"Spend less than you make; always be saving something. Put it into a tax-deferred account. Over time, it will begin to amount to something. This is such a no-brainer."
-- Charlie Munger
Most of us need to be saving and accumulating cash to bolster our financial health. The most common ways to do that are by earnings more and/or spending less. Wouldn't it be nice if it were even easier than that, if cash just appeared in our coffers with little effort on our part? Well, that's what can happen if you're a savvy user of one or more cash-back credit cards -- cards that offer a percentage of cash back on your spending.
Here's a look at some of the best cash-back credit cards out there.
Cash-back credit cards 101
Cash-back credit cards vary in what they offer. Some offer a flat percentage back on all purchases. Others have tiers of percentages applying to different expense categories. Still others offer big rewards on a purchases in specified spending categories that rotate every few months. Some cards offer a combination of these features.
To make the most of one or more cash-back credit cards, be sure to choose and use ones that will serve you best. For example, if you charge a lot at many different places, you might opt for a general-use cash-back card. If you spend a disproportionate sum at Amazon.com, you might want a card that gives you a generous percent of cash back at Amazon. Many retailers, such as Costco and Target, offer cards that give you cash back or discounts on all purchases from them.
Be sure to pay your bills off in full each month, too, lest you end up paying interest to the card issuer that will offset any cash you're earning. And if your cash-back card is one that requires you to sign up for the discounted categories each quarter, be sure to do it, so you don't miss out on any rewards.
Best cash-back credit cards
Here's a look at a bunch of the best cash-back credit cards. Some will serve you better than others, depending on your needs, your preferences, and your spending habits. Each has its own suite of other benefits, too, beyond the cash back.
- AARP Credit Card: This card is especially handy if you spend a lot at restaurants and gas stations, as it offers a hefty 3% back on spending there -- and 1% back on all other purchases. It offers a $100 bonus (in the form of 10,000 rewards points) after you spend $500 on the card in your first three months. There's no annual fee, and each time you make a purchase, the card will send $0.10 to the AARP Foundation to support the Drive to End Hunger -- a program feeding hungry older people.
- BankAmericard Cash Rewards™: This card offers 3% cash back on your gas purchases, along with 2% back on spending at supermarkets and wholesale clubs and 1% back on everything else -- with the fat rewards for supermarkets, wholesale clubs, and gas stations capped at a rather generous $2,500 per quarter. It charges no annual fee. Folks with BankAmerica checking or savings accounts can get an extra 10% bonus on cash back, and Bank of America Preferred Rewards clients can earn bigger bonuses of between 25% and 75%. The card also offers a $150 reward once you charge $500 in your first 90 days. (Read our full BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ review.)
- Barclaycard CashForward World MasterCard: This card offers an unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases, plus a 5% redemption bonus, which effectively boosts the cash-back percentage to 1.575%. You can collect a $200 bonus once you spend $1,000 in your first 90 days. (Read our full Barclaycard CashForward World MasterCard review.)
- Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express: This card's main attractions is a whopping 6% cash back at supermarkets (on up to $6,000 in annual spending, after which that drops to 1%), 3% cash back at gas stations, and 1% cash back on everything else. If you spend $6,000 or more at the supermarket (that's about $115 per week), you're looking at $360 or more in cash back just for that. There is a $95 annual fee -- but you can bypass it by opting for the Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express instead, which charges no annual fee and offers less in cash back: 3% at supermarkets, 2% at gas stations, and 1% back on everything else. Depending on which card you choose, you can also collect $100 or $150 if you spend $1,000 in your first three months. (Read our full Blue Cash Preferred from American Express review and Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express review.)
- Capital One Quicksilver Rewards: This card offers an unlimited 1.5% cash back on all your spending, and a $100 sign-up bonus, too, if you make $500 worth of qualifying purchases during your first three months. Charge $1,500 per month? You're looking at $270 back each year. The card charges no annual fee or foreign transaction fees. (Read our full Capital One Quicksilver Rewards review.)
- Chase Freedom Unlimited: This card, like the previous one, offers a solid 1.5% cash back on all purchases, with no limit. You can collect a $150 bonus once you spend $500 in your first three months. There's no annual fee, either. (Read our full Chase Freedom Unlimited review.)
- Chase Sapphire Preferred: This card is best suited for travelers. It awards you 50,000 points once you spend $4,000 on the card in your first three months. Those points are worth $625 in travel expenses when you redeem them through Chase Ultimate Rewards. It's also good for those who like to eat out, as you'll earn double points for spending on travel and meals at restaurants. There's a $95 annual fee -- but it's waived in the first year. (Read our full Chase Sapphire Preferred review.)
- Citi Double Cash Card: The Citi Double Cash Card pays you 1% cash back when you make a purchase -- and then another 1% back when you pay off that sum, for a total of 2% cash back. If you tend to charge around $1,500 in total per month, you're looking at $360 in cash back per year. Better still, there's no annual fee. (Read our full Citi Double Cash Card review.)
- Costco Anywhere: The Costco Anywhere card is available only to Costco members, and memberships start at $60 for a household. For members, though, this card's gas benefits are hard to beat. You can enjoy a substantial 4% back on gas spending (up to $7,000 in spending per year) -- and you'll save even more if you buy your fuel from Costco itself, as it sports very competitive gas prices. The card also offers 3% back on qualified travel and restaurant spending, 2% back on purchases at Costco (and Costco.com), and 1% back on everything else. There's no annual fee as long as you have your Costco membership.
- Discover it: This card offers a hefty 5% back on up to $1,500 spent over three months in categories that you activate (such as restaurants, gas stations, home improvement stores, or Amazon.com). That alone is worth up to $75 per quarter or $300 per year, but on top of that it also offers an unlimited 1% back on all other spending. The Discover it card has one more big benefit -- it will match all the cash-back money you earn in your first year, paying you that same sum again. The card charges no annual fee and it includes your FICO score on each statement, which can help you monitor your credit health. There are a few variations on the Discover it card you might also want to consider: The Discover it Miles card, for example, offers 1.5 miles for each dollar spent on purchases and lets you redeem your points for a credit on your statement that can cover travel-related expenses. And the Discover it Chrome card offers 2% cash back on spending at restaurants and gas stations and 1% back on everything else. (Read our full Discover it review, our full Discover it Miles review, and our full Discover it Chrome review.)
- Fidelity Rewards Visa Signature Card: This card offers a simple 2% cash-back reward -- with an appealing catch. The 2% will be deposited in a Fidelity account. That can be perfect if you've got a Fidelity savings account, retirement account, brokerage account, or other account. There's no annual fee, either. This card offers an easy way to sock some extra money away for retirement.
If you're not in debt, using a good cash-back credit card or two is a great way to painlessly collect money from month to month -- very possibly totaling hundreds of dollars per year. One or more of the cards above will likely serve you well -- but note that many of the best credit cards require a good or great credit score -- so you might want to increase your credit score before applying.
Selena Maranjian owns shares of Amazon, American Express, Costco Wholesale, and JPMorgan Chase. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon and Costco Wholesale. The Motley Fool recommends American Express. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.