Nearly half (49%) of U.S. adults have a cash-back credit card, making cash-back cards the most popular type of rewards cards, according to a survey of 2,564 adults from CreditCards.com. And you don't need a perfect credit score to get the best deal on a cash-back card — all you need is a FICO credit score of 740 and above.
Some of the simplest cash-back card programs offer a flat cash-back rate on all spending, typically 1% to 2%. Tiered cash-back cards boost rewards on select purchases, instead: For instance, one may offer up to 6% cash back on all purchases at gas stations and supermarkets. Rotating rewards cards, meanwhile, offer cash back on specific categories, like gas and restaurants, that switch up every few months.
Some cash-back rewards cards require good-to-excellent credit, while there are others available to those with fair credit. A credit score of 740 or above gives you a "slam dunk" chance of qualifying for a top cash back card, says Ted Rossman, an analyst at CreditCards.com.
If your credit score is 650 or lower, you can still be approved for a cash-back rewards card, but your credit limit may be lower and your interest rate may be higher, says credit expert John Ulzheimer, who has worked for FICO and Equifax. And if your score is in the 500 range, you may find it difficult to qualify for a rewards card.
The higher your score, the better chance you'll have of qualifying for a card that matches and rewards your spending priorities and frequent purchases, such as groceries or restaurant meals. And that's how cash-back cards can be most useful: "For me, it's about maximizing the everyday stuff," says Rossman.
Cards like the American Express Blue Cash Preferred, for instance, which you can qualify for with a credit score of 670 or above, offers 6% cash back on all U.S. supermarkets for up to $6,000 for a year, and 1% thereafter per year, making the savings target "easy for families to hit," says Rossman.
Make sure to pay off all your bills on time, especially with a reward card. Failing to do so can end up subsidizing someone else's cash back, says Ulzheimer, since your rewards will not come close to outweighing the money you'll have to pay in interest.
Rossman agrees, pointing out that for cash-back cards, the national average interest rate is 17.74%, which is far higher than the typical percentage you can earn in cash back. "To make [cash back] cards worth it, you have to pay your bills in full and avoid interest rates," he says.
If your credit score is 650, for example, and you put $1,000 on a cash-back card with a 20% interest rate without paying off the balance immediately, you'd pay $200 in interest. Even if you had 2% cash-back savings on that card — so, a savings of $20 on $1,000 worth of purchases — you'd end up $180 behind.
More than 60% of the cards surveyed offered sign-up bonuses of up to $200 cash back, but the trade-off is you may have to spend a certain amount within a specific time-frame before cashing in. For instance, the Blue Cash Preferred card offers $250 after a $1,000 spent within the first three months, while the Wells Fargo Propel card gives you 3% cash back on travel and dining with a 30,000 bonus points if you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days.
Chasing bonuses is generally a bad idea, experts warn. You can be turned down for a rewards card even with a 740 credit score if you've too frequently applied for other rewards cards, says Rossman. "If you've applied for five or more rewards cards in the past 24 months, Chase will deny you," he says. "You can have an unbelievably good credit score, but that's a warning sign for them [that] you're just in it [for] the bonus and they want you for the long haul."
Ultimately, it's important to choose the right card for your lifestyle, says Rossman: "At the end of the day, the best reward for you is one that you're going to use and enjoy."
This story has been updated and clarified.
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