How Does Cash Back Work?

How Does Cash Back Work?

Editorial Note: This content is not provided by the credit card issuer. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer.

Credit card companies typically offer a plethora of rewards options for their cardholders to take advantage of. But cash back has long been a favorite of many, as it gives you the chance to earn cold, hard money for making everyday purchases. If you’re confused about how cash back works, read on for a full explanation.

How Cash Back Works

At its core, cash back refers to a predetermined percentage of a purchase you make being returned to you as cash rewards. Cash back rates typically range between 1% and 5%, though there are some outliers to be mindful of. Credit card issuers will usually clearly label what types of purchases earn what level of cash back. But like anything in the credit card industry, you must read the fine print.

This is mainly because all purchases and cash back rewards are governed by merchant category codes, or MCCs. Credit card companies ultimately determine these designations, with Mastercard, Visa, American Express and Discover calling the shots. Some common codes are “restaurant,” “department store,” “airline” and “entertainment,” among others. So if you earn 5% bonus cash back at restaurants and you go to Burger King — which has a restaurant MCC — you’ll get that 5% back.

But what these limiting MCCs sometimes don’t take into account are businesses that could fit into more than one category. Included in this group are hotels, superstores like Walmart, tourist attractions like museums and other multi-faceted establishments. In turn, you could lose out on cash back if you’re confused about which category a purchase you made falls into.

As an example, let’s say your family orders room service while on vacation in The Bahamas. You pay with your credit card thinking you’ll get the advertised 3% cash back on dining. When your credit card statement comes in the mail, however, you’ve only received the base 1% earnings. This is because the MCC of your hotel is just that, a hotel, which leaves your credit card issuer blind to what you really bought.

Unfortunately situations like these often offer very little recourse, as your card’s issuer has no ability to change these codes. In fact, only the major credit companies can change their own code selections.

New cardholders will often receive cash back promotions and bonuses. These offers can either be recurring — monthly, quarterly, yearly, etc. — or simply for just one period of time, usually at the beginning of your account’s life. Hypothetically, a recurring bonus might look like this: “Earn 3% cash back at supermarkets and wholesale clubs, up to $1,500 in purchases each quarter.” On the other hand, a one-time promotion might allow for 5% cash back on airfare purchases made during the first three months you’re a cardholder.

Depending on your card, cash back may be capped or it could expire after a period of time. While some cards feature both an earnings limit and expiration dates, others may have no restrictions. All cash back cards have their own, unique system surrounding them. So it’s important to refer to your documentation whenever you have a particular question.

Using Your Cash Back Earnings

How Does Cash Back Work?

The vast majority of cash back credit cards offer variations of the same choices for redeeming rewards. Most often, you’ll see statement credits, checks, bank account deposits, gift cards and charitable donations available to you.

  • Statement credit – Instead of receiving your cash back in-hand, you can apply it to your upcoming monthly bill, saving you money in the process.
  • Check – As one of the more direct ways of redeeming cash back, checks allow you to basically do whatever you want with its value.
  • Bank deposits – Eligible accounts usually include checking accounts, savings accounts or investment accounts.
  • Gift cards – With this option, you can convert cash back into retail credit at a store or website at which you want to shop.
  • Donations – Many card issuers have open relations with charities. These partnerships open the door for you to aid your favorite causes with real money.

It’s by far the easiest to redeem cash back through your card issuer’s website that it provides. Here you’ll not only see your rewards status, you will also know every possible redemption you could make. If you’d rather talk to a real person, most companies still have rewards phone lines you can call, as well.

Those who’d rather not have to worry about where their rewards currently stand will find that a redemption threshold might be helpful. Not all cards offer this feature. But if yours does, set a threshold at which your cash back is automatically redeemed in any manner you desire. Additionally, some cards require you to attain a certain amount of cash back before redeeming is possible.

Cash Back With Each Major Credit Card Company

what is cash back

There are tons of different cash back cards, depending on your credit score you may be eligible for some but not others. While it’s impossible to give universal specifics for each credit card company, below we’ve provided overviews of some of the most popular cash back cards.

Citi Double Cash Card (Mastercard)

Cash Back Rate: 1% at the time of purchase, 1% when you pay them off

Limit or Expiration: No limit; Expires if no eligible purchases are made for 12 months

Redemption Options: As a check, statement credit or gift card

The “double cash” nature of the Citi Double Cash Card means you effectively earn cash back twice: first when you make the initial purchase and again when you pay your credit card bill. The 12-month expiration is fairly standard and the lack of limits on how much cash back you can earn is generous. Statement credits, checks and gift cards are three of the most common redemption choices, so it’s no surprise to see them offered here.

Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card (Mastercard)

Cash Back Rate: 3% in the category of your choice, 2% on purchases at grocery stores and wholesale clubs, 1% on other purchases

Limit or Expiration: Cash back on choice category, grocery stores and wholesale club purchases is limited on up to $2,500 in combined purchases each quarter; No expiration dates

Redemption Options: Once you have $25 or more, you can redeem as a statement credit, a check or a deposit to an eligible Bank of America® or Merrill Lynch® account

Take note of the combined $2,500 quarterly limit on 3% and 2% cash back in category of choice and at grocery stores and wholesale clubs, respectively. The Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card also requires cardholders to have a minimum of $25 in earned cash back before they can redeem.

Blue Cash Everyday American Express Card
(American Express)

Cash Back Rate: 3% on U.S. supermarket purchases, 2% on U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department store purchases, 1% on other purchases

Limit or Expiration: 3% rate at U.S. supermarkets is limited to $6,000 a year in purchases then drops to 1%; No expiration dates

Redemption Options: After earning at least $25, redeem as a statement credit in $25 increments; Gift cards and merchandise redemptions from time to time

Amex offers some of the strongest rewards cards around, and the Blue Cash Everyday American Express Card is no exception. It does come with some limits; namely the 3% cash back rate on U.S. grocery store purchases is capped at $6,000 in purchases a year. At that time, cardholders earn 1% in cash back on groceries.

Discover it® Card
(Discover)

Cash Back Rate: 5% in rotating categories like gas station, supermarket, restaurant, Amazon.com and wholesale club purchases, 1% on other purchases; Full cash back match at the end of your first year

Limit or Expiration: $1,500 cap on purchases that earn the 5% rate each quarter; No expiration dates

Redemption Options: Statement credits, deposits to a bank account, gift cards and eCertificates, pay with cash back at select merchants and charitable donations

Discover cards offer great first-year cash back matches and distinctive cash back categories. These traits are on full display with the Discover it® Card. This includes 5% cash back on purchases ranging from dining to Amazon.com. However, there are limits for this rate and you have to opt in to categories each quarter to qualify. This card also offers five redemption options — the most on this list.

Tips to Maximize Cash Back Potential and Minimize Credit Risk

  • Cash back is one of the most prolific perks that the modern credit card market has to offer. But it’s important that you don’t overspend outside of your means just for the sake of rewards. Because many cash back cards come with higher annual percentage rates (APRs), this could force you into large, unsustainable interest payments.
  • Whenever possible, swipe your card for purchases in bonus categories. Not all cards have these to offer, but most do. So make sure you know which cards in your wallet offer bonuses at places like gas stations and supermarkets.
  • Know what types of redemptions — statement credits, bank account deposits, gift cards etc. — work best for you. This will drastically narrow down your card options, making the decision process much simpler.

Photo Credit: ©iStock.com/4×6, Â©iStock.com/Pgiam, Â©iStock.com/Ridofranz

Editorial Note: This content is not provided by the credit card issuer. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer.

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Best credit cards for grocery shopping

Americans spend on average $4,464 in groceries every year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Shopping for groceries is one of the main weekly expenses in every American household.

That’s why the credit cards tying reward points to grocery shopping are getting more numerous and their offers are getting increasingly more competitive. In 2020 you have a whole new lineup of cards ready to reward you for the purchases you make at grocery stores.

Here are the best cards whether you like those premium rewards, are an everyday shopper, are building credit, you’d rather skip the prep and go straight to the meal or you like to buy groceries at superstores.

See related: Best cash back cards

American Express® Gold Card – Best for earning Membership Rewards points on groceries

  • Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express – Best for earning cash back on groceries
  • Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card – Best for earning cash back on groceries with no annual fee
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited® – Best for earning cash back on groceries and everything else
  • Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card – Best for earning cash back on groceries and dining out
  • Target REDcard™ – Best for earning cash back on Target purchases
  • Capital One® Walmart Rewards® Mastercard® – Best for earning cash back on Walmart purchases
  • American Express® Gold Card: Best for earning Membership Rewards points on groceries

    Amex Gold gives you an unprecedented rewards rate whether you’re dining in or out. If that weren’t enough, paying at certain eligible restaurants (see terms for qualifying merchants) after enrollment can get you up to $10 a month in statement credit. You also get up to $120 in Uber Cash every year ($10 per month) that can be applied to U.S. Uber Eats orders – a big plus for those who order their groceries through the platform (must add Gold Card to Uber app in order to receive the Uber Cash benefit).

    The intro bonus of 60,000 points when you spend $4,000 in the first six months is excellent, and there are many redemption options, including gift cards, merchandise and travel with no blackout dates.

    The card charges an annual fee of $250, but if you take advantage of both the Uber Cash and the dining credit, keeping the Amex Gold card will essentially cost you $10 every year.

    If you are OK with only redeeming travel directly through Amextravel.com or Amex’s airline partners to maximize the value of the Membership Rewards points you’ll earn, this is a great card for foodies and travelers.

    Here’s a closer look at the features:

    • 60,000 American Express Membership Rewards points when you spend $4,000 in the first six months
    • 4 points per dollar spent at U.S. supermarkets on up to $25,000 per year in purchases – 1 point thereafter
    • 4 points per dollar spent at restaurants worldwide (including Uber Eats orders)
    • 3 points per dollar spent on flights booked directly through airlines or on amextravel.com
    • Up to $120 annual dining credit (up to a $10 statement credit monthly) when you pay at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris and participating Shake Shack locations (enrollment required)
    • Up to $120 in Uber Cash per year ($10 per month)
    • No foreign transaction fees

    Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express: Best for earning cash back on groceries

    Even though it has fewer features than the Amex Gold, it gives you perhaps the highest cash back rate available on groceries, and it has a lower annual fee – $95. Plus, running errands like groceries is way easier when you get cash back on gas for the commute. Take a closer look:

    • $250 statement credit when you spend $1,000 in the first three months
    • 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 in purchases per year, then 1%
    • 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming services, such as Netflix, Hulu or HBO Max
    • 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations
    • 3% on transit purchases
    • 1% cash back on all other purchases

    Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card: Best for earning cash back on groceries with no annual fee

    The Bank of America Cash Rewards card offers grocery shoppers the opportunity to double down on cash back for food by selecting dining for its 3% category along with its outstanding 2% rate on grocery stores and wholesale clubs, with no annual fee.

    If cardholders want something other than dining for the 3% rate, Cash Rewards offers the flexibility to let them choose their own category. However, the $2,500 quarterly spending cap on both categories is low.

    Have a closer look:

    • $200 in online cash rewards when you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days
    • 3% cash back on a category of your choice (gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drugstores or home improvements and furnishings)
    • 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs
    • $2,500 combined quarterly limit on 2% and 3% cash back categories
    • 1% cash back on all other purchases
    • No annual fee

    Chase Freedom Unlimited®: Best for earning cash back on groceries and everything else

    For those who don’t want to have to choose a spending category but still want no annual fee, Chase Freedom Unlimited offers a consistent rate of at least 1.5% cash back on all purchases.

    • 5% cash back on travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards
    • 3% cash back on dining and drugstore purchases
    • 1.5% cash back on all other purchases
    • $200 bonus if you spend $500 in the first 3 months
    • Cash back rewards do not expire
    • No annual fee

    Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card*: Best for earning cash back on groceries and dining out

    This card is for those with way too packed a social life to buy groceries. Sure, you get 2% cash back at grocery stores for those times your social calendar eases up and you can actually get to the store, but otherwise, you get way more return on your cash back when you dine out or see a show.

    Plus, if you love concerts, 8% cash back on tickets through Vivid Seats is absolutely unprecedented.

    Check out the details:

    • $300 cash bonus if you spend $3,000 in the first three months
    • 8% cash back on tickets through Vivid Seats (offer expires January 2022)
    • 4% cash back on dining and entertainment.
    • 2% cash back at grocery stores
    • 1% cash back on all other purchases
    • $95 annual fee

    Why go to a standard grocery store when superstores allow you to get the grocery shopping done all in one shot? For those who prefer one-stop shopping, there are some great credit card options for superstore shoppers that will give you monster returns you don’t often see with standard cash back cards as long as you use them in-store.

    Target REDcard™: Best for earning cash back on Target purchases

    The Target Redcard has no annual fee. This, combined with its standard offer of 5% off in-store purchases applied right at the checkout counter and 5% off at Target.com with free shipping, makes it a great card for frequent Target shoppers, especially since the 5% discount is applied in perpetuity. You can also stack your discount with others available through Target’s Cartwheel app and in-store.

    Though most people don’t need 120 days to return an item, you get that with this card when its extra 30 days is combined with Target’s standard 90-day return policy. The extra time could allow a greater piece of mind on those large ticket items you buy.

    However, if you’re known to carry a balance, this isn’t the right card for you. The high variable APR can far outweigh the 5% discount, so pay the card off after each billing cycle.

    Here’s a snapshot of all the benefits of this card: 

    • 5% off eligible Target purchases in-store and online at Target.com (except pharmacy purchases)
    • Can be used together with Target Circle and other discounts
    • Free two-day shipping on orders from Target.com with no spending minimum
    • An extra 30 days to return items on top of the standard 90-day return policy
    • Early access to special events, products and promotions
    • No annual fee

    Capital One® Walmart Rewards® Mastercard®: Best for earning cash back on Walmart purchases

    This card is great because, unlike Target’s Redcard, it offers some cash back outside of Walmart purchases, including 2% cash back at restaurants and travel and 1% cash back on all other purchases.

    However, while Target’s Redcard offers its in-store 5% discount with no limit, the Capital One Walmart Rewards Mastercard only offers the same discount in-store for the first 12 months and you have to use Walmart’s mobile wallet on your purchases to get it.

    Where this card really shines is online, especially if you do a lot of grocery pickup or delivery orders from Walmart.com.

    It’s very easy to apply for and, like the Redcard, it carries no annual fee, as well as some smaller benefits you’ll see below:

    • 5% cash back on Walmart purchases online, including grocery and delivery orders
    • 5% cash back on in-store purchases in the first year when you pay using the Walmart Pay digital wallet
    • 2% cash back on restaurant and travel purchases
    • 1% cash back on all other purchases
    • No annual fee or foreign transaction fee
    • Easily apply via text message
    • Card is automatically transferred to Walmart Pay digital wallet on approval
    • Fraud alerts and the ability to freeze your account

    Comparing the best cards for grocery shopping

    Card Grocery bonus Other rewards Annual fee
    American Express® Gold Card 4 points per dollar spent at U.S. supermarkets on up to $25,000 per year in purchases – 1 point thereafter

     

    • 60,000 American Express Membership Rewards points when you spend $4,000 in the first six months
    • 4 points per dollar spent at restaurants worldwide (including Uber Eats orders)
    • 3 points per dollar spent on flights booked directly through airlines or on amextravel.com
    • Up to $120 annual dining credit (up to a $10 statement credit monthly) when you pay at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris and participating Shake Shack locations (enrollment required)
    • Up to $120 in Uber Cash per year ($10 per month)
    $250
    Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
    6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 in purchases per year, then 1%
    • $250 statement credit when you spend $1,000 in the first three months
    • 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming services, such as Netflix, Hulu or HBO Max
    • 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations
    • 3% on transit purchases
    • 1% cash back on all other purchases
    $95
    Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs
    • $200 in online cash rewards when you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days
    • 3% cash back on a category of your choice (gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drugstores or home improvements and furnishings)
    • $2,500 combined quarterly limit on 2% and 3% cash back categories
    • 1% cash back on all other purchases
    $0
    Chase Freedom Unlimited® n/a
    • 5% cash back on travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards
    • 3% cash back on dining and drugstore purchases
    • 1.5% cash back on all other purchases
    • $200 bonus if you spend $500 in the first 3 months
    $0
    Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card 2% cash back at grocery stores
    • 8% cash back on tickets through Vivid Seats (offer ends January 2022)
    • 4% cash back on dining and entertainment
    • 1% cash back on other purchases
    • $300 bonus if you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months
    $95
    Target REDcard™ 5% discount at Target and Target.com n/a $0
    Capital One® Walmart Rewards® Mastercard®
    • 5% cash back on in-store purchases for the first 12 months when using Walmart Pay
    • 5% cash back on Walmart.com purchases, including grocery pickup and delivery orders
    • 2% cash back on in-store Walmart purchases after the introductory period
    • 2% cash back on restaurant and travel purchases
    • 2% cash back on the purchase of gift cards at Walmart (online, app, Walmart Pay or in stores
    • 1% cash back on all other purchases
    $0

    Honorable mentions

    There is no shortage of credit card options that reward grocery spending, so in addition to our top picks above, consider these alternatives.

    • Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card – A no-annual-fee alternative to the Capital One Savor Card, the SavorOne offers the same 2% cash back on grocery store purchases. While it offers a slightly lower rate on dining and entertainment than the Savor card, the SavorOne is a good alternative for those wary to pay an annual fee.
    • U.S. Bank Altitude Go Card – The newly launched U.S. Bank Altitude Go Card offers a competitive rewards rate on both dining and grocery purchases – 4 points per dollar on dining and food delivery and 2 points per dollar on groceries, to be exact. It also offers 2 points per dollar on gas and streaming service purchases and 1 point per dollar on everything else. Plus, it doesn’t charge an annual fee.
    • Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature card – If you prefer to do your grocery shopping at Whole Foods, you can’t beat the rewards rate on the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature card. In addition to 5% cash back on Amazon.com purchases, the card offers the same 5% rate at Whole Foods locations. You’ll also earn 2% back on restaurant, gas station and drug store purchases and 1% on everything else. You have to be a Prime member to qualify for the card, but if you spend a significant amount on Amazon orders or at Whole Foods, your rewards can help offset the cost of membership.
    • Apple Card – The Apple Card is best known for its high rewards rate on Apple purchases, but it can also be a great choice for grocery shopping. When you make a purchase via Apple Pay, the card offers 2% back on all qualifying purchases. This is on par with some of the highest flat-rate credit card offers. Just make sure your preferred grocery story accepts the mobile wallet before you work this card into your rewards strategy.

    How to pick the right card for grocery shopping

    For most of us, using a credit card at a grocery store simply involves taking it out in the checkout line. But if you want to up your grocery shopping game and save some serious money, here are some tips and secret strategies from credit card experts and the most seasoned shoppers we could find.

    When picking the credit card you’ll use at the grocery store most experts recommend either a card with a high cash back rate that can provide a percentage off every time you shop or a tiered rewards card that offers specific rewards every time you use it for groceries.

    “When you use a cash back card, it’s like having a coupon to save a certain amount off your total purchase each and every time you buy groceries. This savings isn’t limited to grocery stores – a flat-rate rewards card will apply the same cash back or miles to all of your purchases,” says Ashley Dull of CardRates.com.

    However, if you’re picking a tiered rewards card with a grocery store category, they often have a limit on how much you can earn annually.

    For example, American Express limits the 6% cash back rate spent at U.S. supermarkets annually on its Blue Cash Preferred Card to $6,000 in purchases (after that, it’s 1%), so be mindful of those restrictions.

    Apple Card gives you cash back every day.

    You also want to pick a card where rewards don’t expire, there are multiple options for redemption and you can transfer rewards between accounts. Always keep track of the terms of your credit card and compare card features vigorously before making your final selection.

    How to earn the most rewards while grocery shopping

    If you really want to maximize your rewards at the grocery store, stack your savings with a cash back app such as Ibotta, Fetch Rewards or Checkout 51. Your grocery store’s loyalty app is also a great way to double-dip on savings.

    “By taking a few minutes to scan in your grocery receipts, a family of four can easily earn over $25 a month in rewards,” says Nermeen Ghneim of The Savvy Dollar personal finance blog.

    Finally, if you’re choosing a store-branded credit card because you tend to shop at the same store all the time, make sure you pay off the balance before the billing cycle resets because store cards tend to have very high interest and fees.

    “Many people know that making a habit of paying off high interest credit cards will actually have a slightly negative effect on their credit,” says Dan Gallagher, author, retired financial planner and personal finance expert at ScoreSense.com. “But some grocery credit cards are in-house credit extensions, especially the ones that are valid in-store only. The in-store-only variety does not harm your score for avoiding interest and paying balances off early, so do not fear a grocery store credit card.”

    *All information about the Capital One Savor card has been collected independently by CreditCards.com and has not been reviewed by the issuer. 

    Source: creditcards.com