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Guest Blog: The Easiest and Hardest Parts about Earning Cash Back

In today’s guest blog, Michael Dolen of CreditCardForum takes a look at the perks — and challenges — of cash-back credit cards.

One of my very first credit cards was the Chase Cash Plus Rewards Visa. It’s now extinct, but when I opened it in 2005, it was one of the best cash-back credit cards around — 5 percent at grocery stores, gas stations and drugstores. There was no cap on the rewards, no rotating categories and no annual fee. It just gave you a straight up 5 percent rebate on those categories without any tricks or fine-print gimmicks. Nowadays, earning cash back isn’t so simple!

Here are some of the hardest things about cash back that you need to be aware of:

1. Reward caps and tiers

Unfortunately, every year, reward caps seem to become more prevalent. The days of earning an unlimited 3 percent to 5 percent are quickly disappearing. Now, almost every credit card imposes a cap on the amount of category spending that qualifies for higher rewards.

Even the AmEx Blue Cash cards (which were famous for having no caps) recently implemented a cap on the supermarket category. Fortunately, at $6,000 per year, it’s still generous enough for most. Contrast that with the heavily advertised BankAmeriCard Cash Rewards card; only the first $1,500 in combined gas and grocery purchases each quarter will qualify for the higher rewards. That’s hardly sufficient, considering that many households spend more than $500 per month on groceries alone. This is why having multiple reward cards is more helpful than ever; once you max out the rewards on one, move on to the other.

2. Enrollment requirements

A number of cards like the Chase Freedom and Citi Dividend will not give you higher rewards on categories unless you “enroll” in them each quarter. The fact that we have to opt in is really quite ridiculous when you think about it. Unlike say, opting in to be on a mailing list, is there anyone on the face of the planet who would not want to be opted-in to higher rewards? I doubt it.

The reason banks do this is that they need to make a profit on these cards. A lot of people who use rewards cards pay their bills in full. So the only money banks are making on those types of customers are from the processing fees (those are far below 5 percent, which is why banks can’t afford to pay 5 percent cash-back to everyone). If some cardholders fail to opt in to the higher rewards categories, the issuer can avoid big rewards payouts. However, at the end of the day, I would much rather have this annoying enrollment requirement in place than have issuers take away the 5 percent cash-back rate altogether.

3. Minimum redemption amounts

Another complaint I frequently hear on CreditCardForum is that most issuers require you to accumulate a certain amount of cash back before you can redeem it. Fortunately, for many cards, the bar isn’t set too high. For example, on the Chase Freedom card, the minimum is only $20 (2,000 points).

On the other hand, some cards come with a high wall to climb. For example, the Bank of America credit cards (which use WorldPoints), require you to save up a whopping 25,000 WorldPoints for a $250 redemption to get full value (1 cent per point). You can redeem for less than that, but your point value will diminish substantially. The only way to avoid this problem is to do your research before applying for a card, so you know what you’re getting yourself into.

On the bright side, here are some of the easiest things about cash back:

1. Automatic redemption options

Some cards may hold your rewards hostage, but other cards will give them to you freely on a monthly basis. Take the new Capital One Cash Rewards card, which allows you to set up automatic monthly redemption with no minimum required. The American Express Simply Cash card (for businesses) will automatically give you a statement credit for the cash back earned during the previous month.

For those wanting something simple and straightforward, automatic redemption is probably your best choice. However it’s important to point out that, even though it’s easy, it won’t always give you the most bang for your buck. Why? Because with Discover, Chase and other issuers, if you convert your cash back to retailer gift cards, the value might be higher. For example, Discover lets you convert $45 in Cashback Bonus to a $50 Starbucks gift card. If you opt for automatic cash redemption, you’ll miss out on those opportunities.

2. Rewards on regular spending

One of the positive changes that has come over the past few years is that, now, most reward cards don’t limit the amount of cash back you can earn on non-category spending. That means an unlimited 1 percent cash back. You get this automatically, no enrollment or opt-in required.

That being said, I would actually recommend a different card for your non-category or “regular” purchases. Why? Because my favorite rebate programs that give up to 3 percent or 5 percent on categories typically give only 1 percent (or sometimes less) on everything else. That isn’t bad, but you can do better with, say, the Fidelity American Express or Capital One Cash Rewards cards. Instead of doing categories, they just give a flat above-average payout on all purchases.

3. Transparent value

Despite their drawbacks, good cash-back programs still offer the most transparent rewards out there. With airline frequent flier miles, the value of the rewards can be iffy. Depending on when you redeem them, the same round-trip domestic flight might cost you only 25,000 miles — or a whopping 60,000 miles. After you add in seat restrictions and blackout dates, the actual value you end up getting can be a gamble. Sometimes you come out ahead with airline miles, other times not so much.

Meanwhile, with the vast majority of cash-back credit cards, you know precisely what you are earning when you spend your money. Sure, there may be hoops to jump through, but at the end of the day, you know that if you earn $50 in rewards, it will be worth $50. Contrast that to 5,000 airline miles or 5,000 points to be used for merchandise — who knows how much those will be worth?


Michael Dolen is the founder and managing editor of, which is the leading online

forum solely dedicated to credit cards. His “no holds barred” credit card reviews and commentary are regularly featured in financial publications and websites such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Bloomberg and US News & World Report.

His knowledge and expertise come from real world experiences. After being left with monstrous medical expenses from an auto accident at age 18, he strategically used 0% credit card offers to finance his out-of-pocket costs not covered by insurance. These days, he’s debt free and focuses on finding new ways to maximize rewards and milk cardholder benefits. As a small business owner, he’s also well aware of the struggles that both entrepreneurs and established companies face when it comes to business credit in today’s economy.

When he’s not busy surfing the Web for credit card deals, you will likely find him surfing the waves along Southern California’s coast, where he lives.


Gas and Groceries – the Cash Back Favorites

If your credit card offers you cash back, you’ve probably noticed that the percentage rebate varies by category.  For example, American Express advertises 5% cash back on gas, groceries and drugstores, and 1.5% cash back on everything else.  Discover offers 5% back on gas and groceries, among other categories.  Citibank actually offers 2% cash back on “rotating categories”.

Turns out, “Gas and Groceries” are habit-forming.  While they may make up a small part of your household budget, you probably purchase them one, twice or even three times a week.  And the card companies are hoping that you’ll get used to pulling their card out for the small purchases, so that when it comes for a big purchase, their card will be “top of wallet.”

I don’t think this falls in the “dirty tricks” category.  In fact, you can use it to your advantage.  You can maximize your cash back by making sure you put these small purchases on your card.  And you might consider carrying multiple cash back cards to maximize your rebates when one has a higher rebate on a category.


Retailers Compete With Their Plastic

Shopping Credit CardsAs companies find new ways to attract and keep customers, it seems essential that they improve their current products or offer new ones to get the competitive edge. Although many people probably do not think about it, the same can be said when it comes to credit cards as well. As we have already seen new products hit the market to help cardholders gain better control their finances, it now seems that retailers are getting into the mix looking to give their cardholders more value for their bucks.


Beginning this fall it has recently been reported that cardholders of the Target Credit Card, Target Visa Credit Card and Target Check Card debit product will receive 5 percent off their purchases when they use their plastic at any Target store or the Target website. Unlike in the past where both new and existing cardholders would receive a coupon that can be used on a future day of shopping, this new incentive will deduct the 5 percent at the register when checking out.


When it comes to retailers and their card offerings, Target is not the only one to make a move hoping that you will use their plastic when making purchases. It was recently announced that cardholders of Wal-Mart’s reloadable prepaid card will receive cash back on fuel purchases. While it is not exactly on purchases in the store similar to Target, one can only imagine what these two companies which have competing for market share will announce next. Regardless of what it is, it looks like cardholders for both companies will have more money in their pocket in which I am sure no one will complain.


Looking for a Cash Back Credit Card?

When it comes to choosing a cash back credit card, what cards rank at the top or your list? While the answer will be different for everyone, a common factor in determining the top card that will take residence in your pocketbook is perceived value.


Recently the folks here at wrote an article entitled "Editor’s Pick: Best Cash Back Credit Cards 2010" that breaks down a couple of the hottest plastic available to consumers. While there were many to choose from, those that made the list offer cardholders not only great rewards but also great value. The top choices included both of the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Cards, the Chase Freedom MasterCard, the PenFed Visa Platinum Cashback Rewards Card as well as a couple of others. In all, these cards are not only highly popular among current cardholders but they have also changed the way that issuers develop reward cards.


As stated earlier there are many reward cards available that have great deals when it concerns getting cash back. When applying for any credit card, one important thing to remember is to always make sure you read and understand the terms and any other paperwork that is associated with the card. While getting rewards is great, if you don’t completely understand any fees or other cost associated with the card it could cost you than the price of your original purchase. In addition to that, it could negate any rewards that you have accumulated to a certain point.


Major Retailer Offers Cash Back On Prepaid Card Gas Purchases

CashBack on Prepaid CardAs summer quickly approaches so too are the months that millions of people will start to hit the road. As was the same for prior years, one of the major concerns for Americans traveling during these months is gas prices. Traditionally during this time we have seen gas prices skyrocketing nationwide forcing some to rethink just how much traveling they will doing. One thing we have seen over the years are many incentives such as discounts and cash back given by credit card issuers for making fuel purchases with their card. Now it seems that this has been adopted by one of the largest retailers in the country, and instead of saving with credit card purchases it is with a prepaid card.


Earlier this month, it was reported by Wal-Mart that they would begin offering cash back for consumers using their branded re-loadable prepaid card. The major difference that will set them apart from their competitors is that at the moment they are the only one giving cash back solely on fuel purchases. On these purchases cardholders can look to receive 1% of the total sale when swiping their card at the pump nationwide until December 31, 2010.


Although it is quite new to receive cash back on fuel purchases; getting cash back, rewards, and discounts on prepaid cards is nothing new. There are many prepaid cards such as the Upside Prepaid Card that do exactly that. In addition to those, many debit card coupled with checking accounts allow you to receive incentives as well for shopping with you plastic through their online portal. While in several cases you may not receive the same amount of cash back as you would by using your credit card, to some consumers that is something they are willing to exchange for not having to borrow money to pay for products.


Discover Gives a Cash Back Bonus to Those Who Serve

American Flag Discover Credit CardWhen it comes to ways we thank our soldiers for protecting the freedoms that Americans are able to have, both individuals and companies have found creative ways to show their appreciate for the sacrifices that they make. Credit card issuers are no exception, and one issuer in particular has found one way that shows thanks while putting cash back into the pockets of those serving in the U.S. Military.


That issuer is Discover and they recently announced that they are giving cardholders both Double Cashback Bonus® and Double Miles on purchases made at United States military bases from Memorial Day through Labor Day. While one would think that this is only on U.S. soil, these rewards are on purchases made in military installations in the United States and overseas, and includes purchases made at commissaries, exchanges, convenience stores, gas stations located on bas and more.


While our military personally only have a few days on the calendar where they receive praise for what they have done, companies like Discover have decided to show thanks to the Vets in a way that they have done for the last three years. When it comes to why this issuer has chosen to make give these rewards to our military personal over the last couple of years a representative states "Giving our service men and women a little something extra is a great way for us to express the gratitude we have for all that they do."


More information on getting Discover cash back bonuses and other ways to help our soldiers, details can be found at


Look Closely when Choosing a Cash Back Credit Card

With all of the cash back opportunities available today on both everyday purchases as well specialty purchases, there is no better time to use a cash back card if you are choosing to use plastic. One just needs to remember that while having a cash back credit card can be very rewarding, there are also things that one must look for when getting ready to apply for one.


While researching cash back cards can seem confusing with all the offers available, this does not have to be the case. In an article entitled "How to Find the Best Cash Back Credit Cards", there are a couple of points that can help ensure you have the right card in your wallet. Before signing your name on the dotted line important things to know include the following:


  • The real cash back rate
  • Caps or limits on amount of cash back earnings
  • Clauses which can limit or negate earnings
  • Redemption process to redeem earnings
  • Additional perks (if applicable)

When it comes to cash back credit cards, popularity among American cardholders has grown throughout the last couple of years. While there are many reasons on the increase in those carrying cash back cards, one of the most popular deal with earning money on everyday purchases that would have been made anyway. For many, this is seen as a discount of sorts that will ultimately put more of your hard earned money back into your wallet.


Citi Bank Saves you Five at the Gas Pump

Shell Gas Rewards Credit CardHave you noticed gas prices increasing slowly across the nation? Whether you have or haven’t, it seems that this year will follow years past by putting stress on drivers where it really counts. While there aren’t many things that you can do to keep gas prices from increasing, some issuers are hoping to help relieve some of the pressure at the pump by given rewards such as cash back. The newest credit card issuer to do this is Citi Bank as they recently released what is known as the "Shell Drive for Five Card".


So what exactly is this "drive for five" and how does it work? With this new credit card, cardholders are able to save five cents on each gallon of Shell gas purchased. In addition that that consumers also receive quite a bit of extra benefits which include the following:

  • Pay-at-the-pump convenience
  • Separate tracking of gasoline purchases
  • Online account management and payment features
  • Revolving terms or pay in full with a 25-day grace period
  • $0 liability for unauthorized charges
  • ATM cash access
  • Citi Identity Theft Solutions protection

While everyone loves to get cash back on gas, one must know that there are a couple of small stipulations in order to receive your credit which appears on the cardholder’s monthly billing statement. Although there probably won’t be many that have a problem with this, the one that stands out the most is that at least 45 gallons must be purchases within a given month. In addition to the minimum amount that must be purchases there is also a maximum amount that you will receive credit. As a limit, cardholders are reimbursed up to 100 gallons each month.


Looking for more ways to save money on Shell gasoline without using a credit card, try one that hooks up to your checking account and still receive a discount on your purchases. Details can be found on an earlier post entitled, "Shell Targets College Students Via "$aver Card".


Chase Increases Rewards on Freedom Credit Card

When it comes to the types of credit cards that seem to be garnering the attention of prospective cardholders today, there is no surprise that reward cards are at the top of the list. Even while many are searching far and wide for low interest credit cards, rewards still are finding their way into pocketbooks mainly due to the fact that cardholders are receiving cash among other things for using their plastic to make purchase they were going to make anyway.


As one of the most popular Chase credit cards, it now looks like Chase has decided to raise the amount of cash back (up to 5 percent) you receive on some of the most popular purchases going into the spring and summer seasons for the Chase Freedom Card. For cardholders, the two important dates in which you should start to receive the five percent cash back are March 15 and April 1. On March 15, cardholders will receive increased cash back at places like home improvement stores, lawn and garden outlets, and retail locations that sell home furnishings. On April 1, cardholders will get the five percent cash back on place where they dine, at grocery stores, drug stores and more.


When it comes to cash back and reward credit cards the boost with Chase Freedom may be something that is only the beginning when it comes to enticing cardholders to pay with their plastic. As many people have started to spend less with their credit cards, issuers have become hard pressed to come up with ways to become the top choice for making payments once again. As Chase was not the first to start the year off using money as an incentive (Discover’s "It Pays to Discover Everyday Giveaway"), they will definitely not be the last and you can be rest assured that other issuers will follow suit very soon.


Cash Back Credit Cards Continue to Grow

When was the last time that you decided it was time for you to get a new credit card? If you are like millions of other Americans you have either switched card issuers already or are probably thinking about it. While many people choose low interest credit cards for their new plastic, cash back cards have dramatically gained in popularity and have demanded the attention of issuers and non-issuers alike.


When it comes to using credit cards, rewards cards are finding themselves being used more simply due to the fact that the cardholder is getting something just for using the card. In most cases issuers have increased rewards points or cash back amount to keep cardholders using their plastic over cash. Even as the year ends and cash back rewards from the holiday season seem to re-adjust back. We could see increased rewards for making purchases stay a little longer as issuers use this to gain new cardholders.


Rewards that people want (in order or preference) include:

  • Cash Back
  • Merchant (Retailer)
  • Flexible Points
  • Gas
  • Travel (ie: airline)
  • Charitable Donations

As rewards are becoming a key feature that many Americans are wanting, many issuers are using this to entice consumers not only with their credit cards but with their debit card products as well. Debit cards rewards have grown tremendously within the last year and are scheduled to be even more competitive in 2010. We have seen discounts for shopping both online and in-store of up to 12% as well as rewards such as air miles that can be redeem with no blackout dates or restrictions.


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