Welcome to the fifth installment of the Best Credit Cards in America. This time, I reviewed dozens of offers for cash back credit cards.
I decided to focus on cash rewards because, well, life is so darned expensive. And it seems like it never stops. Spring break is most likely behind you, but many events and holidays are on the horizon. Graduations, weddings, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day, just to name a few.
And then right after that, summer vacations will be on your agenda. If you’re driving to your destination, the right cash rewards card can help you save money on gas—a big, big deal right now. And then there’s back-to-school shopping, Thanksgiving, and the holiday season. Okay, I’ll stop. Just showing you that a great cash back card can save you money all year round.
Just a word about how the selection process works. The category winner is the card that scores the highest number of points based on a unique, 41-factor formula. The formula gives each card a “benefits/rewards score” and then subtracts the “costs score.”
All right, let’s get to it. Here are the best cash rewards credit cards, starting with the winner.
Okay, that’s a long name, but it describes why it’s a great card. There are several versions of this card out there, but this one has a truly winning combination. You get a cash bonus, a zero percent intro rate on purchases and on balance transfers, and rewards on basically everything.
Why it won:
The rewards: After you spend $500 within the first three months, you earn 10,000 bonus points, which is equal to a $100 check. You get 5 percent cash back on rotating categories, such as groceries, gas, airlines, Amazon.com, and dining.
In fact, you get 5 percent on gas for a full six months. From January to March and then again from July to September, so that’s coming up again soon. You also get 5 percent at Kohl’s and Best Buy from October through December. A nice way to save on holiday shopping!
Now, you have to enroll to activate your bonus each quarter. There’s also a quarterly cap of $1,500 on categories, but after you reach the cap, you still get one percent cash back. You also get one percent cash back on all other purchases. There are no limits to the number of points you can earn.
The costs: You get a 15-month zero percent intro APR on purchases. After that, you get a variable purchase APR ranging from 12.99 percent to 22.99 percent. You also get a 15-month zero percent APR on balance transfers. And again, after the intro period ends, your APR will range from 12.99 percent to 22.99 percent.
There’s no annual fee. Balance transfers, cash advances, and foreign transaction fees are all 3 percent.
1st runner up
This card was a very close second to the Chase Freedom Card. So I’m going to give this card more attention than I usually give to the first runner-up.
You do have to be a member of the Pentagon Federal Credit Union to get this credit card. But if you don’t have a family member in the military, no worries. You can join PenFed by contributing $15 to Voices for America’s Troops or $20 to the National Military Family Association.
Why it won 1st runner up:
The rewards: If you have a long commute to work, the small one-time fee is worth it. You get five points for every $1 spent on gas purchases paid at the pump. You get three points per $1 spent on supermarket purchases. On all other purchases, you get one point per $1 spent.
Don’t let the point system scare you off if you know you can take advantage of the gas rewards. While it’s not as convenient as getting a statement credit, you can redeem your points for a Visa prepaid card.
PenFed has told me that there are no fees associated with the prepaid cards. A downside, though, is that you can only redeem points in increments of 50, which means you can get a card with a value of $50, $100, and so on.
The costs: You get a 9.99 percent variable APR on purchases, which is capped through June 30, 2014. After that, the cap is removed and you’ll get a new variable rate.
Through June 30, 2012 you can also get a 4.99 percent introductory rate (and pay no transfer fee) on balance transfers. The 4.99 percent APR stays in place for the life of the balance. Note that after June 30, 2012, new balance transfers will carry a 9.99 percent variable APR. There’s no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.
This is the souped-up version of the Blue Cash Everyday Card from AmEx. There’s an annual fee, but this credit card has so many rewards, you might not care.
Why it won 2nd runner-up:
The rewards: You get $150 cash back after you spend $1,000 within the first three months of opening your account. Note that the bonus offer is only valid for first-time American Express cardholders. You can earn 6 percent cash back at supermarkets, 3 percent at gas stations and department stores, and 1 percent on everything else. You can also get a variety of discounts through the Blue Savings program.
Plus, you can earn a $75 referral bonus if you refer a friend who gets approved. You also get the great benefits that come with an American Express card, such as extended warranties, purchase protection and more.
The costs: You get a 12-month zero percent intro APR on purchases. After that, you get a 17.24, 20.24 or 22.24 percent variable APR.
It’s a rewards card, so the rates are high. This card is for people who will take advantage of the rewards and who don’t carry a balance. There’s a $75 annual fee. Foreign transaction fees are 2.7 percent.
If you’re interested in learning about other cash rewards credit cards, you can research and compare more of them here.
At publishing time, the Chase Freedom Visa $100 Bonus Cash Back + 0% Intro APR and the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express – $150 Welcome Bonus are offered through Credit.com product pages and Credit.com may be compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for these cards. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.