How Does Cash Back Work?

How Does Cash Back Work?

Editorial Note: This content is not provided by the credit card issuer. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer.

Credit card companies typically offer a plethora of rewards options for their cardholders to take advantage of. But cash back has long been a favorite of many, as it gives you the chance to earn cold, hard money for making everyday purchases. If you’re confused about how cash back works, read on for a full explanation.

How Cash Back Works

At its core, cash back refers to a predetermined percentage of a purchase you make being returned to you as cash rewards. Cash back rates typically range between 1% and 5%, though there are some outliers to be mindful of. Credit card issuers will usually clearly label what types of purchases earn what level of cash back. But like anything in the credit card industry, you must read the fine print.

This is mainly because all purchases and cash back rewards are governed by merchant category codes, or MCCs. Credit card companies ultimately determine these designations, with Mastercard, Visa, American Express and Discover calling the shots. Some common codes are “restaurant,” “department store,” “airline” and “entertainment,” among others. So if you earn 5% bonus cash back at restaurants and you go to Burger King — which has a restaurant MCC — you’ll get that 5% back.

But what these limiting MCCs sometimes don’t take into account are businesses that could fit into more than one category. Included in this group are hotels, superstores like Walmart, tourist attractions like museums and other multi-faceted establishments. In turn, you could lose out on cash back if you’re confused about which category a purchase you made falls into.

As an example, let’s say your family orders room service while on vacation in The Bahamas. You pay with your credit card thinking you’ll get the advertised 3% cash back on dining. When your credit card statement comes in the mail, however, you’ve only received the base 1% earnings. This is because the MCC of your hotel is just that, a hotel, which leaves your credit card issuer blind to what you really bought.

Unfortunately situations like these often offer very little recourse, as your card’s issuer has no ability to change these codes. In fact, only the major credit companies can change their own code selections.

New cardholders will often receive cash back promotions and bonuses. These offers can either be recurring — monthly, quarterly, yearly, etc. — or simply for just one period of time, usually at the beginning of your account’s life. Hypothetically, a recurring bonus might look like this: “Earn 3% cash back at supermarkets and wholesale clubs, up to $1,500 in purchases each quarter.” On the other hand, a one-time promotion might allow for 5% cash back on airfare purchases made during the first three months you’re a cardholder.

Depending on your card, cash back may be capped or it could expire after a period of time. While some cards feature both an earnings limit and expiration dates, others may have no restrictions. All cash back cards have their own, unique system surrounding them. So it’s important to refer to your documentation whenever you have a particular question.

Using Your Cash Back Earnings

How Does Cash Back Work?

The vast majority of cash back credit cards offer variations of the same choices for redeeming rewards. Most often, you’ll see statement credits, checks, bank account deposits, gift cards and charitable donations available to you.

  • Statement credit – Instead of receiving your cash back in-hand, you can apply it to your upcoming monthly bill, saving you money in the process.
  • Check – As one of the more direct ways of redeeming cash back, checks allow you to basically do whatever you want with its value.
  • Bank deposits – Eligible accounts usually include checking accounts, savings accounts or investment accounts.
  • Gift cards – With this option, you can convert cash back into retail credit at a store or website at which you want to shop.
  • Donations – Many card issuers have open relations with charities. These partnerships open the door for you to aid your favorite causes with real money.

It’s by far the easiest to redeem cash back through your card issuer’s website that it provides. Here you’ll not only see your rewards status, you will also know every possible redemption you could make. If you’d rather talk to a real person, most companies still have rewards phone lines you can call, as well.

Those who’d rather not have to worry about where their rewards currently stand will find that a redemption threshold might be helpful. Not all cards offer this feature. But if yours does, set a threshold at which your cash back is automatically redeemed in any manner you desire. Additionally, some cards require you to attain a certain amount of cash back before redeeming is possible.

Cash Back With Each Major Credit Card Company

what is cash back

There are tons of different cash back cards, depending on your credit score you may be eligible for some but not others. While it’s impossible to give universal specifics for each credit card company, below we’ve provided overviews of some of the most popular cash back cards.

Citi Double Cash Card (Mastercard)

Cash Back Rate: 1% at the time of purchase, 1% when you pay them off

Limit or Expiration: No limit; Expires if no eligible purchases are made for 12 months

Redemption Options: As a check, statement credit or gift card

The “double cash” nature of the Citi Double Cash Card means you effectively earn cash back twice: first when you make the initial purchase and again when you pay your credit card bill. The 12-month expiration is fairly standard and the lack of limits on how much cash back you can earn is generous. Statement credits, checks and gift cards are three of the most common redemption choices, so it’s no surprise to see them offered here.

Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card (Mastercard)

Cash Back Rate: 3% in the category of your choice, 2% on purchases at grocery stores and wholesale clubs, 1% on other purchases

Limit or Expiration: Cash back on choice category, grocery stores and wholesale club purchases is limited on up to $2,500 in combined purchases each quarter; No expiration dates

Redemption Options: Once you have $25 or more, you can redeem as a statement credit, a check or a deposit to an eligible Bank of America® or Merrill Lynch® account

Take note of the combined $2,500 quarterly limit on 3% and 2% cash back in category of choice and at grocery stores and wholesale clubs, respectively. The Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card also requires cardholders to have a minimum of $25 in earned cash back before they can redeem.

Blue Cash Everyday American Express Card
(American Express)

Cash Back Rate: 3% on U.S. supermarket purchases, 2% on U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department store purchases, 1% on other purchases

Limit or Expiration: 3% rate at U.S. supermarkets is limited to $6,000 a year in purchases then drops to 1%; No expiration dates

Redemption Options: After earning at least $25, redeem as a statement credit in $25 increments; Gift cards and merchandise redemptions from time to time

Amex offers some of the strongest rewards cards around, and the Blue Cash Everyday American Express Card is no exception. It does come with some limits; namely the 3% cash back rate on U.S. grocery store purchases is capped at $6,000 in purchases a year. At that time, cardholders earn 1% in cash back on groceries.

Discover it® Card
(Discover)

Cash Back Rate: 5% in rotating categories like gas station, supermarket, restaurant, Amazon.com and wholesale club purchases, 1% on other purchases; Full cash back match at the end of your first year

Limit or Expiration: $1,500 cap on purchases that earn the 5% rate each quarter; No expiration dates

Redemption Options: Statement credits, deposits to a bank account, gift cards and eCertificates, pay with cash back at select merchants and charitable donations

Discover cards offer great first-year cash back matches and distinctive cash back categories. These traits are on full display with the Discover it® Card. This includes 5% cash back on purchases ranging from dining to Amazon.com. However, there are limits for this rate and you have to opt in to categories each quarter to qualify. This card also offers five redemption options — the most on this list.

Tips to Maximize Cash Back Potential and Minimize Credit Risk

  • Cash back is one of the most prolific perks that the modern credit card market has to offer. But it’s important that you don’t overspend outside of your means just for the sake of rewards. Because many cash back cards come with higher annual percentage rates (APRs), this could force you into large, unsustainable interest payments.
  • Whenever possible, swipe your card for purchases in bonus categories. Not all cards have these to offer, but most do. So make sure you know which cards in your wallet offer bonuses at places like gas stations and supermarkets.
  • Know what types of redemptions — statement credits, bank account deposits, gift cards etc. — work best for you. This will drastically narrow down your card options, making the decision process much simpler.

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Editorial Note: This content is not provided by the credit card issuer. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer.

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4 Practical Ways to Leave College Debt-Free

A college student looks down at her notebook and smiles because she'll leave college debt-free.

The following is a guest post by Lisa Bigelow, a content writer for Bold.

When it comes to paying for college, the anxiety about how to leave college debt-free starts early. And for thousands of grads who are buckling under the weight of monthly student loan payments that can cost as much as a mortgage, that worry can last for as long as 25 years.

According to EducationData.org and The College Board, the cost of a private school undergraduate education can exceed $200,000 over four years. Think you can avoid a $100k+ price tag by staying in-state? Think again—many public flagships can cost over $100,000 for residents seeking an undergraduate degree, including room and board. And with financial aid calculators returning eye-poppingly low awards, you’d better not get a second topping on your pizza.

In fact, you’d better hope that you can graduate on time.

The good news is that you can maintain financial health and get a great education at the same time. You won’t have to enroll as a full-time student and work 40 hours a week, either—each of the methods suggested are attainable for anyone who makes it a priority to leave college debt-free.

Here are four practical ways you can leave college debt-free (and still get that second pizza topping).

1. Cut the upfront sticker price

Don’t visit schools until you are certain you can afford them. Instead, prioritize the cost of attendance and how much you can afford to pay. Staying in-state is one easy way to do this. But if you have wanderlust and want to explore colleges outside state lines, an often-overlooked method of cutting the upfront cost is the regional tuition discount. Many US states participate in some form of tuition reciprocity or exchange programs. You can explore the full list of options at the National Association for Student Financial Aid Administrators website.

Let’s explore how this works. As a resident of a New England state, for example, you can study at another New England state’s public university at a greatly reduced cost if your home state’s public schools don’t offer the degree you want. So, for example, if you live in Maine but want to go to film school, you can attend the University of Rhode Island and major in film using the regional tuition discount.

Some universities offer different types of regional discounts and scholarships that appear somewhat arbitrary. The University of Louisville (in Kentucky) includes Connecticut in its regional scholars program. And at the University of Nebraska, out-of-state admitted applicants are eligible for several thousand dollars in renewable scholarship money if they meet modest academic standards.

If you already have your heart set on an expensive school and you’re not likely to qualify for reciprocity, financial help, or merit aid, live at home and complete your first two years at your local community college.

Here’s another fun fact: in some places, graduating from community college with a minimum GPA gives you automatic acceptance to the state flagship university.

2. Leverage dual enrollment and “testing out”

When you enroll in a four-year college it’s pretty likely that you’ll spend the first two years completing general education requirements and taking electives. Why not further reduce the cost of your education by completing some of those credits at your local community college, or by testing out?

Community college per-credit tuition is usually much cheaper than at four-year colleges, so take advantage of the lower rate in high school and over the summer after you’re enrolled in your four-year college.

But beware: you’ll probably need at least a C to transfer the credits, so read your institution’s rules first. Also, plan to take general education and low-level elective classes, because you’ll want to take courses in your major at your four-year school.

If you’ve been given the opportunity to take Advanced Placement courses, study hard for your year-end exams. Many colleges will accept a score of 3 or higher for credit, although some require at least a 4 (and others none at all). Take four or five AP classes in high school, score well on the exams, and guess what? You’ve just saved yourself a semester of tuition.

3. Take advantage of financial aid opportunities

After taking steps one and two, you probably have a good idea of what the leftover expense will be if you want to leave college debt-free. Your next job is to figure out how to cut that total even more by using financial aid. There are four types to consider.

The first is called need-based aid. This is what you’ll apply for when you complete your Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Known as the FAFSA, this is where you’ll enter detailed financial information, and you’ll need at least an hour the first time you complete this form. Hint: apply for aid as soon as the form opens in the fall. It is not a bottomless pot of money.

There is also medical-based financial aid. If you have a condition that could make employment difficult after graduating from college, you may be eligible, and qualifying is separate and apart from financial need and academic considerations.

The third type of aid relates to merit and is offered directly by colleges. Some schools automatically consider all accepted applicants for merit scholarships, which could relate to academics or community service or, in the case of recruited athletes, athletics. At other universities, you’ll need to submit a separate scholarship application after you’ve been admitted. Some merit awards are renewable for four years and others are only for one year.

If you didn’t get need-based or merit-based aid then you still may qualify for a private scholarship. Some require essays, some don’t, and some are offered by local community organizations such as rotary clubs, women’s organizations, and the like. Don’t turn your nose up at small-dollar awards, either, because they add up quickly and can cover budget-busting expenses such as travel and books.

4. Find easy money

Small-dollar awards really add up when you make finding easy money a priority. Consider using the following resources to help leave college debt-free:

  • Returns from micro-investing apps like Acorns
  • Tax return refunds
  • Browser add-ons that give you cashback for shopping online
  • Rewards credit cards (apply for a travel rewards credit card if you’re studying out of state)
  • Asking for money at the holidays and on your birthday
  • Working part-time by capitalizing on a special talent, such as tutoring, photography, or freelance writing

Leave College Debt-Free

Finally, if you have to take out a student loan, you may be able to have it forgiven if you agree to serve your community after graduation. The Peace Corps is one such way to serve, but if you have a specialized degree such as nursing, you can work in an underserved community and reap the rewards of loan forgiveness.


Lisa Bigelow writes for Bold and is an award-winning content creator, personal finance expert, and mom of three fantastic almost-adults. In addition to Credit.com, Lisa has contributed to The Tokenist, OnEntrepreneur, College Money Tips, Finovate, Finance Buzz, Life and Money by Citi, MagnifyMoney, Well + Good, Smarter With Gartner, and Popular Science. She lives with her family in Connecticut.

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