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The best cash-back credit cards from Citi, Amex, Wells Fargo, and more — with input from 4 top experts

Business Insider logoBusiness Insider 4/27/2020 (Sarah Silbert)

This article is brought to you by the Personal Finance Insider team. It has not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of the issuers listed. Some of the offers you see on this page are from our partners, like Citi, but our coverage is always independent.

The best cash-back credit cards in 2020:

  • Best overall: Citi® Double Cash Card
  • Best for bonus categories: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
  • Best for intro APR offer: Chase Freedom Unlimited®
  • Best for cash back on dining: Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card 
  • Best for families: Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
  • Highest cash back — if you work for it: Chase Freedom®
  • Best for lower credit scores: Discover it® Secured
  • Want an in-depth answer? Check out our cash-back credit card guide below.

Travel rewards credit cards can be incredibly lucrative — you can use them to earn enough points to book a first-class flight or a luxury hotel stay. But not everyone wants to travel, and there are a lot of hoops to jump through if you want to maximize your rewards to get the best travel redemptions.

That's why there's a great case to be made for cash-back credit cards.

Even if the 3 points per dollar you earn from the Chase Sapphire Reserve® can score a higher redemption value, cash is simpler, more flexible, and offers real, immediate value, rather than the perceived value you can get redeeming points for a flight you'd never, ever actually pay for with money. With cash-back cards, 1% back will always be 1 cent back, no matter what.

Best of all, many cash-back credit cards don't charge annual fees, so they can be a great way to put money back in your wallet while minimizing your out-of-pocket expenses.

The experts on cash-back credit cards

We consulted top credit card, travel, and financial experts to weigh in on this list of the top credit cards for earning cash back and to provide their tips for finding the best cash-back card for you. You'll find the full transcript of our expert interviews at the bottom of this article.

Anne-Christine Caro et al. posing for a photo: Business Insider © Business Insider Business Insider

We're focused here on the rewards and perks that come with each card. These cards won't be worth it if you're paying interest or late fees. When using a credit card, it's important to pay your balance in full each month, make payments on time, and only spend what you can afford to pay.

Best overall: Citi® Double Cash Card

Welcome bonus: None

Cash back: 2% cash back on every purchase — 1% when you make the purchase, and 1% when you pay your bill

Annual fee: $0

In terms of spending rewards, the Citi® Double Cash Card is the best single cash-back card, with 1% back as spend, and 1% back as you pay your bill. Since you should be paying your bill in full each month, you should earn 2% back on purchases each billing cycle.

However, there are a few potential downsides. First, there's no sign-up bonus. Second, while it offers a 0% introductory APR for 18 months, that's only on balance transfers, not purchases, so you can't use it to fund a major expense without interest. After those 18 months, it's a variable 13.99% - 23.99% APR.

Note that the Citi® Double Cash Card has a minimum redemption amount of $25, and if you don't have any account activity for 12 months, unredeemed rewards can expire. Still, 2% across the board is a good earning rate, and the $0 annual fee is attractive, if not uncommon. Whether that's worth passing on a sign-up bonus is up to you.

What the experts love: "Getting 2% cash back is a strong rate, and there are no bonus spending categories to keep track of, so it's perfect for those who love simplicity," says Sarah Silbert, credit cards editor at Personal Finance Insider.

What the experts don't love: Other cards offer more cash back, but usually only for specific spending categories. Rathner also points out that the Citi® Double Cash Card doesn't offer a sign-up bonus, while most other cash-back cards do.

Citi Citi® Double Cash Card

Best for bonus categories: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card

Welcome bonus: 20,000 Go Far points, worth $200, after you spend $1,000 in the first three months of account opening

Cash back: 3x points (essentially 3% cash back) on all travel, dining, and select streaming services (and 1x point on everything else)

Annual fee: $0

This card from Wells Fargo has one of the more attractive rewards programs you'll find from a no-annual-fee card. While it's marketed as earning "points," those points are worth 1¢ each and can be redeemed for cash, essentially making it a cash-back card.

The $200 welcome bonus, combined with the high 3% earning rate on popular spend categories including all dining and travel (and 1% on everything else), as well as the $0 annual fee, makes this a stellar option for a cash-back card. If you're solely interested in earning cash back, not travel rewards, this card would make a good go-to.

What the experts love: Sara Rathner, a travel and credit card expert at NerdWallet, notes that the Wells Fargo Propel has high earning rates, especially for a no-annual-fee card.

What the experts don't love: "This card lacks the benefits of other travel cards with an annual fee, like reimbursement for Global Entry or the ability to transfer points to airline or hotel partners," Rathner points out.

Best for 0% intro APR: Chase Freedom Unlimited®

Welcome bonus: $150 (15,000 points) after you spend $500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening

Cash back: 1.5% back on all purchases

Annual fee: $0

The card has no annual fee and often has 0% APR for the first 15 months on purchases and balance transfers. After that, there's a 14.99%–23.74% variable APR. If you have a major purchase ahead of you, that introductory offer can be useful.

While Chase markets the Chase Freedom Unlimited® as "cash back," it actually earns Ultimate Rewards points that you can redeem for cash (1 point = 1 cent).

That means that if you also have a premium card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, you can pool your points from the two cards. Then, you'll be able to transfer the whole body of points to partnering frequent flyer programs or use them to book travel through Chase with a bonus.

What the experts love: The ability to convert your cash back into Ultimate Rewards points if you have another Chase card 

What the experts don't love: If you don't pair this card with another Chase card, you'd do better with another cash-back card that earns more than 1.5% back.

Chase Chase Freedom Unlimited®

Best for cash back on dining: Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card

Welcome bonus: $300 after you spend $3,000 in the first three months of account opening

Cash back: Unlimited 4% cash back on all dining and entertainment, 2% back at grocery stores, and 1% on everything else. 

Annual fee: $95

If dining and cooking are your thing, the Capital One Savor is the winner. The Savor makes it easy to earn cash back quickly, but the downside is that it has a $95 annual fee —at least it's waived the first year. The earning rate may make up for the fee in some cases, though. 

What the experts love: Rathner and Silbert both applaud the card's strong earning rate for dining and entertainment, as well as the relatively generous sign-up bonus for a cash-back card.

What the experts don't love: Silbert notes that unlike many cash-back cards, the Savor has an annual fee, while Rathner points out that the 2% cash-back rate for groceries isn't the best for this category of spending.

Click here to learn more about the Capital One Savor card »

Best for families: Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

Welcome bonus: $250 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in the first three months of account opening

Cash back: 6% cash back at US supermarkets on up to $6,000 in purchases per year (and 1% after that), 6% cash back on select US streaming services and 3% back on all transit, 3% back at US gas stations, and 1% cash back on everything else.

Annual fee: $95

If you're looking for an American Express cash-back card, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is the best option. The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express offers a 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for the first 12 months, before switching to a variable 12.99%-23.99% APR.

The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express comes with a handful of travel and purchase protections as well. Cash back comes in the form of a statement credit, so effectively you can use it to "erase" purchases.

What the experts love: "6% cash back at supermarkets is the highest rewards rate around for grocery spending," says Rathner. "I also love that you get 3% cash back on not just gas, but also public transit. You can get rewarded for all the ways you commute to work!"

What the experts don't love: "There's a $6,000 annual spending cap on getting 6% cash back on groceries — you'll only earn 1% cash back after that. Any household with high grocery bills might want to keep that in mind and switch to another card that earns more than 1% after hitting that threshold," Rathner says.

American Express Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

Highest cash back, if you work for it: Chase Freedom®

Welcome bonus: $200 cash back (15,000 points) after you spend $500 in the first three months of account opening

Cash back: 5% cash back each quarter you activate on a few different categories that change quarterly, on the first $1,500 of purchases. The card earns 1% on all other purchases, and on those bonus categories after you pass $1,500.

Annual fee: $0

The Chase Freedom® is the older sibling of the Chase Freedom Unlimited®, and is essentially the same exact card except for how it earns cash back.

Sometimes there's just one major category per quarter, while other times there can be a few different ones. Past categories have included gas stations, local commuter transportation, department stores, grocery stores, drug stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and event Amazon. This quarter, Q2 2020, the Chase Freedom®'s 5% categories are grocery stores and fitness clubs.

The usefulness of the categories varies each quarter, with some being better than others. If I had to choose one, I'd stick with the Chase Freedom Unlimited®. However, there's no denying the potential value of the bonus categories, and fortunately, Chase lets you hold both cards.

Like the Chase Freedom Unlimited®, the regular Chase Freedom®has no annual fee, offers a 0% introductory APR on purchases for the first 15 months (and a 14.99%–23.74% variable APR after), and cash back can be combined with points earned from other Chase cards.

What the experts love: "You can earn the equivalent of 5 points per dollar on the rotating quarterly bonus categories if you also have a card that earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points," says Silbert.

What the experts don't love: Rathner notes that "there's a $1,500 spending cap on earning 5% back, and after that you'll only earn 1%."

Chase Chase Freedom®

Best for lower credit scores: Discover it® Secured

Welcome bonus: None

Cash back: 2% back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 each quarter, 1% back on everything else

Annual fee: See Terms

If you have a lower credit score or a limited credit history, you may not be approved for some of the cash-back credit card options outlined above. In that case, the Discover it Secured could make the most sense. Since it's a secured credit card (meaning you put down money as a refundable deposit to "secure" your account), it's easier to get approved for this card.

Plus, even though it's a secured card, you can earn bonus cash back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 each quarter — and Discover will match all the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year.

What the experts love: There's no annual fee (beyond your initial security deposit). Also, as Rathner notes, Discover reports your activity to the three major credit bureaus, and you can earn cash-back rewards. 

What the experts don't love: "There are two potential barriers for consumers seeking a secured card: a $200 minimum deposit and the requirement to fund that deposit from a bank account," Rathner says. And if you can get approved for a non-secured card, you could get more cash back with another option.

Frequently asked questions

How did we choose the best cash-back credit cards?

We narrowed down the dozens of cash-back credit cards currently available to new applicants by looking at a few factors:

  • Ease of use — Are there any hoops to jump through, like needing to be a member of a specific bank?
  • Cash-back earning potential — How much cash back can you earn with this card, and how broad are the bonus categories?
  • Annual fee — Many cash-back cards waive an annual fee, but for the few that do charge a fee, is it justified based on the card's rewards?
  • Options for various types of consumers — We wanted our top cash-back card picks to reflect different types of users, from families looking to maximize grocery spending to those looking to rebuild their credit score.

What are the different types of cash-back cards?

  • Flat rate — These cards earn the same rate of cash back on all purchases. For example, the Chase Freedom Unlimited® earns 1.5% back on all spending.
  • Select bonus categories — Many other cash-back cards offer bonus cash back (more than 1%) on select spending categories. For example, with the Capital One Savor card, you'll earn 4% back on dining and entertainment, and 2% back at grocery stores.
  • Rotating categories — A few cards, including the Chase Freedom®, offer bonus cash back on a selection of spending categories that changes every quarter of the year. These cards have a cap on how much bonus cash back you can earn each quarter — with the Freedom, you'll earn 5% back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases each quarter. All purchases above that cap will earn just 1% back.
  • Some cards are starting to offer yet a fourth format for delivering cash-back rewards: pick your own bonus categories from a list of options. These cards include the Bank of America Cash Rewards credit card and the U.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Signature Card.

What credit card offers the most cash back?

If you don't want to overthink it, the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card is a good go-to. It offers 3% back on a wide variety of categories, including travel and eating out.

That's not to say you couldn't earn more cash back with another card, though. The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express earns 6% back on the first $6,000 you spend each year at US supermarkets (then 1% back), and 6% back on select US streaming services, for example, and the Capital One Savor is the most rewarding pick for dining out with 4% back.

How does earning cash back work?

Cash-back credit cards earn you a percentage of cash back — usually at least 1%— on every dollar you spend (or more with cards that have bonus cash-back categories). You can transfer the cash back you earn from these cards to a bank account or use them to wipe charges from your credit card statement. Credit card issuers also allow you to redeem the cash back you earn for gift cards and merchandise. If you're trying to put money back in your wallet, our top recommendations are to transfer your cash back to a banking account or use it to reduce the amount owed on your credit card statement.

Do cash-back cards actually give you cash?

Cash-back credit cards do give cash, but that's not to say you'll necessarily see the physical cash. You're typically awarded cash back as a credit that you can use to cancel out purchases from your credit card statement, or to redeem for gift cards or merchandise online.

Should I earn cash back or points?

It depends on what you want to do with your rewards. If you want to put money back in your bank account, a cash-back credit card will help you accomplish just that — and you usually won't have to pay a very high annual fee, if you have to pay one at all.

On the other hand, if you're hoping to earn rewards that you can redeem for travel, a card that earns points is more up your alley. Our picks for best points-earning rewards cards earn either Amex Membership Rewards points, Chase Ultimate Rewards points, or Capital One miles. You can transfer all three of these currencies to travel partners and redeem them for things like free flights. (Note that while Capital One calls its rewards currency "miles," they aren't miles with a given airline program.)

If you're willing to juggle multiple credit card accounts, there's value in having both cash-back and points-earning cards. If you prefer a single-card strategy, evaluate your goals and consider how much you're willing to pay in annual fees to make the best decision for your situation.

The experts' advice on choosing the best cash-back card for you

We asked credit card and travel experts, along with a certified financial planner, for their best advice on choosing a good cash-back credit card.

Generally, what features make a cash-back card good?

Sara Rathner, travel and credit cards expert at NerdWallet:

Much like travel cards, you want to find a cash-back card that rewards you more where you spend the most. Redemptions should be easy, too. Most cash-back cards grant you a statement credit, but some will mail a check or deposit your cash back into your bank account.

Luis Rosa, certified financial planner:

Cards that offer an additional category in addition to the standard categories like gas, groceries or restaurants are very appealing. If you're loyal to a specific brand for example and use it often, a cash-back that offers additional cash back at that specific brand is a good option.

Summer Hull, director of travel at The Points Guy:

More cash is better than less cash. Look for those cards that award the most back in the categories you spend money in most frequently. 2% back is the standard these days, but aim for more in categories that are important to you.

Sarah Silbert, credit cards editor at Personal Finance Insider:

A good cash-back card is one with generous bonus categories, since the goal is to earn as much cash back as possible on your spending. The more bonus categories, the better, and the higher the cash-back rate, the better.

How can someone identify whether a cash-back card is good for them?

Sara Rathner, NerdWallet:

If you want ultimate flexibility when it comes to your credit card rewards, it's hard to beat cold, hard cash. That makes cash-back cards a solid option for consumers who simply want to save money on every purchase, rather than rack up rewards to eventually use on travel. Think of using a cash-back card as using a coupon every time you shop.

Luis Rosa, CFP:

If you spend a lot in general categories such as groceries, restaurants, and gas, having a cash-back credit card might be beneficial to you. In addition, If you are loyal to a specific brand and the credit offers a higher cash back percentage for shopping with that particular brand, then this provides an even greater incentive to consider a cash-back card.

Summer Hull, The Points Guy:

Cash is never a bad thing, but if you like to travel, then sometimes travel rewards can be more valuable, but just be realistic with your goals and go with what seems like the best idea at the time. You can always change your mind later.

Sarah Silbert, Personal Finance Insider:

If you don't want to spend time learning how to maximize travel rewards and transferring your points to travel partners, a cash-back card could be a great option. It allows you to maximize your spending with minimal work, since you don't have to jump through lots of hoops with cash back; you simply use the card and you'll get money back in your account.

What should someone consider when selecting a cash-back card?

Sara Rathner, NerdWallet:

If travel cards aren't of interest to you and you qualify for a rewards card, then you should at least be using a flat-rate cash-back card that earns the same rewards rate on every purchase. If you stick to that no-frills card without rewards, you're literally leaving money on the table.

Luis Rosa, CFP:

You should really understand how to redeem you cash back. Get familiar with the features. For example, can you apply the cash back toward your balance? Can you use the cash for anything or only in certain predetermined places? Is the cash back a flat rate, is it tiered? Another thing to consider is whether or not you carry a balance. If you do carry a balance, you should also consider the interest that you'll be paying on that balance in order to ensure that you're not paying more in interest than the cash back you're receiving.

Summer Hull, The Points Guy: 

Annual fee, earn rate, whether there are any bonus categories, and how easy is it to cash out your earnings.

Sarah Silbert, Personal Finance Insider: 

Take a look at a card's bonus categories. You'll want to pick a card that earns you more than 1% cash back on the categories where you spend the most, such as dining, groceries, and travel. Or if you don't spend a lot in a specific category, look for a card that offers 1.5% cash back or more on every purchase. And make sure you do your research so you don't miss out on a higher sign-up bonus. If the card has an annual fee, decide whether you will use it enough for it to be worth it.

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