Life is expensive, there’s no getting around it. That’s why it feels like such a win when you get cash back for using a credit card to make purchases you were going to make anyway, such as buying gas or dining out.

Cash back credit cards typically offer cash rewards at a flat rate or as a bonus (or rotating) 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 card, you’ll automatically earn a percentage back based on the rules of your card.

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 with a flat-rate rewards structure

Flat-rate credit cards offer consumers a hassle-free approach to cash back. With a flat-rate cash back credit card, every purchase earns the same rate 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 every purchase.

For example, the Citi® Double Cash Card provides 2 percent cash back on every purchase — 1 percent when you make purchases and another 1 percent when you pay off your purchases. That means that, for every $100 you spend on your card, you’ll earn $2 back.

Flat-rate credit cards usually appeal to individuals who prefer flexible rewards and don’t want to juggle different types of credit cards for different spending categories. They’re also useful for purchases that aren’t typically covered by bonus or rotating category cards. For instance, consider the many recurring expenses you have every month, such as utility and internet bills. These categories aren’t typically 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 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. Some of the most common bonus or rotating categories include groceries, dining, gas or travel.

For cash back cards with set bonus categories, the categories will generally remain the same over time. For cards with rotating bonus categories, categories typically change on a quarterly basis to focus on different spending categories. Some bonus cash back cards also offer the flexibility of choosing your own bonus categories each month or they’ll automatically offer bonus cash back on your biggest eligible spending category each month. And then there are cards that offer both fixed bonus categories and rotating bonus categories.

For example, the Chase Freedom Flex℠ offers rotating cash back categories and tiered cash back categories. You’ll earn 5 percent cash back on rotating categories each quarter (on up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter, then 1 percent back; activation required), 5 percent cash back on Chase Ultimate Rewards travel purchases, 5 percent cash back on Lyft rides (through March 2025), 3 percent cash back on dining at restaurants and drugstore purchases and 1 percent cash back on other purchases.

On the other hand, the Citi Custom Cash℠ Card offers 5 percent cash back on your top eligible spending category each billing cycle (on up to $500 each billing cycle, then 1 percent).

Typically, rotating categories (and some bonus categories) are capped at a specific spending maximum, and you’ll notice your cash back rate may drop to 1 percent after you reach that limit. Additionally, some cards require quarterly activations in order to earn a boosted rate on new bonus categories. If you don’t activate a bonus category, 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 welcome bonuses to new cardholders — something definitely worth paying attention to when you’re choosing a card. In order to receive a welcome bonus, you’ll typically have to meet a spending requirement within a specific timeframe. Before you sign up for a card, consider how much you’ll need to spend each month in order to hit that threshold. If a card requires spending more than you’re used to, the sign-up bonus likely won’t be worth it.

Still, you can’t beat money as a welcome gift, and often you can earn a sizable sign-up bonus without spending a lot of money. For example, the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card offers new cardholders a $200 cash bonus after spending $500 in the first three months of card membership.

How to redeem cash back rewards

So, how do you go about redeeming cash back rewards once you’ve earned them? The actual process depends on the rules of the individual cash back card that you hold. But note that some cards require you to accrue a minimum amount of cash back rewards before you can redeem them.

Usually, the most common ways to redeem cash back rewards are by requesting a statement credit to offset your current card balance or by having the funds deposited into a linked bank account. You can also sometimes request your rewards in the form of a check. Otherwise, many issuers also allow you to redeem cash back for gift cards, merchandise or shopping with select retailers.

However, some cash back cards actually earn points instead of cash back. In that case, cardholders can often redeem their rewards for travel through their issuer’s travel portal. This can often be one of the most lucrative ways to redeem cash back, as many issuers offer at least 1 cent per point when you redeem this way.

What’s the difference between cash back and a cash advance?

When we talk about how to get cash back by using a credit card, it’s important to understand that there is a difference between getting cash back rewards and getting cash as a cash advance. While cash back rewards are small returns on the money you’ve already spent with your credit card, a cash advance is essentially a loan against the credit limit on your credit card.

For example, you can take out a cash advance on your credit card by using your credit card to get cash out of an ATM. In that case, 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, and it’s very different from cash back rewards where you’ll get money back into your pocket for making purchases.

The bottom line

While getting back a few cents on the dollar may not seem like a lot, cash back rewards can really add up over time and with regular spending. But if you’re paying an annual fee for your card, make sure you earn enough in cash back rewards each year to recoup the cost of annual card membership. Additionally, be sure to pay off your monthly balances in full so you can enjoy your free money and make your cash back card work best for you and your spending habits.