Best Cash Back Credit Cards – 2014
While most of the cards that made the cut this year remain the same, unfortunately, over the past year, we saw most of the top cash back credit cards receive a downgrade in benefits. Some cards, such as the Priceline Rewards Visa, underwent changes to their rewards programs that caused them to go from being among the best to falling from the list completely. (Fortunately for existing Priceline cardholders, they are currently grandfathered into the old rewards program. That program, however, is no longer available to new applicants.) Other former top picks, such as the US Bank Cash+ Card, went from being a great pick for nearly anyone to more of a niche pick. Read on to get all the details.
Note: This list only includes personal cash back credit cards. As I first mentioned in this post, small businesses should probably get a rewards credit card instead of a cash back card.
As previously alluded to, the top picks for 2014 didn’t rise up, so much as the past year’s top picks fell down. While that may not sound like a ringing endorsement, what it actually means is that 2013 was a year where a few exceptional offers were available. Those offers, as it turns out, were too good to last. What we’re left with are primarily some mainstays, which by historical standards, are still quite good.
Pros: Untiered, uncapped 2% rebate on all purchases, low 1% forex fee
Cons: Requires Fidelity brokerage account for easiest redemption, Amex not universally accepted
A traditional stalwart, the Fidelity Amex regains its “Top Pick” status this year, with its untiered, uncapped 2% cash rebate on all purchases–something you can no longer find in any other cash back credit card without an annual fee.
Cardholders earn 2 points for each dollar in net retail purchases. Points can be redeemed starting at 5,000 points into an eligible Fidelity account, at a rate of 1 cent per point. The Fidelity account may be a non-retirement account, an IRA or 529 college savings plan. You may also choose to automatically have your points swept as a cash deposit into your Fidelity account.
While having a Fidelity account makes for the easiest redemption opportunities, it should be noted that you can still apply for the card without one. You’ll just need to wait until you have more points to redeem them to earn an effective 2% cash back. To redeem for check or statement credit (not into a Fidelity account), the redemption schedule is as follows:
Redemption schedule for cash without a Fidelity account
One often-overlooked benefit of the Fidelity Amex is that it only carries a 1% fee for purchases made in foreign currencies, compared to the 2-3% fee that most other credit cards usually assess.
Pros: Up to 2% rebate on all purchases
Cons: Tiered rebate, 3% forex
The Fidelity Visa is very similar to the Fidelity Amex, though it offers a slightly lower rebate than its sibling. While the Amex offers a flat 2% cash back, the Visa card has a tiered rebate structure. For the first $15,000 in purchases of the year, you’ll earn 1.5 points for each $1. After you’ve reached $15,000 in spending, you’ll receive 2 points per $1 in purchases. Your points can be automatically converted into a deposit into your eligible Fidelity account in $50 increments.
Unfortunately, the Fidelity Visa also charges a 3% forex fee, compared to the 1% charged by its Amex sibling.
The upside to the Visa is that it does have more universal acceptance, so if you’re looking to have just a single credit card in your wallet, it may be the card you’re looking for.
Pros: Flat 1.5% rebate on all purchases, doesn’t require having a relationship with a specific financial institution, no forex fees
Cons: Other cards–such as those from Fidelity–offer a better cash back rate
The Capital One Quicksilver Rewards card makes the list solely because it does not charge foreign transaction fees, while offering a reasonable cash back rebate with no annual fee.
Whereas its predecessor, the Capital One Cash Rewards card, also earned a 1.5% rebate, it was on a delayed schedule. While the Cap One Cash card earned a 1% rebate immediately, you only received the other 0.5% rebate on your card anniversary. The Quicksilver card promises to deliver your 1.5% cash rebate immediately, allowing you to redeem your cash back for any amount at any time, in the form of an account credit, check or gift card.
Pros: Earns a 2.2% rebate on all purchases when redeemed towards travel, lucrative sign up bonus, no forex fees
Cons: $89 annual fee (waived first year), poor value if points are not redeemed towards travel
The Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard is an excellent choice for those who travel.
It currently offers 40,000 bonus miles after you make at least $3,000 in purchases within the first 90 days of opening your account. With each mile worth a penny when redeemed towards travel, those 40,000 miles are potentially worth $400 of statement credit.
Another nice feature of the card is that you’ll earn a 10% bonus whenever you redeem your miles for travel. For instance, when you redeem your 40,000 miles towards travel, you’ll receive an additional 4,000 bonus miles to use towards your next redemption.
Travel statement credit redemptions start at 2,500 miles for $25 and miles may be redeemed for for any travel purchase within the last 90 days. A charge is considered a travel purchase when the merchant fits into one of the following categories as determined by its merchant category code: “Airlines, Travel Agencies & Tour Operators, Hotels, Motels & Resorts, Cruise Lines, Passenger Railways and Car Rental Agencies.”
All purchases also earn 2 miles per dollar spent. So if you are always redeeming towards travel, the card essentially earns a 2.2% rebate on all purchases once you include the 10% bonus.
You do have the option of redeeming your points for merchandise or gift cards, but the value is so poor, it’s not recommended. When redeeming for statement credit, for instance, you’ll receive 1 cent for each 2 points, which is half the value you get compared to redeeming towards travel.
A few other noteworthy benefits include:
- No caps on earning or redeeming miles
- No foreign exchange fees
- Complimentary subscription to TripIt Pro mobile travel organizer
There is an annual fee of $89 for this version of the card, but it’s waived for the first year. If you do the math, even with the annual fee, you’ll come out ahead with the Arrival card vs. the Cap One Quicksilver card if you spend a little over $1,000 a month, assuming you redeem your points towards travel. For the first year, when its annual fee is waived and you get the nice sign up bonus, the Arrival card of course comes out way ahead.
One of last year’s “Top Picks,” the US Bank Cash+ Visa Signature Card underwent a number of changes over the past year that caused it to drop from that perch. Simply put, its rewards program as it was originally conceived was too good to last. However, even after the changes, it still remains one of the more attractive cash back cards on the market.
The US Bank Cash+ Visa Signature takes the concept of cash back cards with rotating quarterly bonus categories and improves upon it. Instead of being stuck with categories that the card issuers have selected for each quarter, cardholders can pick for themselves 2 categories each quarter in which they will earn a 5% rebate (on up to $2,000 in net purchases in their 2 bonus categories). The categories from which cardholders can select are subject to change, but currently include the following:
- Department stores
- Sporting good stores
- Electronics stores
- Cell Phone
- Fast food
- Furniture stores
- Car rental
- Charity (such as American Red Cross, United Way, Samaritan’s Purse International Relief and Mercy Chefs)
- Movie theaters
Cardholders can also select to earn a 2% rebate at either gas stations, grocery stores or drugstores. All other purchases earn 1%, but there is no limit to the rebate you can earn.
Also, when you redeem a rebate of $100 or more in single redemption, you’ll earn a $25 bonus in the form of prepaid card. You’re eligible to earn this $25 bonus once a year. Cash back rewards can be redeemed as a deposit into your U.S. Bank deposit account, a prepaid card or a statement credit.
As is typical of rotating category cards, there is a bit of maintenance required to earn your bonus. You’re required to choose your categories each quarter–if you don’t, purchases will earn only 1% cash back.
Overall, the Cash+ card provides much greater flexibility in selecting your 5% bonus categories than any of its competitors. Plus, it also offers the opportunity to earn 2% in another category and a potential annual $25 bonus. For those with concentrated spending in one of its bonus categories, the Cash+ card is a great option.
Note: An online application is currently not available for the card. To apply, you’ll need to apply in your local branch.
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
American Express currently has several different flavors of its Blue Cash card available, each of which will appeal to consumers with different spending patterns.
The Blue Cash Everyday® Card earns 3% cash back at stand-alone supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases), 2% at stand-alone gas stations and select major department stores and 1% on all other purchases.
Rebates are earned in the form of Reward Dollars, which may be redeemed for statement credits, or additional items like merchandise and gift cards, whenever your available Reward Dollar balance is 25 or more.
The Blue Cash Everyday card also has a sibling dubbed the Blue Cash Preferred card. The Blue Cash Preferred card carries a $75 annual fee and earns a 6% rebate at stand-alone supermarkets (on up to $6,000 in per year in purchases), 3% at stand-alone gas stations and select major department stores and 1% everywhere else.
In addition, the old Blue Cash® from American Express appears to still be available. (It can be seen at this link if you use your browser’s incognito mode.) The Blue Cash card earns rewards under the old tiered system. For your first $6,500 in purchases in a reward year, you’ll earn 1% on Everyday Purchases (purchases made at U.S. supermarkets, U.S. gas stations and select U.S. drugstores), and 0.5% on other purchases. Once you reach the $6,500 spending threshold, you’ll begin to earn 5% cash back on Everyday Purchases and 1% on other purchases, making this card a favorite among the “manufactured spending” crowd.
- Up to 1% rebate on first $1,000 annually
- Up to 2% rebate on next $2,000 annually
- Up to 3% rebate on over $3,000 annually
- Available only to Hawaii, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington residents
- Accepted at most places Discover is accepted
- $25 annual fee (including Marukai membership), waived first year
The only card to make the list with an annual fee, the Marukai Premium JCB card is certainly unusual. While it does feature a tiered reward structure in addition to its $25 annual fee (waived for the first year), the 3% top tier rebate can make it worthwhile for big spenders. It also features a $15 bonus when you spend $1,000 or more annually and another $50 bonus when you reach $5,000 in annual spend, which can help offset the annual fee.
Before you run out to apply, however, consider a few points: 1) JCB calculates your cash back by rounding down to the nearest $100 in net purchases for each statement, and 2) while the card is accepted at over 5.5 million locations in the US that accept Discover, as well as internationally, acceptance can be spotty. Some merchants may have locations that accept the card and others that don’t, so be wary of that.
- 5% rebate on gas paid at the pump
- 1% rebate on all other purchases
- Rebate applied automatically every month as a statement credit
- Must be a Fort Knox Credit Union member
With the recent devaluations to the PenFed reward programs, the Fort Knox Visa by default has become one of the best overall cash back credit card for gas purchases. It pays 5% cash back on gas, credited automatically on your monthly statement. On all other purchases, it earns 1%.
Membership in Fort Knox FCU is easy to satisfy, as there is a consumer’s organization, the American Consumer Council, that you can join for free as part of your application process. Membership to the credit union does require a payment of $15 upfront, $5 of which represents a share in the credit union and $10 of which covers the one-time membership fee.
- Be careful that you continue to use the card if you get it, as there is a $26 inactivity fee if you leave it dormant for a year.
- The max credit limit you will receive is $2,500 if you are a first time Fort Knox credit card applicant.
- 5% cash back on the first $250 per month on gas and groceries
- 5% cash back on the first $750 per month on eligible book purchases
- 1% cash back on all other purchases
Sallie Mae is most well known as a student loan provider, but also has an interesting credit card that is available to anyone. The Sallie Mae MasterCard earns 5% on on up to $250 in spending on groceries per month, 5% on up to $250 in spending on gas per month, 5% on up to $750 in spending on books per month and 1% on everything else.
Once you’ve earned 2,500 reward points, you can cash them out in the form of a $25 statement credit, have it applied to your eligible Sallie Mae student loan or redeem it as cash back in a Upromise account.
Tip: To further boost your cash back, what some like to do with this card is to open a High Yield Savings account (HYSA) with Sallie Mae, then either maintain $5,000 in their HYSA or auto transfer at least $25 a month for a year into the HYSA. Doing so makes you eligible to earn an annual 10% match from Upromise on all your Sallie Mae credit card reward redemptions to your Upromise account.
- Flat 1.75% rebate possible
- Requires extensive banking relationship with PNC Bank
- Cash back rewards credited to checking, savings or CashBuilder account
By default, the PNC CashBuilder Visa Credit Card earns a flat 1.25% cash back rebate. However, your rebate can be boosted depending upon either your level of spending or the extent of your relationship with PNC, up to a possible flat 1.75% cash back.
- 5% cash back in quarterly rotating categories
- 1% cash back on all other purchases
- No forex fees
The Discover it card is an improvement over the previous generation Discover More card. Instead of a tiered reward structure, the Discover it card earns an unlimited 1% cash back on all purchases.
Discover also pioneered the concept of rotating bonus spending categories that other issuers now copy, offering a 5% bonus on categories that change each quarter.
In addition, you can get bonus cash back at select merchants when you use its online shopping portal, ShopDiscover, often much higher than similar shopping portal sites. Discover also features redemption options that increase the value of your rewards when redeemed at select merchants for gift cards or instant eCertificates. For instance, you can turn $20 in rewards into a $25 gift card.
New in 2014, cardmembers also now receive a free FICO credit score on their monthly statement.
Travelers will also enjoy the fact that Discover does not charge foreign transaction fees made on international purchases. Discover cards are accepted internationally through the Discover Network, as well as through partnerships with China Union Pay, JCB and Diners Club International.
Chase Freedom Card
- 5% cash back in quarterly rotating categories
- 1% cash back on all other purchases
I’m grouping the Chase Freedom and the Citi Dividend card together because they are quite similar. They both earn a base 1% cash back with the opportunity to earn 5% in rotating categories that change every quarter, like the Discover card. While the Chase Freedom allows you to earn 5% on up to $1,500 in bonus category purchases each quarter, the Citi Dividend limits your total cash rebate to $300 per year, unless you received an offer stating otherwise.
If you can remember to sign up for the rotating bonuses every quarter and match your spending to the bonus categories, these cards can deliver a good percentage rebate. If you are looking for less hassle, however, you may want to look elsewhere. For the quarter of 4/1/14-6/30/14, the Chase Freedom card is offering a 5% rebate at restaurants and Lowe’s while the Citi Dividend card is offering 5% on purchases at The Home Depot®, home furnishing and home and garden stores.
A final word
It’s good to remember that cash back cards are only valuable for consumers who pay their balance in full every month. If you carry a balance, you are better off finding a low-interest rate card, since the interest you are paying will more than offset any cash back you might receive.
Editor’s note: For historical versions of this list, see: