How Do Cash Back Credit Cards Work?

Cash back credit cards help simplify how you monetize your spending.

Last Updated: 11/29/2021
Advertising & Editorial Disclosure
By     |  
Reviewed By     |  

Cash back refers to the money you stand to earn when you use your credit card. A cash back credit card offers a fixed percentage of the amount you spend on purchases as cash back. While you may earn a flat cash back rate across all purchases, it might vary depending on category-based spending. The best way to use cash back requires narrowing down on a cash back credit card that might work well for you.

On This Page:
MoneyGeek’s Takeaways

discount

The cash back you earn is a fixed percentage of the amount you spend.

shoppingBag

Some credit cards offer higher cash back rates on category-based spending.

creditApproved

You might need to activate categories that come with higher cash back.

What Is Cash Back?

Cash back is a credit card benefit through which cardholders stand to earn some money when they use their cards to make purchases. Most prominent credit card companies provide cash back reward programs.

How cash back works is simple. When you use any cash back card to make a purchase, your card provider pays you a small percentage. The money you get is referred to as cash back. This is a fixed-percentage value and varies from one card to the next.

If you get a credit card that offers 2% cash back on all purchases, you’ll get $2 as cash back for every $100 you spend. For example, if you make a $950 purchase, you get $19 as cash back. You receive all the accumulated cash back you earn at the end of each billing cycle. So, if you’ve spent a total of $5,000 in a billing cycle with the same 2% cash back card, you’ll get $100 as cash back.

How Does Cash Back Work in Credit Cards?

There are many cash back credit cards out there, but not all would work equally well for you. Sure, they offer cash back and work like regular credit cards, but the cash back you stand to earn varies depending on the card you get. For instance, you may earn higher cash back when you spend across specific categories such as dining and gas.

  • This is an icon

    Flat-rate cash back cards

    These credit cards come with flat cash back rates that apply to all purchases. Examples include the Wells Fargo Active Cash Card, which offers 2% cash back on all purchases, and the Bank of America Unlimited Cash Rewards Credit Card, which comes with 1.5% on all purchases. With the Citi Double Cash Card, you stand to earn up to 2% cash back — 1% when you make purchases and 1% when you make your payments on time.

  • This is an icon

    Bonus category cash back cards

    With such cards, you earn higher cash back on spending across specific categories. Purchases that don’t qualify under bonus categories still earn basic cash back. For instance, the Savor Rewards Card from Capital One offers 4% cash back on dining, entertainment and popular streaming services and 3% at grocery stores. The Chase Freedom Unlimited Card offers 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards and 3% on dining and drugstore purchases.

  • This is an icon

    Rotating category cash back cards

    These cards offer higher cash back rates on rotating spending categories — either every quarter or billing cycle — which cardholders typically need to activate in advance. For example, while the Chase Freedom Flex Card offers 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards, it also offers 5% cash back on bonus categories you activate each quarter. This is also the case with the Discover it Cash Back Card. With the Citi Custom Cash Card, you don’t have to select categories ahead of time or wait for a bonus calendar to be revealed. Instead, the card automatically applies 5% cash back on purchases in your top eligible spend category every billing cycle.

High Cash Back Rates up to Predetermined Limits

In almost all cases, cards that offer higher cash back rates on specific categories do so until a predetermined spend limit, after which the card’s regular cash back rate applies. For instance, Citi Custom Cash Card’s 5% cash back rate on the top eligible spend category applies to the first $500 you spend every billing cycle. Spending over this limit comes with 1% cash back. And the Chase Freedom Flex Card’s 5% cash back on bonus categories applies to combined purchases of up to $1,500 each quarter.

Do Cash Back Cards Actually Give You Money?

Yes, cash back credit cards actually reward you with money. Depending on the card you have, you may get a check from your card provider or transfer it to a bank account in your name. Some credit cards let you use the cash back rewards to make purchases through popular online platforms such as Amazon and PayPal. Others allow you to book travel through the card provider’s own travel portal. Other alternatives to redeem your cash back might include getting vouchers and gift certificates or making charitable donations.

Some cards let you set up automatic redemption of your cash back to a designated bank account. However, this might require reaching specific thresholds. For example, you may set up auto redemption of the cash back you earn through the Capital One Savor Rewards Card when you reach thresholds that start at $25.

Unlike some rewards cards that limit your ability to redeem points to a particular rewards program, cash back cards are known to offer much more freedom around what you may do with your cash back.

Can You Use Cash Back to Pay Credit Card Bills?

You may use your cash back to pay your credit card bill. This is because several cash back cards let you use the cash back you earn as a statement credit. If you’ve accumulated $100 worth of cash back and need to pay a $500 credit card bill, using your cash back would bring down the amount you currently owe to $400.

However, you might need to earn a minimum amount of cash back before you may use it as statement credit. For instance, you may use the cash back you earn through American Express’s Blue Cash Preferred Card or Blue Cash Everyday Card as a statement credit only when your available reward dollars balance is $25 or more.

You may apply your cash back as statement credit only on the credit card from which you earned it in the first place. To pay the bill of another credit card, you’ll need to withdraw your cash back into a bank account first.

tip icon
MONEYGEEK EXPERT TIP

Select a cash back card based on eligibility criteria, cash back rates and your spending habits. We’ve analyzed over 1,600 cards so that you may find a suitable one with ease.

What Is the Best Way to Use Cash Back?

The best way to use cash back depends on individual preferences. For instance, if you’re running low on funds to pay your next credit card bill, you may consider using your cash back as a statement credit. Transferring your cash back into a bank account is also usually an option. On the other hand, if you’ve been meaning to do your bit toward furthering any particular cause, you may choose to donate your cash back to a charitable organization.

The Best Way to Use Cash Back Cards

If you hope to make the most of a cash back credit card, you need to start by paying off your bill in full each month. Otherwise, you would end up paying interest charges, which, in all likelihood, would exceed the amount you earn as cash back.

Since cash back cards work differently in the way they offer cash back, you might benefit by using more than one card to maximize your cash back earning potential. Here’s what you need to do to make the best possible use of your cash back credit cards.

  1. Use a bonus or rotating category card each time you’re making a purchase from any of the applicable categories.
  2. Use a flat-rate cash back card when you’re making purchases that don’t fall under any bonus categories.

Using a flat-rate card for purchases that don’t earn bonus cash back is a good idea because cards that offer higher cash back rates on particular categories tend to limit their cash back for regular purchases to 1%. With flat-rate cash back cards, you may earn up to 2% on all such purchases.

tip icon
MONEYGEEK QUICK TIP

To maximize your cash back rewards, review your spending patterns to determine where you spend the most money. Open a cash back credit card that offers higher rewards for those categories of purchases. -- Lee Huffman, credit card expert at BaldThoughts.com

Other Questions You May Have About Cash Back Cards

When considering a cash back card, it may be helpful to learn the answers to commonly asked questions about how cash back credit cards work.

Next Steps

Now that you know how credit card cash back works, determine if you might benefit from getting a cash back card after accounting for your spending habits. If you decide to move forward, compare your alternatives across parameters such as cash back rates, annual fees, APRs and added perks.

Compare & Review Credit Cards

MoneyGeek experts regularly review and analyze the spending trends of American consumers by using data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They’ve also compared over 1,600 credit cards across all important parameters so our readers can select ones that suit their requirements with ease.

Learn More About Cash Back Credit Cards

The MoneyGeek editorial team ensures that it answers all your credit card-related questions in a quick and efficient manner. It does this by staying on top of the latest changes surrounding credit card offers and regulations. Whether you wish to look for student credit cards that offer cash back or credit cards for fair credit, you may trust them to guide you in the right direction.

This is a bank icon
What is the best balance transfer credit card?
This is a bank icon
How does credit and credit cards work for students?
This is a bank icon
What is the best credit card for fair or average credit?
This is a bank icon
What is the best cash advance credit card?
This is a bank icon
What is the best cash back credit card?
This is a bank icon
What is the best gas credit card?

About the Author


Rajiv Baniwal has been writing about different financial topics for over 15 years. Meticulous in his research, he makes sure he provides accurate and up-to-date information. His areas of expertise include mortgages, personal loans, credit cards, insurance and international money transfers.


sources
*Rates, fees or bonuses may vary or include specific stipulations. The content on this page is accurate as of the posting/last updated date; however, some of the offers mentioned may have expired. We recommend visiting the card issuer’s website for the most up-to-date information available.
Editorial Disclosure: Opinions, reviews, analyses and recommendations are the author’s alone and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity.
Advertiser Disclosure: MoneyGeek has partnered with CardRatings.com and CreditCards.com for our coverage of credit card products. MoneyGeek, CardRatings and CreditCards.com may receive a commission from card issuers. To ensure thorough comparisons and reviews, MoneyGeek features products from both paid partners and unaffiliated card issuers that are not paid partners.