[Update: Some offers mentioned below have expired. You can view the current offers from our partners if available here — American Express Blue Cash Preferred, American Express SimplyCash, Chase Freedom. Disclosure: Cards from our partners are mentioned below.]
All across the country, students and their parents are descending on retailers in order to stock up on all of the necessary school supplies. And while stores will be offering all sorts of sales and promotions to attract shoppers, one of the best ways to save money on your back-to-school purchases is to have the right credit card, and to use it strategically to earn the most rewards.
Here are three of the best strategies to earn the most cash back rewards on your back-to-school shopping, and perhaps some other purchases as well:
1. Use cards that offer bonuses where you buy your back-to-school supplies.
How much cash back you can earn from your back-to-school shopping depends partly on where you make your purchases. For example, some families will purchase back-to-school supplies from a supermarket, and can be eligible to receive substantial cash-back bonuses from cards like the American Express Blue Cash Preferred. It offers 6% cash back on all U.S. grocery store purchases, on the cardholder’s first $6,000 spent each calendar year. There is a $75 annual fee for this card and it requires excellent credit (here’s an expert guide to picking a credit card if you have excellent credit).
In other cases, families could choose to buy their school gear from office supply stores, which go to great lengths to attract students. In this case, it’s best to use business cards that offer large cash-back bonuses for purchases from these stores. For instance, the Chase Ink Cash and the SimplyCash Business Card from American Express business cards both offer 5% cash back at office supply stores, and neither has an annual fee.
Finally, there are retail credit cards that can offer great cash back deals. For example, the Target REDcard credit card and debit card both offer 5% off on all Target purchases. There is no annual fee for either card.
2. Use gift cards to increase bonus spending.
What if you have a credit card that offers great cash back at supermarkets, but your local supermarket doesn’t have the back-to-school items that your family needs? One option is to purchase gift cards at that store for use at other retailers. For example, your grocery store might sell gift cards for office supply stores or even Amazon.com, allowing you to earn bonus cash back on your gift card purchases. And while you might be tempted to purchase a generic gift card from a payment network like Visa, MasterCard or American Express, be aware that these cards can carry a fee that will reduce or eliminate any bonus cash back you were hoping to earn.
3. Shop through credit card portals.
Another way that you can use your credit card to earn additional cash back rewards is by taking advantage of its online shopping portal. For example, Chase offers its Shop Through Chase portal that allows cardholders to earn additional rewards for online purchases from office supply stores, drugstores and department stores. This would allow holders of cards like Chase Freedom to earn additional cash back (you can check out our Chase Freedom review here). Discover also offers its Discover Deals portal with similar savings.
4. Take advantage of price protection policies.
For many families, back-to-school supplies will include not just low-cost items such as notebooks and pencils, but more expensive purchases such as laptop or tablet computers. To ensure that you receive the best price available, you can use a credit card that offers a price protection policy. For example, Citi offers its Price Rewind program that automatically offers a refund when a covered item experiences a price drop within 90 days of purchase. The Discover card also offers its own Price Protection benefit that will refund the difference up to $500 on eligible items if you find a lower price at any store within 90 days of purchase.
If you don’t have a rewards credit card, but are considering applying for one, there are a few steps you can take first to make sure you get a card that makes sense for you. First, think about how you would use the card — the best way to maximize your reward-earning potential is to not carry a balance so you can avoid paying finance charges (which can chip away at the rewards you’re earning). In other words, aim to charge only what you can afford to pay in full each month.
It’s also a good idea to check your credit score so you have an idea of where you stand, as card issuers gear particular cards to those who fall within a specific credit range. You can get your credit scores for free from many sources, including through Credit.com. Then, if you have your eye on a particular card, check to see if you meet the general credit guidelines — and also make sure the offers align with how you actually shop so you can be more efficient about how you earn.
Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.
At publishing time, the American Express Blue Cash Preferred, Chase Ink Cash, American Express SimplyCash and Chase Freedom credit cards are offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com will be compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.