There are a lot of options out there for rewards cards, and as long as you don’t carry a balance from month to month, they can be a great way to earn some extra money throughout the year. But I’ve found that many of the high earning cards require a lot of thought and effort — so much so that it’s hardly even worth the points. If you want a lot of cash back with minimal effort, these are the best cards to get!
What’s the big deal about credit card rewards?
We can all use a little more green in our pockets, especially with how the last year has been. There are plenty of ways to do that. Couponing. Survey apps. Swagbucks. Rakuten. Side hustles. Shopping sales. Tightening your budget. All of these can be great, but they also all take a lot of time and a steep learning curve, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a whole lot of extra time.
Credit card rewards are awesome because once you have the card, you don’t have to do a single thing to earn that money. Just shop as usual and watch that money rack up!
This year we didn’t even maximize rewards (because I didn’t have the awesome reference card yet — you can download yours for FREE below) and I still had over $1000 in rewards at the end of the year!
Just imagine what you could do with an extra $1000! Christmas gifts! Vacation! Treat yo self!
We like to not even touch the rewards until the end of the year then use it all at once for Christmas gifts, but of course you could also just have a little extra spending money each month, or use it to pad your savings account without having to cut your budget.
But Dave Ramsey says I shouldn’t have a credit card!
There are certainly potential problems with credit cards, and you have to approach it the right way for it to be beneficial.
Most importantly, never ever ever EVER carry a balance on your credit cards. The reason credit card companies can afford to give rewards is because what they charge in interest drastically outweighs it.
Be sure to pay off your full balance by the due date. I like to pay it off at least twice a month to be safe, weekly is even better. My brother actually pays his credit card off every single day.
Paying your full balance frequently also helps you to avoid the problem of “out of sight out of mind” with your purchases. It can be easy to think you still have plenty of money to spend when it is still just sitting in your bank account, meanwhile purchases are racking up on your credit card.
The other reason Dave Ramsey suggests only using cash is that it hurts just a little more than swiping plastic or clicking a button. Cash is inconvenient, which in his method is kind of the point, but I just can’t get behind more inconvenience in my life.
It’s really just a mindset hack to keep you from spending more money than necessary, but there are other ways to tighten your budget.
What about travel hacking?
Travel hacking has become popular in recent years because you can get a TON of points if you do it right, but it literally takes entire spreadsheets to map out the system. You have to be regularly opening and closing cards to get the special bonuses, and you have to keep track of what cards were opened when and which card to use for different purchases and how long the points last before they expire, and so on and so on.
Plus, it’s really only beneficial if you do a lot of traveling. Sure it sounds nice to be able to fly anywhere first class and stay in fancy resorts all for free, but you need to have the time and availability to travel in the first place. As a mom of four kids under five, that just doesn’t make much sense.
If you aren’t constantly traveling, the points aren’t actually better than cash back. It sounds so exciting to earn thousands of points, but you have to pay attention to how they are redeemed.
The majority of “points” based cards can be redeemed at a conversion rate of 1 point = 1 cent at most, so 5,000 points would be $50, typically even less if you want plain old money instead of a gift card or other forms of rewards. Credit card companies will often advertise 2x or 3x points, which is the equivalent of 2% or 3% cash back, so keep that in mind when you are comparing cards.
Travel cards often lure you in with MASSIVE bonus offers for opening a card and spending a certain amount of money right away. These can be a good way to get a lot of rewards quickly if you have a big purchase coming up anyway, but be careful of annual fees. You may be tempted to open it just for the rewards then close it before the annual fee kicks in, but that may mean you can never get that card again in the future if you decide to you do want to delve into travel hacking.
Where do I start?
The absolute BEST cash back credit card for general purpose spending is DoubleCash by Citi. It gives 1% rewards on every purchase PLUS an additional 1% when you pay it off, giving a total of 2% on any and all purchases. This is the only card that gives such a high rate with absolutely no fees or strings attached. Pretty much any other card out there only gives 1% for general purchases. The DoubleCash card is my go-to for just about everything.
After that, you want to look for any cards that can get you 3%, 4%, 5%, or more in certain categories. The other two cards I regularly use are the Costco Anywhere Visa and the U.S. Bank Cash+ card.
The Costco Anywhere Visa gives 4% cash back for gas (and not just Costco gas, any gas anywhere), 3% for restaurants and travel (which is equivalent to the “3x” points that many travel cards give, but then you can use the rewards for anything), and 2% on purchases from Costco (which is great because DoubleCash is a Mastercard, not a Visa, so you can’t use it at Costco). Plus, this card is also by Citi, which means it will be in the same online account as your DoubleCash card.
The U.S. Bank Cash+ card is another amazing cash back card. There are a lot of cards out there that offer 5% cash back in rotating categories, but this is the only one that lets YOU choose which categories, and lets you keep the same categories month after month. This is a huge deal since some of the most popular categories for these kinds of cards are things like streaming subscriptions or home utility bills, which you pay month after month.
U.S. Bank makes it easy for you to see which categories you spend the most in to be able to maximize your rewards. If you and your partner each have your own Cash+ card, that’s four different categories that you can be earning 5% in every single month! The 2% category doesn’t matter much since you can get 2% cash back on everything with the DoubleCash card.
You don’t have to have a checking or savings account with U.S. Bank in order to have a Cash+ card, but if you do you can get your rewards via direct deposit. Otherwise, you can get your rewards as a statement credit or a Visa gift card.
A word about store cards
Store-specific cards offer some of the best rewards out there, but you have to make sure you understand exactly how they work before deciding which ones are right for you.
We have a Walmart card, a Target card, and an Amazon card. Each of these cards earns 5% cash back at their respective stores. With the Walmart card, it’s important to note that it only earns 5% for grocery pickup or Walmart.com. In store, the card will only give you 2% (if you use Walmart Pay through the app, you can get 5% in store for the first year). The Target RedCard technically does not give cash back, it gives you a 5% discount on your purchases when you use it.
A lot of other cards will try to grab your attention, but be sure to read the fine print. For example, IKEA has amazing sounding rewards — including 3% cash back at all grocery stores — but they’re really complicated to redeem, and you will often find yourself missing out on rewards completely. Unless you shop at IKEA a couple of times a month, it’s unlikely to really work well for you.
Other cards we’ve gotten but ended up not needing were for Home Depot and Old Navy. The Home Depot card had a great introductory bonus offer, but it doesn’t actually earn any rewards. And Old Navy just didn’t make sense for our family because we don’t actually shop there much — we buy all our clothes at thrift stores.
If there are stores that you shop at frequently that offer a good rewards card, it can be an awesome way to get even more cash back, just make sure the rewards outweigh the hassle.
Beware of restrictions and fees
These cards are a great way to get started with cash back rewards, and you just may find you get addicted to the easy earnings and want to look for other cards to add to your wallet. If you do, just be sure you pay attention to the restrictions and fees.
For instance, I am often tempted by the AmEx Blue Cash Preferred card because it earns a whopping 6% cash back on groceries! However, it also has a $95 annual fee. If you do the math, you find that you need to spend about $130 every month at supermarkets (superstores like Walmart and Target don’t count) just to offset the annual fee, then significantly more than that to actually earn more rewards throughout the year than you would just using your good ol’ DoubleCash card.
Putting it all together
If this still seems overwhelming, don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. It’s as easy as 1-2-3!
Step 1. Get the cards. — DoubleCash, Cash+, Costco, and any store-specific cards that can earn high rewards at places you frequently shop. Don’t worry about getting a lot of credit cards at once. The credit checks can cause a slight temporary dip in your credit score, but in the long term having more accounts and higher credit limits is actually beneficial for your credit score, as long as you don’t carry a balance.
Step 2. Print your reference card. — These cards are WAY simpler to earn rewards with than many others, but it can still be a lot to remember which card to use for which purchases. Download your handy dandy reference card below and slip it in your wallet to make it easy to keep track. Cut on the outer line for a card that’s the perfect size for your wallet, or cut on the inner line to give yourself room to laminate it.
Step 3. Earn tons of money! — When it comes to saving money or earning rewards, cash back credit cards are as close as you can get to “set it and forget it.” Just shop as usual and watch those rewards balances climb!
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