What Is Cash Back?

Cash back is a rewards benefit that many credit cards offer to cardholders. By taking advantage of it, you’ll receive back a prespecified percentage of certain purchases you make. Many credit card companies will provide higher cash back rates on … Continue reading →

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Cash back is a rewards benefit that many credit cards offer to cardholders. By taking advantage of it, you’ll receive back a prespecified percentage of certain purchases you make. Many credit card companies will provide higher cash back rates on certain types of purchases, such as airfare, gas, food and more. Cash back is just one way that credit cards offer rewards, as mileage and points are some alternatives.

Before you spend too much money with your credit cards, make sure you have a financial plan in place. Speak with a financial advisor today.

What Is Cash Back?

The most commonly recognized style of cash back is what you have likely seen advertised as cash back credit cards. This specifically refers to earning a certain percentage of your credit card purchases back as cash rewards. However, cash back rates vary widely, as do the categories that they apply to.

You usually won’t see credit card cash back rates higher than 5%, while 1% is the typically minimum you will earn. Cash back categorization is significantly more complex though, with a merchant category code (MCC) system being the main organizing force.

MCCs run the entire cash back industry, as they ultimately decide how each purchase you make is classified. These designations coincide with cash back rates set by the issuer of your card. For example, you could use your card for a $50 dinner at a steakhouse, which has a “restaurant” code. If your card offers a 2% cash back rate on all spending at restaurants, you’d earn $1 cash back.

Familiar alternatives to cash back include point- and mile-based programs, though many cardholders are partial to cash back. Cash back affords cardholders an independence that is ideal, since you can redeem it for nearly anything.

Popular Cash Back Credit Cards

Discover, American Express, Mastercard and Visa all have cash back rewards credit cards available for prospective cardholders. Each abide by their own set of regulations, though card issuers decide on cash back rates, promotions and bonuses. Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi and Capital One represent some of the most active card issuers on the market today.

Below are a few examples of what you can expect to earn when looking for a cash back credit card:

Cash Back Credit Cards
Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi 4% cash back on eligible gas up to $7,000 per year, 3% cash back on eligible travel and restaurants, 2% cash back in-store and online with Costco and 1% cash back elsewhere None
Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card 3% cash back in a category of your choosing, 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs and 1% cash back on all other purchases (up to a quarterly cap of $2,500 in combined grocery/wholesale club/choice category purchases) $200 bonus cash back for spending at least $1,000 over your first 90 days
Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card Unlimited 1.5% cash back everywhere $150 cash back bonus when you spend $500 during your first three months
Citi Double Cash Card 1% cash back on your purchases and another 1% cash back when you pay your bill None
Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card Unlimited 4% cash back on dining and entertainment, 2% cash back on groceries and 1% cash back elsewhere $300 cash back bonus for $3,000 spent over your first three months
TD Cash Visa® Credit Card 3% cash back on dining, 2% cash back at supermarkets and 1% cash back on everything else Earn $150 cash back when spending $500 within the first 90 days (See Terms)
USAA Preferred Cash Rewards Visa Signature Unlimited 1.5% cash back on everything None
Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express 3% cash back on up to $6,000/year at U.S. supermarkets (then 1%), 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores and 1% cash back on other purchases $150 bonus cash back for spending $1,000 over your first six months

Getting Cash Back at Retailers

Picture this: you’re buying some groceries on a Sunday morning, but know you’ll need $40 cash to fill up your car with some gas later. You could swipe your debit card at the supermarket and then head over to the ATM. Or you could ask for cash back right from the cashier, eliminating the extra errand.

The above situation represents the alternative definition of cash back. It’s ultimately the use of a cash register as if you were swiping your debit card at the ATM. When you request cash back from a cashier, your bank account will be charged the amount you asked for. This enables the funds to be pulled from your account so the cash can be placed in your hand.

Although this generally only applies to debit cards, there are a few exceptions for credit cards. Discover® allows cardholders to ask for cash back at more than 50 large retail stores without a transaction fee.

Bottom Line

There are many benefits to utilizing credit card rewards programs. But spending money that technically isn’t yours will always involve some level of risk. If you’re in good financial shape, though, cash back and other types of credit card rewards can help you take more vacations, save money on purchases and more.

Credit Card Tips

  • Managing your credit cards and any debt you accumulate using them is a major part of your long-term financial outlook. Consider working with a financial advisor to make sure you’re managing your money with your goals for the future in mind. SmartAsset’s free matching tool can connect you with up to three advisors in your area. Get started now.
  • If you’re someone who wants freedom when spending credit card rewards, you may prefer cash back to a points- or mileage-based reward system. However, keep in mind that cash back rates are sometimes less than those in point-centric programs.
Chris Thompson, CEPF® Chris Thompson is a retirement, savings, mortgage and credit card expert at SmartAsset. He has reviewed hundreds of credit cards and loves helping people find the one that best matches their financial needs. Chris is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®) and a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing. He graduated from Montclair State University where he received the Journalism Achievement Award. Chris’ articles have been featured in places like Yahoo Finance, MSN and Bleacher Report. He lives in New Jersey and is a Mets, Jets and Nets fan.
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