The Best Cash Back Credit Cards for 2021 - Up to 6% Cash Back
Our experts explain how to generate 1.5%, 2%... and even up to 6% cash back from this year's best credit cards.
Cash back credit cards are a type of reward credit card that benefits cardholders by offering cash back on purchases. That means money in your pocket for things you already buy.
Below you'll find a list of our favorite cash back credit cards for 2021...
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
With one of the highest cash back rates for US supermarket purchases (6%), the Blue Cash Preferred® also has a generous bonus for gas purchases. This is a great tiered cashback credit card for families, but make sure the rewards outweigh the $95 dollar annual fee.
A family that spends a good portion of its income in US supermarkets and can afford the $95 annual fee.
$300 Statement credit
13.99% to 23.99% (Variable)
0% APR for 12 months
Citi® Double Cash Card
The Citi® Double Cash Card is a flat rate card that offers two rounds of cash back rewards with every purchase. Get 1% cash back when you make a purchase and 1% cash back when you pay.
The everyday spender who puts all purchases on one card and pays it off on time each month to reap the second round of cash back benefits.
N/A at this time
13.99% - 23.99% (Variable)
0% for 18 months on balance transfers only
Credit One Bank® Platinum Rewards Visa
This tiered credit card offers 5% cash back for the first $5,000 spent on everyday purchases, making it an ideal card for everyday spenders looking to continue building their credit score.
Everyday spenders who can afford an annual fee, won’t carry a balance from month to month, and want cash back rewards while building their credit score.
Discover It® Cash Back Credit Card
The Discover It® is our top changing tier cashback credit card for those with excellent credit. The introductory offer is a major reason: Discover automatically matches all the cashback you've earned at the end of your first year. Best of all, there’s no limit to how much is matched.
Everyday spenders looking to maximize their cash back with no annual fee.
11.99% - 22.99% variable
0% for 14 Months
Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi
Want rewards for shopping at Costco and buying gas? The Costco Anywhere Visa® by Citi is the perfect choice. It’s a tiered cash back credit card with rewards in multiple categories.
The frequent Costco shopper who regularly fills their gas tank.
$0 (Must have Costco Membership)
Best Starter and Student Cash Back Credit Cards
If you’re a student – or are still building your credit history – take advantage of some great cash back credit cards with the options below.
Discover it® Secured
This secured credit card can be established using your tax return refund as a deposit (as long as it’s $200 or more). This card has no annual fee, allows you to build credit with responsible use, and provides a tiered cash back benefit.
The dedicated credit builder who makes everyday purchases and pays off the balance in full each month.
10.99% for 6 months
Discover it® Student Cash Back
With some of the best cash back incentives available to students, the Discover it® Student CashBack offers quarterly rotating 5% cash back categories. Users can also receive Discover’s Cashback Match introductory offer, a $20 statement credit for good grades, and a 0% intro APR. Cash back rewards can’t be matched on other student credit cards, making this our top pick.
Responsible students looking to build their credit throughout college; those who take advantage of cash back rewards on daily purchases.
12.99% - 21.99% (variable)
0% for 6 months
Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students
If you’re a student who cannot live without Amazon Prime, this credit card has the perfect perk: Receive one year of Amazon Prime Student after your first card purchase. You can also earn a 1% unlimited flat cash back rate on all purchases, making this one of the best student credit cards out there.
Students (including international students) who regularly use Amazon Prime and could benefit from the free membership while building their credit.
Amazon Prime Subscription
Best Business Cash Back Credit Cards
Businesses can take advantage of cash back rewards, too. This is especially helpful for companies that regularly put travel expenses or office supplies on credit cards.
Costco Anywhere Visa® Business Card by Citi
The Costco Anywhere Visa® Business card offers major rewards for business owners who have a Costco membership. This includes 2% cash back on all purchases made at Costco or Costco.com. If you stock your office with Costco toilet paper or snacks, this may be the perfect business credit card for you.
Business owners who frequently shop at Costco.
$0 (Costco Membership required)
American Express Blue Business Cash™ Card
If you own a startup or an expanding business, the American Express Blue Business Cash® card could be perfect due to its flexible credit limit and flat rate cash back rewards. Its 0% APR offer for balance transfers is ideal if your business is looking to pay off a different credit card.
The business owner who needs to complete balance transfers or requires a flexible credit limit due to expansion.
13.24% - 19.24% variable
0% for balance transfers
How Do Cash Back Cards Work?
Cash back credit cards pay you a percentage of what you spend. Typically, this is 1-2% on all purchases (with some cards offering a higher rate in specific categories).
For example, if you used a 2% cash back credit card to buy $100 worth of groceries, you’d receive $2.00 cash back.
What Kinds of Cash Back Credit Cards Exist?
Not all cash back credit cards are created equal. They have different kinds of cash back rewards systems (although all of them reward a percentage of your purchases).
Flat Rate Cash Back Cards
Flat rate cash back cards offer one singular rate – like 2% for all purchases made on the card. The cards are best for everyday spenders who don’t spend heavily in one specific category.
Tiered Cash Back Cards
Tiered cash back credit cards have a standard flat rate and special cash back rates in specific categories. For example, a tier cash back card may offer 1% back on all purchases and 5% back on any purchases made in US supermarkets.
These can be especially rewarding if you find a card with a high cash back reward for goods and services you buy regularly.
Tiered Cards with Changeable Categories
Some credit card issuers (like Discover) offer category changes with their tiered cash back credit cards. This means they offer a standard flat cash back rate and a higher cash back rate in specific categories that change regularly. Typically, category changes occur every quarter and need to be activated by the cardholder.
You can find cash back categories such as:
This kind of credit card is great if you spend in a variety of categories and can remember to activate your cash back rewards. If you don’t want to bother with changing categories, a flat rate card will likely be best.
How to Choose the Best Cash Back Credit Card
In order to reap the rewards from cash back credit cards, you need to understand your spending habits. Choose a credit card that will pay you a high percentage for purchases you regularly make. You’ll also want to consider how the sign-up offers, annual fees, and category bonuses fit with your financial situation.
Sign-Up Bonuses and Introductory Offers
It’s common for credit cards to offer a sign-up bonus (ie. introductory offer) as an incentive to future cardholders.
These sign-up bonuses may come with strings attached, like spending requirements within specific time periods. Be sure you can meet this requirement with what you already spend, as you don’t want to end up in credit card debt for a short term perk.
Another common introductory offer is 0% APR. This zero interest period will have an expiration date and you want to be sure your balance is paid off before this date. Cash back incentives will not outweigh the interest you’ll pay if you carry a credit card balance.
Always read the fine print in the credit card disclosure so you know what the credit card can offer you after the sign-up bonuses expire. This will help you decide whether to apply for the credit card or not.
While it’s not as common for cash back credit cards to carry annual fees, some of them do (and offer a larger cash back bonus in an effort to make up for it). The annual fee is only worth paying if the rewards outweigh the cost.
The category bonuses on cash back credit cards are an important consideration, too. Choose one that you’ll use consistently and that offers a high percentage of cash back for the goods and services you buy the most.
Also review the earning caps for specific categories. For example, the American Express Blue Cash Preferred® Card offers 6% cash back for groceries, but this only applies for $6,000 of supermarket purchases per year (then it returns to the standard 1% rate). The gas reward for this card is at 3%.
Why Choose a Cash Back Card?
Cash back credit cards are a popular choice for many, but you should review the pros and cons to see whether it’s the right credit card for you.
Pros of Cash Back Credit Cards
- Get paid for purchases you already make
- Variety of cash redemption choices (e.g. statement credit, direct deposit, mailed check)
- Easy to find a cash back credit card without an annual fee
Cons of Cash Back Credit Cards
Limited perks (e.g. loyalty discounts, airport lounge access)
If you carry a balance, the cash back will not outweigh regular interest rates
Potential for earning caps in high-rate cash back categories
How to Benefit Most from Cash Back Cards
Predictable spending patterns can help you take better advantage of a cash back credit card. You always want to compare your spending habits (and rewards) when evaluating how a cash back credit card can benefit you. Once you understand this, direct your focus on the sign-up bonus and annual fee.
Get the Most Out of Sign-Up Bonuses
Think about the sign-up bonus as a short term perk. For example, if you can earn a $250 statement credit for your first $1,000 in purchases, great. But how will the card benefit you afterward?
Sign-up bonuses can boost your rewards, but only for a period of time. Consider the long term and the rates your card will offer for your spending habits.
Is Your Annual Fee Worth It?
Calculate how much you plan to spend on the card and how much you anticipate getting back. If it doesn’t wipe out the cost of the annual fee (while leaving a little cash in your pocket), find a cash back credit card without one. Thankfully, you have plenty of cash back credit card options that don’t carry these fees.
Is 1.5% Cash Back Good?
1.5% cash back is good, and it should be the minimum flat rate cash back credit card you aim for.
If you opt for a tiered cash back credit card (even a changing tier card), the concept of a “good” rate can change a bit. In this case, the standard flat rate can be 1%, as long as the high rate special category is at least 3%.
Are Cash Back or Reward Points Better?
One type of credit card reward is not better than the other: It comes down to personal preference. That said, point reward systems can be confusing, so the clearest and easiest-to -understand cash back rewards are usually better for novice credit card users.
What Can You Do with Cash Back Rewards?
Anything you want – it’s your money to spend! Maybe you can finally press “Purchase” on your Amazon cart.
How Can I Maximize My Cash Back Rewards?
If you have excellent credit, consider a multi-card strategy. Keep one cash back card with a high flat rate (at least 1.5%) and another cash back card with a high rate for a specific category, like restaurants. Use the credit cards strategically to maximize your cash back rewards.
Do Cash Back Rewards Expire?
Yes, in some cases your cash back rewards can expire. This depends on the credit card issuer and their redemption policies. Some credit card companies have the option to set up an automatic cash back withdrawal to avoid expiration.
Do I Need to Pay Taxes on Cash Back Rewards?
Generally, cash back rewards are non-taxable by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). They can be thought of as rebates or discounts. Just like you don’t account for the money saved with coupons, you don’t need to worry about cash back rewards.
How Do I Break a Tie Between Two Cash Back Cards?
Can’t decide which cash back card to choose? Make your decision based on the benefits of the credit card beyond the cash back rates. Consider the following:
Do you need a credit card with no foreign transaction fees for an upcoming trip?
When it comes to interest rates, is the regular APR lower on one than the other?
Do they offer travel insurance or discounts on car rentals?
What is the sign-up bonus for each card?
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All of the opinions expressed herein are the author's alone, and not those of any bank, brokerage, credit card issuer, lender, insurance company, outside financial institution, or any other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post or any other third parties.