When it comes to cash-back credit cards, it literally pays to do your homework. Using the right cash-back card strategically can earn you hundreds of dollars a year and thousands of dollars over time.
To help you find the right card, we analyzed 50 of the most popular cash-back cards using an average American's annual spending budget and digging into each card's perks and drawbacks to find the best of the best based on your consumer habits. (See our methodology for more information on how we choose the best cards.)
When choosing the cards in this roundup, we focused exclusively on cash-back offers, but of course there are lots of other cards to consider. Check out CNBC Select's picks of the best rewards cards for travel, online shopping, groceries and more.
Here are CNBC Select's picks for the top cash-back credit cards:
$99, waived the first year
3% unlimited cash back on all purchases during the first year; 2.5% on all purchases after
11.99% to 14.99%
Who's this for? If you're looking for a first-in-class cash-back card, then this may be the card for you. The Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Card offered by Chicago-based Alliant Credit Union really upped the ante when it comes to cash-back rewards. Cardmembers get an eye-popping unlimited 3% cash back during the first year, and 2.5% after that. That's the highest flat rate offered among the options surveyed by CNBC Select.
Another benefit of this card is the easy cash-back program. There's no activation required, no limit on how many points you can earn and you can redeem cash-back for statement credit or deposit into your Alliant checking or savings account at any amount. (There's a $5 minimum opening balance requirement for an Alliant savings account — which Alliant pays on your behalf — and no fee for its checking accounts.)
Alliant says on its website that this card is designed for big spenders, or those who spend $50,000 a year on credit cards, but CNBC Select found the benefits kick in at less than half this amount. If you spend around the same as the average American, roughly $21,852 a year, we calculated the card nets you about $656 during the first year with 3% cash back and $447 each year after. You do need a high credit score to qualify.
While it doesn't offer any welcome bonuses or introductory offers, this card also stands out thanks to its relatively low APR. (Though we do recommend you pay off your card on time and in full each month.) There are also no fees charged on foreign transactions.
Additionally, the card offers a host of useful protection programs, including 90-day purchase protection coverage if a recent purchase suffers harm (like if you drop your new iPhone in water) and travel accident coverage up to $250,000 — protection if you're injured or killed while on the road.
Cardmembers can take advantage of up to $5,000 in personal identity theft protection, free roadside assistance and rental car collision insurance, so you don't have to spend extra money next time you rent a car.
The biggest downside to the Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card is that it does have a $99 annual fee that kicks in after the first year, though you can easily make up for the cost thanks to the strong 3% cash back program.
You also have to become a member of Alliant Credit Union and open an account. The easiest way to become a member is by supporting Alliant's partner charity, Foster Care to Success. You don't need to pay the charity directly — Alliant pays $5 on your behalf when you apply to join the credit union. Membership is also open to family members of current members, employees of partner organizations or those who live or work in qualifying towns and communities near Chicago's O'Hare International airport.
Overall, the numbers indicate that it's worth it to overcome these relatively minor obstacles in order to get the card's generous cash-back rate on all your purchases. If you don't want to make that trade off, though, consider one of the other highly rated cards below.
2% cash back: 1% on all purchases and an additional 1% after you pay your credit card bill
0% APR for the first 18 months on balance transfers
Either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater
15.49% to 25.49%
Who's this for? The Citi® Double Cash Card is a solid choice if you're looking to maximize your money without having to worry about rotating reward categories or switching to a new bank. Earn 1% cash back on purchases and 1% when you pay off your bill. That makes the card's appeal almost universal, as you won't have to miss out on reward opportunities.
There's no annual fee and an easy-to-use rewards program with no activation required and no limit to how much cash back you can earn. Cardholders can redeem cash back for checks or statement credits once they've earned $25 worth of cash back. Plus, if you forget to pay your card, Citi will waive your first late fee. (Though we recommend you pay off your credit card balance on time and in full each month to avoid interest charges.)
Although this card doesn't come with a welcome bonus, the Citi® Double Cash Card offers cardholders 0% APR for the first 18 months on balance transfers (then a 15.49% to 25.49% variable APR) initiated within 4 months of opening an account.
In addition to the cash-back rewards, there are a number of special cardmember programs, including Citi Entertainment℠, which gives cardholders first access to purchase tickets for thousands of concerts and events. The card also provides access to Citi® Identity Theft Solutions, a service that will help you if you're a victim of identity theft.
3% cash back on dining and entertainment, 2% at grocery stores and 1% on all other purchases
Earn a one-time $150 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening
0% APR for first 15 months on purchases and balance transfers
15.74% to 25.74%
3% for promotional APR offers; none for balances transferred at regular APR
Who's this for? If you're looking to earn bonus cash back during the first few months after account opening, consider the Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Card. This cash-back card has a generous welcome bonus with a low spending requirement: Earn a one-time $150 cash bonus once you spend $500 on purchases within the first three months from account opening. That's like earning 30% cash back.
Beyond the welcome bonus, the SavorOne Cash Rewards card has a well-rounded cash-back program offering 3% cash back on dining and entertainment, 2% at grocery stores and 1% on all other purchases.
Plus, this card has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees, which is perfect if you travel abroad. Cardholders can also benefit from insider access to premium experiences in dining, entertainment, sports and more, such as the iHeartRadio Music Festival and the Capital One JamFest.
*First year rewards total incorporates the points earned from the welcome bonus
5% cash back in different categories (gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, Amazon and more) each quarter, up to the quarterly maximum each time you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases automatically
Discover automatically matches all the cash back you earned at the end of your first year.
0% APR for the first 6 months on purchases; 10.99% APR for the first 6 months on balance transfers
14.49% to 23.49%
3% intro balance transfer fee, up to 5% fee on future balance transfers (see terms)*
For student cards, CNBC Select did not analyze how much cash back you can earn.
Who's this for? Building credit while you're in college is a great way to establish good credit by the time you graduate. A student card, like the Discover it® Student Cash Back, can help you build credit while also earning cash back and benefiting from student-centric perks. To qualify, you need to meet a few requirements: attend a two- or four-year college, be over 18 and a U.S. citizen.
The Discover it® Student Cash Back has no annual fee and, upon enrollment, provides 5% cash back on rotating categories, currently Amazon.com, Target and Walmart.com (from October 2019 to December 2019), up to a $1,500 maximum each quarter (then 1%). All other purchases earn 1% cash back.
As an incentive to maintain good grades, Discover offers an annual $20 statement credit when you maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA (valid for up to five consecutive years). Plus, there are no foreign transaction fees, which makes it a good choice for students studying abroad.
If you need to finance textbooks or dorm room essentials, you can take advantage of the 0% APR for the first six months on new purchases. After the intro period, there's a 14.49% to 23.49% variable APR. We always recommend you pay your balance on time and in full in order to avoid interest charges.
3% cash back on goods or services purchased directly from Apple (including Apple retail stores, the Apple online store, the App Store, iTunes, Apple Music and other Apple-owned properties) on Uber and UberEats, at Walgreens and Duane Reade stores, on the Walgreens app and on Walgreens.com and in T-Mobile stores, 2% cash back on Apple Pay purchases and 1% cash back on all other purchases
12.74% to 23.74%
Who's this for? The Apple Card has generated a lot of buzz with its unique "Daily Cash" program and quirks of its titanium card. The card was created with the dedicated iPhone user in mind and has a cash-back program tailored to fans of Apple products and services.
You'll earn the most cash back (3%) on goods or services purchased directly from Apple (including Apple retail stores, the Apple online store, the App Store, iTunes, Apple Music and other Apple-owned properties), at Walgreens and Duane Reade stores, on the Walgreens app, on Walgreens.com, on Uber, UberEats and in T-Mobile stores. All purchases made with Apple Pay earn 2% cash back, and you earn 1% cash back when paying with the physical Apple Card.
One of the perks of this card is how easy it is to use the cash back you earn. Daily Cash is deposited at the end of every day, after purchases are posted to your account. Once you receive cash back, you're able to redeem it as a statement credit to your Apple Card balance, spend it like cash through Apple Pay, transfer it to a bank account or send it to friends via iMessage.
If you're attached to your iPhone and often use Apple Pay, this card lets you maximize cash back on Apple purchases. Plus, you can benefit from no fees whatsoever — no annual fees, foreign transaction fees or late payment fees. There is also a tool that shows you how much it costs to carry a balance, though we recommend you pay off your card in full and on time in order to avoid interest charges. Read our review of the Apple Card.
*To calculate the rewards you could earn using your Apple Pay card, we assumed that cardholders will use Apple Pay for 70% of their purchases at a rate of 2% cash back, since 70% of all merchants accept Apple Pay, according to an Apple spokesperson. We also assumed the cardholder would use the physical Apple Card for the other 30% of their purchases at a rate of 1% cash back. You may earn a higher or lower return depending on your spending habits.
To determine which cards will put the most money back in your pocket, CNBC Select evaluated 50 cash-back credit cards offered by the biggest banks, financial companies and credit unions that allow anyone to join. We compared each card on a range of features, including cash-back rewards, annual fee, welcome bonus, introductory and standard APR, balance transfer fee and foreign transaction fees, as well as factors such as required credit and customer reviews when available.
CNBC Select teamed up with location intelligence firm Esri. The company's data development team provided the most up-to-date and comprehensive consumer spending data based on the 2018 Consumer Expenditure Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can read more about their methodology here.
Esri's data team created a sample annual budget of approximately $21,852 in retail spending. This budget is comprised of the most common spending categories, including groceries ($5,019), gas ($2,394), dining out ($3,365), travel ($2,154), utilities ($4,959) and general purchases ($3,961). General purchases include items such as housekeeping supplies, clothing, personal care products, prescription drugs and vitamins, and other vehicle expenses.
CNBC Select used this budget to estimate how much the average consumer would save over the course of a year, two years and five years, assuming they would attempt to maximize their rewards potential by earning all welcome bonuses offered and using the card for all applicable purchases. All rewards total estimations are net the annual fee.
It's important to note the value of a point or mile varies from card to card and based on how you redeem them. When we calculated the estimated returns, we assumed that cardholders are redeeming cash back for a typical maximum value of 1 cent per point or mile. (Extreme optimizers might be able to achieve more value.)
Our final picks are weighted heavily toward the highest five-year returns, since it's generally wise to hold onto a credit card for years. This method also avoids giving an unfair advantage to cards with large welcome bonuses.
While the five-year estimates we've included are derived from a budget similar to the average American's spending, you may earn a higher or lower return depending on your shopping habits.