Best Cash Back Credit Cards for 2015

Comparison of Top Cash Back Credit Cards of 2015

Who doesn’t love getting cash back? Cash back credit cards allow you to earn cash back on every day purchases such as groceries, gas, drug store purchases, even money spent dining out at restaurants. All of these every day purchases add up. By using a cash back rewards card you can save hundreds, even thousands of dollars, a year. But with all the different varieties of cash back programs out there, you may be wondering which cash-back rewards credit card is right for you.

This Guide is meant to help you solve that problem.

We did the analysis for you by:

  1. Examining the current cream of the crop in cash-back cards; and
  2. Comparing the rewards you can expect to earn from each card based on the typical spending of consumers who spend $1,500/month ($18,000/year), $3,000/month ($36,000/year), and $4,500/month ($54,000/year).

This information allows us to make recommendations and provide guidelines based so that you end up with the most money back in your wallet.



Strategy That Will Get You the Most Cash Back

Our research shows that you will earn the most cash by combining the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express with the Discover® it card (or, if Discover is not offering a sign-up promotion, a no-annual fee cash back card offering either 1.5% or 2% back.  

Our strategy is for you to max out your grocery store benefits, and also to use the Blue Cash Preferred for gasoline and your department store purchases. All your other purchases will then be made on your Discover it credit card.

Exception to the Rule: What Bigger Spenders Should Do

Like many rules, this one has an exception. Bigger spenders (which we define as cocumenrs spending more than $4,500 per month - or $54,000/year - on their cards do best with Discover it Miles and second best with Discover it!

Those consumers should consider combining both Discover cards or using it Miles with Blue Cash Preferred. Regardless, there is little difference. Combining the two Discover it cards will yield $3,060 in cash back rewards, which is only marginally more than $3,042 yielded when big spenders combine Blue Cash Preferred and it Miles.

Why Blue Cash Preferred Should Be in Your Wallet

A lot of experts tell you not to take out a card with an annual fee. They say it is too hard to receive benefits that make up for the fee. But this is not the case with Blue Cash Preferred. This card maximizes your rewards where you spend the most money - including:

  • An astounding 6% cash-back on groceries (on up to $6,000 of spending/year, the 1%)
  • Unlimited 3% back on gas and at department stores
  • Unlimited 1% back on everything else

Additionally, if you do not currently have an AmEx, you can qualify for a $150 sign up bonus by spending $1,000 in the first three months.

Why Disover's it Rewards Card

Right now, Discover is offering a promotion where they will double all the cash back rewards  for your first year of card ownership. This amazing offer allows you to really rake in the cash back rewards.

So, while our 2-card strategy works with any 1.5% and 2% cards (and we have other recommendations for those cards below), you will really increase your benefits by using the Discover it card.

The Amazing it Miles Rewards Card

Some people may want a little more flexibility. For them, we recommend switching out the it card for the it Miles card. 

Discover's it Miles card is not just a travel rewards card. It (pun intended!) also functions as a cash rewards card by allowing you to convert 1.5% of your spending into cash in your bank account, without any restrictions or fees. In effect, it Miles is a hybrid card: a great travel rewards program combined with a 1.5 percent cash option.

Plus, right now Discover is willing to double your rewards for the first 12 billing cycles. Effectively, you can earn 3% back on your spending!​

All these rewards come with a $0 annual fee. 

See Just How Rewarding Our Tips Can Be

The table below shows how beneficial this strategy can be - regardless of your spending level. When reviewing the numbers provided, please keep in mind the following:

  • It presents Two Year reward totals.
  • It takes into account the Blue Cash Preferred's $75 annual fee.
  • We assumed you qualify for the $150 bonus offer because you are not already an American Express cardholder. However, this strategy still holds even if you do not qualify for the AmEx sign up bonus.​
Estimated Two Year Rewards Totals

Credit Cards Used

$18,000/Yr

($1,500/Mo)

$36,000/Yr

($3,000/Mo)​

$54,000/Yr

($4,500/Mo)​

Blue Cash Preferred + Discover it

$1,350

$2,223

$2,982

Blue Cash Preferred + it Miles

$1,224

$2,187

$3,042

Blue Cash Preferred + 2% Card

$1,176

$2,076

$2,856

Blue Cash Preferred + 1.5% Card

$1,080

$1,854

$2,484

Blue Cash Preferred Alone

$984

$1,632

$2,112

2% Card Alone

$720

$1,440

$2,160

Best Cash Back Credit Cards

For those who want to skip the tables comparing each card based on various annual spending amounts, we present some quick solutions...

Best Card Overall

If you want to get just one card, most of you will get the most cash-back rewards with the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express. This is because you will get the most cash-back where you spend the most money - including 6 percent back on your first $6,000 at grocery stores, unlimited 3 percent cash back on gas and at department stores, and 1 percent back on everything else.

What is amazing, Blue Cash Preferred wins this spot even after taking into account its $75 annual fee, and even if you do not qualify for the $150 bonus offer because you currently have a different American Express card.​

The exception to this rule is for bigger spenders​ (which means at least $54,000/year in spending) who want only one card. Those consumers win out using Discover it, Discover it Miles or a straightforward 2% reward cards.

Best Companion Card

The the Discover® it credit card earns this spot because Discover is willing to double your first twelve months of rewards. This allows this fantastic card to pack a ton of rewards benefits. And it does so with no annual fee.

2% Cash Back Rewards Cards

It is not included in the charts below, but 2% cash back programs will not provide a single card winner until annual spending reaches $54,000 (which average out to $4,500 a month), and then only starting in the 37th month (i.e., after more than 3 years). Of course, our recommended two percent cards, Citi Double Cash Card and Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express, do this without using signup bonuses either.

One caution with the Citi Double Cash card - you need to pay your bill in full and on time every month to enjoy the full benefits of this card. Otherwise, interest charges and fees will wipe out the extra 1% of benefits.​

Another 1.5% Cash Rewards Credit Card Option

If you are not interested in the it Miles card or one of the recommended 2 percent cards, our next favorite straight 1.5 percent cash back rewards program belongs to Capital One's QuickSilver Visa card. It has no annual fee, and allows you to earn an unlimited 1.5% back on all of your spending.

Best Standard Bonus Rewards Program

Blue Cash Preferred's rewards program wins the day again by giving you rewards where you spend the most money - on groceries, gas, and clothing and essentials at department stores.

Top Rotating Bonus Categories Card

If your spending habits don't actually match the bonus categories offered by the Blue Cash cards, we recommend you check out the Discover it card. This is because Discover just announced they will double your cash back rewards for the first year.

While our initial analysis showed that most consumers fared better initially with the Chase Freedom rewards card, and the possibility of earning up to $125 in bonus cash when you sign up, Discover it's new signup offer now blows Chase Freedom's away.

Top Cash Back Program for Average Credit

If you have average credit, we recommend the Barclaycard Rewards MasterCard to maximize your cash back rewards. You can earn 2% back on groceries, gasoline, and utilities, plus 1 percent cash back on all other spending. 

This card also reports to all three major credit bureaus, provides you with a complimentary FICO® credit score, and offers you the opportunity to increase your credit limit with 5 straight payments. So you have the opportunity to improve your credit score and earn solid cash back rewards.

Please note that you should choose the Capital One QuickSilverOne card if you expect to spend in the $54,000/year range. At that point, you will overcome the $39 annual fee and be able to enjoy 1.5% cash-back on all purchases. And you will be able to participate in the Capital One Credit Steps program.

Top Student Rewards Card

The number one student cash rewards card is Discover's it for Students. It is a rotating rewards card that works just like the regular Discover it card - 5% cash back on rotating categories (capped at $1,500 of spending per quarter), and 1% back on everything else. Plus, Discover will double your cash-back rewards at the end of your first year (for new cardmembers only)!

And you get 0% introductory APR on new purchases for six months.

This means Discover ​is offering students the same great rewards program that usually require excellent credit!

Cash Back Cards Ranked By Spending Habits

The follow tables summarize the estimated cash back rewards you can earn from each of these tops cards over the course of two years based on whether you spend $1,500 per month (or $18,000 per year), $3,000 each month (or $36,000 each year), or $4,500 per month (or $54,000/year). At the end of this article, we also provide you with the selection criteria and monthly spending assumptions we used.

When looking at the following tables, we provide you with the annual rewards you can​ expect to earn based on what we observed to be typical spending habits. We take into account available bonus dollars, spending caps, and any annual fees.

When looking at estimated annual rewards, you can also see how signup bonus opportunities really help some cards look better over a 1-year or 2-year time horizon than they would over longer periods of time.

If You Spend $1,500 Per Month

Cash Back Card

Estimated Annual Rewards

Bonus Dollars

(2 Year Total)​

Total 2 Year

Rewards

(Less Annual Fee)​​

AmEx Blue Cash Preferred®

($75 Annual Fee)

$492

$150 (1)

$984

Discover® it Card

(No Annual Fee)​

$312

$312

$936

Discover® it for Students

(No Annual Fee)​

$312

$312

$936

Chase Freedom®

(No Annual Fee)​

$344

$125 (2)

$813

Discover® it Miles

(No Annual Fee)​

$270

$270

$810

AmEx Blue Cash Everyday®

(No Annual Fee)​

$312

$100 (1)

$724

Fidelity® Investment Rewards® American Express®

(No Annual Fee)​

$360

$0

$720

Citi® Double Cash Card

(No Annual Fee)​

$360 (3)

$0

$720

BankAmericard Cash Rewards

(No Annual Fee)​

$280

$156 (4)

$716

Capital One® QuickSilver®

(No Annual Fee)​

$270

$100

$640

Barclaycard® Rewards Mastercard®

(No Annual Fee)​

$264

$0

$528

Capital One® QuickSilverOne®

($39 Annual Fee)

$270

$0

$462

If You Spend $3,000 Per Month

Cash Back Card

Estimated Annual Rewards

Bonus Dollars

(2 Year Total)​

Total 2 Year

Rewards

(Less Annual Fee)​​

Discover® it Card

(No Annual Fee)​

$552

$552

$1,656

Discover® it for Students

(No Annual Fee)​

$552

$552

$1,656

AmEx Blue Cash Preferred®

($75 Annual Fee)

$816

$150 (1)

$1,632

Discover® it Miles

(No Annual Fee)

$540

$540

$1,620

Fidelity® Investment Rewards® American Express®

(No Annual Fee)​

$720

$0

$1,440

Citi® Double Cash Card

(No Annual Fee)​

$720 (3)

$0

$1,440

Chase Freedom®

(No Annual Fee)​

$564

$125 (2)

$1,253

AmEx Blue Cash Everyday®

(No Annual Fee)​

$558

$100 (1)

$1,216

Capital One® QuickSilver®

(No Annual Fee)​

$540

$100

$1,180

Barclaycard® Rewards Mastercard®

(No Annual Fee)​

$555

$0

$1,110

BankAmericard Cash Rewards

(No Annual Fee)​

$436

$187.20 (4)

$1,059.20

Capital One® QuickSilverOne®

($39 Annual Fee)

$540

$0

$1,002

If You Spend $4,500 Per Month

Cash Back Card

Estimated Annual Rewards

Bonus Dollars

(2 Year Total)​

Total 2 Year

Rewards

(Less Annual Fee)​​

Discover® it Miles

(No Annual Fee)

$810

$810

$2,430

Discover® it Card

(No Annual Fee)​

$790

$790

$2,370

Discover® it for Students

(No Annual Fee)​

$790

$790

$2,370

Fidelity® Investment Rewards® American Express®

(No Annual Fee)​

$1,080

$0

$2,160

Citi® Double Cash Card

(No Annual Fee)​

$1,080 (3)

$0

$2,160

AmEx Blue Cash Preferred®

($75 Annual Fee)

$1,056

$150 (1)

$2,112

Capital One® QuickSilver®

(No Annual Fee)​

$810

$100

$1,720

Chase Freedom®

(No Annual Fee)​

$790

$125 (2)

$1,705

AmEx Blue Cash Everyday®

(No Annual Fee)​

$768

$100 (1)

$1,636

Capital One® QuickSilverOne®

($39 Annual Fee)

$810

$0

$1,542

Barclaycard® Rewards Mastercard®

(No Annual Fee)​

$750

$0

$1,500

BankAmericard Cash Rewards

(No Annual Fee)​

$622

$224 (4)

$1,468

Notes

The following should be noted:

(1) Signup bonus rewards for ​American Express Blue Cash cards are contingent upon you not currently having another American Express card.

(2) The Chase Freedom card signup bonus includes the $100 bonus if you spend $500 in the first 3 months and $25 for adding an authorized user in that same 3-month period.

(3) Citi Double Cash annual rewards assume that you pay your bill in full and on time each month.

(4) BankAmericard Cash Rewards signup bonus includes ​$100 bonus for applying online and 10% bonus for receiving cash back into your Bank of America bank account. Even bigger bonuses are available for those who maintain large balances at Bank of America.

How to Choose a Great Cash Back Credit Card

This section provides some general tips and advice on what to look for in a cash back rewards program.

Find a Card That Compliments Your Daily Spending Habits

tips to increase your credit card cash back rewards

The rewards structure for cash back credit cards can vary greatly. Some cards may give you 3% cash back on groceries while others give you 2% cash back at the pump.

After the credit crunch in 2008 many credit card companies began to restructure their card reward programs, making it important to evaluate your current rewards card.

Most cash back credit cards will give you 1% back on all other purchases by default.​

The key to finding a great cash back credit card is to choose a card that that complements your spending habits. To put it simply – find a card that gives you more cash back for items that you spend the most on each month. For example: If you spend a lot on gas and at grocery stores, the Blue Cash Cards from American Express are great cards because they offer superior benefits - without a miserly quarterly limit like the one imposed by Bank of America.

  • Blue Cash Everyday® Card offers 3% back on groceries (on up to $6,000 of spending, the 1%), 2% back on gas and at most department stores, and 1% back on everything else. All with no annual fee and a $100 signup bonus offer.*
  • Blue Cash Preferred® Card offers 6% back on groceries (on your first $6,000, then 1%), 3% back on gas and at most department stores, plus 1% back on everything else. It's $75 annual fee is partially alleviated by its $150 signup bonus offer.*

For those who do not know there spending habit - or have never kept track of them - we recommend using a straightforward 1.5% or 2% cash-back rewards program. This way you know that you are always maximizing your rewards. And you can use your card statements, or a program like Mint.com, to figure out if you would do better by adding a second card that uses bonus categories.

Need help figuring out your spending habits?

Understand Rotating Rewards vs. Standard Bonus Rewards

There sometimes seems to be a dizzying array of cards out there using combinations of bonus categories, rotating bonus categories, and signup bonuses to try to win your business. 

But when you spend some time comparing cash back cards you will find that there are primarily two different kinds rewards programs. Some cash back cards offer a certain set percentage cash back all year round. Others will offer a lower set percentage with a higher bonus percentage on categories that rotate throughout the year.

We are moving away from recommending cards that use rotating categories for most consumers. The reason is that there always seems to be one or two quarters each year that you are not able to reach the caps and maximize your rewards. Plus, we think it is not that generous to offer 5% cash back on only up to $6,000​ of spending each year, and 1% on everything else. And, lastly, even to earn this you must take time out of your schedule to remember to opt-in to the bonus rewards. Overall, these are less consumer friendly.

The numbers back all this up - as the Blue Cash Preferred beats out Chase Freedom in every spending level - even after subtracting out the $75 annual fee.

Signup Bonuses And Their Limitations

The credit card companies are getting smarter by only allowing you to take advantage of their signup bonus offers one time - and if you don't already have one of their cards. This makes it harder to rotate through cards time and again to keep on taking advantage of introductory bonus offers.

Our recommendation is to use a cash-back card strategy that will also make sense in Year 3 and beyond. By this, we mean that ​you will maximize your rewards regardless of fees. Don't get blinded by the short-term boost of bonus offers and get stuck with a mediocre card.​

But don't pass up on outstanding sign-up offers either. For example, the it Miles card will double your reward points for an entire year - effectively providing a 3 percent cash-back program. That is such a huge benefit, that it carries over to make it Miles competitive with 2% cards for a full 3 years.

Learn When To Sweat The Annual Fee

Many people ask if they should apply for a card that has an annual fee.

Even if you are going to use the card for a majority of your purchases, you still need to make sure that the card pays for itself. This is especially true with so many more great cash back programs available that do not have an annual fee.

Our research shows that the annual fee for cards like the AmEx Blue Cash Preferred card are worth it: the extra rewards pay for the fee. As discussed above, combining Blue Cash Preferred with a 1.5% or 2% rewards program that has no fee will yield better results than using just one card. 

But if you are paying a fee on multiple cards, or for a secondary card that you rarely use, it is unlikely that you will earn enough extra in cash-back payments to justify the fee. For this reason, we do recommend that you carry no more than one card with an annual fee. It is just too difficult to earn enough rewards to justify that fee.

We recognize that each situation is different. And we encourage you to make decisions based on your spending and needs. But we also want to make sure you do not blow all your cash back checks on annual fees.​

Do Not Forget the Other Perks

Before choosing one card over another because you anticipate a small advantage in cash-back payments, remember that card perks matter. 

If you ​are keen on tracking your FICO® score or an 18-month balance transfer, than Discover it may be a better card for you.

So take a look at our reviews and the card offerings to see if perks like intro APR offers, roadside assistance, price guaranty, extended warranties, and rental car insurance provide benefits that may be worth a small difference in cash.

On this front, however, we do think that most major card issuers like American Express, Discover, CitiBank, Chase, Capital One​, and Bank of America try to remain very competitive with each other.

Further Reading on Cash Back Credit Cards

The recommended articles below include a section of tips and facts about credit cards and rewards programs that will help you maximize your credit card benefits.

Selection Criteria for Top Cash Back Cards

The cards selected for inclusion in our Guide to the Top Cash Back Rewards Cards not only offer outstanding cash back rewards, they offer other great perks such as warranty extensions, car rental insurance, and other benefits. We then determine the cash back potential of each card based on you spending either $18,000 or $36,000 per year on the card. (See below for further information on our spending assumptions.)

Selection Criteria
  • We look for cards that allow you to earn unlimited cash back.
  • We hate fine print. The cards we feature have solid rewards programs without a lot of strings attached.
  • These cards offer great features and benefits, in addition to cash back rewards.
  • We compare the potential two year cash back potential of each card. Any spending assumptions we make are detailed below.

Details of Our Spending Assumptions

Our analysis includes the following spending assumptions. These assumptions were made using data provided by members of CreditForums. Your actual spending habits may vary from these. However, they should present fairly typical spending patterns for most consumers.

Monthly Spending Assumptions

$18,000/Year ($1,500/Month)​

  • Groceries - $400
  • Gas - $200
  • Dining Out - $300
  • Department Stores - $100
  • Remainder - $500

Monthly Spending Assumptions

$36,000/Year ($3,000/Month)​

  • Groceries - $1,100
  • Gas - $400
  • Dining Out - $300
  • Department Stores - $250
  • Remainder - $950

Monthly Spending Assumptions

$54,000/Year ($4,500/Month)​

  • Groceries - $1,200
  • Gas - $400
  • Dining Out - $500
  • Department Stores - $500
  • Remainder - $1,900
Tips to find the best cash back credit cards and rewards programs

Obligatory cheesy cash-back photo

About the author

Kevin

Kevin founded CreditShout in 2008 to help people manage their credit and finances. He wants to make it easy for anyone, regardless of their level of financial knowledge to understand credit cards and what may seem like the complex world of personal finance. | Author Google+

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