After a recent workshop, someone asked me if I use credit cards. She seemed genuinely surprised when I said yes. Credit cards are like fire. If you misuse them, you can get really burned. But if you use them responsibly by paying off the balance in full and on time (you can have the balance automatically deducted from your checking account so it acts like a debit card), you can earn lots of benefits. These come in the form of everything from straight cash to airline miles to some very strange and unique perks.
Personally, my favorite is cash because of the flexibility it offers. Other rewards too often tempt you to get something you don’t really need instead of saving money. The trick to maximizing your cash back is to pick the right card for each kind of purchase. While there are lots of sites that rank the “top” rewards cards, I’ve found that they usually don’t have the cards with the best offers since they’re generally limited to those that pay or share revenues to be on the site. (In that sense, they’re kind of like commissioned stockbrokers.) Here are the best credit cards I’ve found to earn cash back on each kind of purchase:
Gas and Groceries
These are two expenses that we’ve seen rising in price lately. You can at least get some of that money back with the Pentagon Federal Credit Union Visa Platinum rewards card. The card gives 5% cash back on gas purchases, 3% on groceries, and 1% on everything else. Even if you’re not a Pentagon employee, you can become a member of the credit union by signing up with one of a number of affiliated civilian organizations.
Food and Entertainment
The Citi Forward® Visa card provides 5% back (in the form of cash or reward points) on purchases from restaurants (including fast food), bookstores, music stores, video rental stores, and movie theaters. You also get additional points every billing period that you pay on time and stay within your credit limit.
The Chase Freedom Visa pays 5% cash back on categories of purchases that rotate every 3 months and 1% on everything else. That means you have to keep track of the changing categories to get the most from it. For example, right now the bonus categories are grocery stores and movie theaters until the end of June.
For everything else, there’s the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card, which deposits cash equal to 2% of your purchases into a Fidelity brokerage account with no limits or annual fees. You can also get cards that deposit into a Fidelity 529 or retirement account if you prefer. (In any case, having it deposited into any of those investment accounts has the additional advantage of discouraging you from wasting it.) This is the highest general cash back offer I’ve seen so it’s probably the best card for making purchases that aren’t covered by one of the above categories.
Cash back isn’t the only reward you can get with credit cards. Here are a few others that can have a high cash value for certain types of users:
Future GM car buyers
If your next car will be from GM, you may want to consider the GM Mastercard, which offers a 5% rebate on purchases towards a new GM car. Of course, you have to actually want to buy a GM car to make this card worth it. Otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense.
Frequent hotel guests
The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card won last year’s SmarterTravel® award for “Best Traveler Rewards Card” and is often cited by travel aficionados for a rewards program that can be worth more than 5% if redeemed for hotel rooms.
Future college students and their friends and family members
The Upromise World Mastercard can pay up to 3% on eligible online purchases and 11% on eligible grocery purchases. The catch is that you need a Upromise account since that that is where the money is deposited and you must shop from their list of eligible merchants to earn rewards. You can also have the money go to the Upromise account of a friend or family member.
I’m sure this list isn’t exhaustive. Do you know any other credit cards with rewards over 2% in cash value? (If it’s less than 2%, you might as well go with one of the Fidelity cards I started with.) If so, let us know about them in the comment section below.