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Americans are spending more on groceries during quarantine—here's how a credit card can help you save money

There are several great options for grocery credit cards depending on how you prefer to shop. CNBC Select reviews three of our top picks.

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It's been four months since the first recorded case of Covid-19 in the U.S. Since then, consumer spending has changed drastically.

Travel spending has plunged more than 85% since this time last year, and home improvement and food delivery sales have soared. 

But the biggest increase in spending across all areas has by far been groceries.

As restaurants shutter and people cook more meals at home, supermarket, grocery delivery and meal kit sales are on the rise. According to data from Earnest Research, total grocery sales spiked an initial 79% from March 11 to March 18 as Americans reacted to news of the quarantine. And although they've dropped closer to normal levels since then, sales are still higher than they were this time last year.

To save money on food, you might want to consider a rewards credit card that can help you earn over $100 a year on groceries. Below, CNBC Select reviews three of our top grocery card recommendations for cash back, no annual fee, and online grocery shopping.

Top credit cards for grocery shopping

Note: These cards are from our full comparison list of the best credit cards for groceries. Out of our top-five list, we pulled these three specifically for grocery spending during quarantine, as only one has an annual fee (under $100) and there are options for both online delivery and supermarket shopping.

Highest cash back on groceries

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
On American Express's secure site
  • Rewards

    6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%), 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions, 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations, 3% cash back on transit including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more and 1% cash back on other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    $250 statement credit after you spend $1,000 on eligible purchases on your new card within the first 3 months

  • Annual fee

    $95

  • Intro APR

    0% APR for the first 12 months on purchases and balance transfers

  • Regular APR

    12.99% to 23.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    3%, $5 minimum

  • Foreign transaction fee

    2.7%

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

Pros

  • High 6% cash back at U.S. supermarket spending (up to $6,000 a year, then 1%)
  • Unlimited 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions
  • Unlimited 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and on transit
  • A year of no interest on new purchases and balance transfers

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • 2.7% fee on purchases made abroad
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $679
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,397

Rewards totals incorporate the cash back earned from the welcome bonus

Who's this for? The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express offers the highest cash-back rate at U.S. supermarkets, with 6% on eligible grocery purchases (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%).

The average American can earn roughly $310 in cash back each year with this card (when they shop at qualifying supermarkets), but if you're spending more on groceries right now, that amount could be higher. Plus, with the card's welcome bonus, you can get a $250 statement credit when you spend $1,000 on eligible purchases within the first three months from account opening.

If you prefer to eat dinner while streaming entertainment, you can also earn 6% cash back on Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, HBO Now, Prime Video and more select streaming subscriptions. And when you're able to travel again, you'll earn an unlimited 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations, unlimited 3% cash back on transit including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more. For all other purchases, you'll get 1% cash back. 

Cardholders can also take advantage of Amex Offers, which allows you to earn statement credits or additional cash back at select retailers. Past offers have included discounts and statement credits toward services like the meal kit company Sun Basket and the online wholesaler Boxed. These limited-time offers are location-based and additional terms apply.

The Amex Blue Cash Preferred is the only card on this list with an annual fee ($95, see rates and fees), but it can be offset by taking advantage of the Amex Offers, plus maximizing the 6% cash back on groceries and streaming.

Don't forget: You can now use select Amex points and Capital One miles to pay for takeout and food delivery for a limited time.

Best no-annual-fee grocery card

Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express

Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
On American Express's secure site
  • Rewards

    3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%), 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, 1% cash back on other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn back $150 after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new card in your first 3 months from account opening

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% APR for the first 15 months on purchases and balance transfers (requested in the first 60 days from card opening)

  • Regular APR

    12.99% to 23.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    Either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater

  • Foreign transaction fee

    2.7%

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

See rates and fees and our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • 3% cash back at U.S. supermarket spending (up to $6,000 a year, then 1%)
  • Unlimited 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores
  • Amex Offers, which provide statement credits or opportunity to earn more rewards at select merchants
  • 0% APR during the first 15 months on new purchases and balance transfers

Cons

  • 2.7% fee on purchases made abroad
  • Not great for people who don’t regularly go grocery shopping
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $497
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $1,885

Rewards totals incorporate the points earned from the welcome bonus

Who's this for? The Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express is the no-annual-fee alternative to the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express. Cardholders can earn 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%).

The average American can earn $155 in cash back each year when they use the Blue Cash Everyday card to shop at qualifying supermarkets. And with the card's welcome bonus, you can take advantage of a $150 statement credit when you spend $1,000 on eligible purchases within the first three months from account opening.

Cardmembers also earn 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores and 1% cash back on all other purchases.

There is also a promotional no-interest period on purchases or balance transfers for the first 15 months after account opening (then, 12.99% to 23.99% variable APR). If you plan on doing a balance transfer, there is a 3% (minimum $5) balance transfer fee (see rates and fees).

Just like the Blue Cash Preferred Card, the Blue Cash Everyday Card comes with limited-time Amex Offers that allow you to earn statement credits, discounts and additional points at select retailers (including grocery delivery services and meal kits). These offers are location-based and additional terms apply.

Latest: If you are a Citi Prestige® cardholder, you can apply the card's $250 travel credit toward restaurant and supermarket purchases now through December 21, 2020.

Best for online grocery shopping

Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card

Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card
Information about the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.
  • Rewards

    5% cash back at Amazon.com and Whole Foods Market; 2% back at restaurants, gas stations and drugstores; 1% back on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    $70 Amazon.com gift card upon approval

  • Annual fee

    $0 (but Prime membership is required)

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Regular APR

    14.24% to 22.24% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    5%, $5 minimum

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • No annual fee
  • $70 Amazon.com gift card upon approval, with no spending requirements
  • 5% back at Amazon.com and Whole Foods Market
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.

Cons

  • Prime membership is required
  • The 5% back on groceries only applies to groceries bought on Amazon.com or at Whole Foods Market
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $510
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,272

Rewards totals incorporate the points earned from the welcome bonus

Who's this for? The Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature® Card is best if you want to earn an unlimited 5% cash back on Whole Foods and Amazon purchases.  According to our methodology, the average American can earn $207* in cash back each year when they do their shopping at qualifying supermarkets — and with the spike in grocery sales this is likely higher.

In addition, cardholders can earn 2% cash back at drug stores, gas stations and restaurants. There's no traditional welcome bonus, but upon approval for the card, you receive a $70 Amazon.com gift card right away, without having to meet a minimum spending requirement.

While this card has no annual fee, you need a Prime membership ($119 for an annual membership and $12.99 for a monthly membership). But if you already use Prime to have your Whole Foods groceries delivered, this card is a no-brainer. And those who have been interested in trying Prime could take advantage of the $70 gift card to help offset their first-year membership fee.

*When we calculated the returns for the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card, we assumed the cardholder would do 75% of their grocery shopping at Whole Foods Market; 25% of their clothing and housekeeping supplies shopping at Amazon. You may earn a higher or lower return depending on your spending habits.

Don't miss: Most Marriott credit cards now earn bonus rewards on groceries for a limited time.

Our methodology

To determine which cards offer the best value for grocery shopping, CNBC Select analyzed 26 of the most popular credit cards offered by the biggest banks, financial companies and credit unions that allow anyone to join and offer bonus rewards at supermarkets. Bonus rewards means a cardholder earns 2% or 2 points per dollar in a given category. In this case, grocery stores.

We compared each card on a range of features, including cash-back rewards, welcome bonus, introductory and standard APR, balance transfer fee and foreign transaction fees, as well as factors such as required credit score and customer reviews when available. We also considered additional perks, the application process and how easy it is for the consumer to redeem points.

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 2019 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 $22,126 in retail spending. The budget includes six main categories: groceries ($5,174), gas ($2,218), dining out ($3,675), travel ($2,244), utilities ($4,862) and general purchases ($3,953). 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 points/miles 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.

For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, click here.

For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, click here.

Information about the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature® Card and Citi Prestige® has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.