewards structure
If you choose a credit card that has a bonus or rotating cash back structure, you’ll earn more rewards for certain types of purchases such as groceries, dining, transportation or travel. While some of these special cash back categories may remain the same, others might rotate on a quarterly basis to focus on a different spending category. Some bonus cash back cards also offer the flexibility of choosing your own bonus categories or automatically offering bonus cash back on your biggest eligible spending category month-to-month.
For example, the Chase Freedom Flex offers tiered cash back rewards, with 5 percent on rotating categories each quarter (activation required, up to $1,500 in purchases, then 1 percent), 3 percent on dining at restaurants and drugstore purchases and at least 1 percent on other purchases.
On the other hand, the Citi Custom Cash℠ Card automatically chooses your top spending category each billing cycle and then gives cardholders 5 percent cash back on spending in that category (on up to $500 each billing cycle) regardless of what you purchase.
Bonus categories are usually capped once you hit a specific spending threshold, and you’ll notice your cash back rate may drop to 1 percent from this point on. Additionally, some cards require quarterly activations in order to earn a boosted rate on new bonus categories. If you don’t activate the bonus, you will not get the boosted rate.
How to get cash back with a welcome bonus
Most cash back credit cards also offer great cash back bonuses to new cardholders — something definitely worth paying attention to when you’re choosing your first card. You can’t beat money as a welcome gift, and oftentimes you can earn a decent sign-up bonus without big spending.
For example, the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card is currently giving a $200 cash back statement credit when you spend $500 in the first three months of card membership.
On the other hand, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is offering a $350 statement credit after you spend $3,000 in the first six months of card membership.
In order to receive the welcome bonus, you’ll have to meet the spending requirement. So as you are swiping your card every month, consider how much you need to spend each month in order to hit that threshold.
Difference between cash back and cash advance
When we talk about how to get cash back by using a credit card, it’s important to understand the difference between getting cash back rewards and getting cash as a cash advance. While cash back rewards are a return of a small percentage of money you’ve already spent, a cash advance is essentially a “loan” against the credit limit on your credit card.
When you take out a cash advance on your credit card — for example, by using your credit card to get cash out of an ATM — you will likely be charged a cash advance fee. You’ll also be subject to a high interest rate that begins to accrue immediately from the day of withdrawal. In short, a cash advance will likely cost you a lot of money and it is rarely a good option, while cash back puts money back into your pocket for making purchases.
How to redeem cash back rewards
So, how do you go about redeeming cash back rewards once you’ve earned it? The actual process depends on the rules of the individual cash back card that you hold.
The most common ways to redeem your cash back rewards are by requesting a statement credit to offset your current balance or by having the funds distributed to you by direct deposits into a linked bank account or paid out via check or PayPal.
Some cash back cardholders also redeem their rewards by transferring the credits into the issuer’s flexible rewards program to use for travel. This can often be one of the most lucrative ways to redeem cash back, as many issuers offer greater redemption rates when you redeem this way. Some cards also require you to accrue a minimum amount of cash back in order to cash you out.
When you’re exploring all of the current best cash back card options, you’ll want to make sure that you pick a card that rewards you for the type of spending you’re already doing. With a rotating card, consider whether you’ll be able to optimize bonus category spending and stay on top of activating each quarter.
The bottom line
While a few cents on the dollar may not seem like a lot, over time and with regular spending, cash back rewards can really add up. As long as you’re making more cash back each year from your transactions than you’re paying as an annual fee, you’ll always come out on top with a cash back card. Pay the balance off each month and enjoy your free money in order to make your cash back card work best for you and your spending habits.