If your goal is to maximize rewards, get the best bonuses, and play the points game no matter the cost…
You’re on the wrong page.
We have a different philosophy on rewards credit cards.
It’s the same philosophy that we have for all of personal finance: ignore the small stuff and focus on the Big Wins.
Points hacking is small stuff.
Finding a great rewards card you can depend on and then never thinking about it again is a big win.
Finding the best card for you is pretty simple when your goal is to maximize your rewards with the least amount of effort possible. The main decision you’ll need to make is to get a travel points or a cash back card. We’ve sorted through hundreds of credit card offers to find the best card for both categories.
There are a few other situation-specific cards to consider too. All-in, there are only six cards that are worth looking at.
We’ve done a deep dive on all these cards below.
What makes a great rewards card
The usual advice focuses on how to squeeze out every last percentage point from restaurants, gas, groceries, and 50 other categories.
You see, we need to factor in the effort required to get the rewards.
Some cards have rotating spending categories and all sorts of hoops for you to jump through in order to hit some hypothetical maximum reward.
At I Will Teach You To Be Rich, we’re adamantly against these types of games.
A few extra rewards points are not going to fundamentally change your lifestyle. Automating your finances, getting a great rewards card that doesn’t require ongoing effort, and then focusing on bigger wins WILL change your life.
The best rewards credit cards have rewards programs that are easy to understand, require little to no maintenance, and yield at least 1.5% back in cash or rewards. Add in a few perks and you’ve got a great card.
Should you get a travel or cash back rewards card?
Whether to get a travel or cash back card comes down to one simple question.
What’s more important to you, the value of the rewards or simplicity?
If you want to get every dollar in rewards possible, travel rewards programs always beat cash back cards. For credit card companies, there’s always a percentage of people who forget to spend their points, so they’re able to increase the value of their points over a more straightforward cash back program.
Of course, don’t get a travel points card if you hate to travel. That would be … unhelpful. It’s still worth it as long as you travel once per year.
Maximizing the value of your rewards does come with an extra cost though. You’ll have to manage your points. They’ll accrue in your credit card account and you’ll have to make choices on when and where to spend them. For example, different redemption methods have different values. The American Express Membership Rewards points are worth $0.07 on Amazon and $0.10 on Uber. Every card has its own redemption methods with its own values.
You could use the rule of thumb of always redeeming your points for miles on an airline program. This is a good rule, and it’ll usually maximize the value of your points. But you still have to transfer your points to miles. Each credit card points program will transfer to some airline programs and not others. And once you get your points into the right miles program, you’ll have to deal with whatever points restrictions your airline has (blackout dates, only certain flights being available, etc.). To add even more complexity, some credit card programs allow you to book flights and hotels directly through them, but then there’s a separate set of restrictions and point values that you have to deal with.
Sounds like a pain? It is.
For me, the extra hassle is worth the free international flights that I’ve been able to get.
If the extra hassle of a travel rewards programs sounds exhausting, get a cash back rewards card instead.
Cash back cards still have plenty of benefit without any work:
- You get a straight percentage back on all charges to your card.
- The cash back shows up on your statements either automatically or with very little effort. Worst case, you’ll have to log in and hit a button to initiate the cash back.
- While some cash back cards have maximum payouts, rotating categories, and other nonsense, there’s plenty of cards that keep things ultra simple.
That’s as simple as it’s going to get.
Here’s how to make your decision:
- To maximize the value of your points, get a travel rewards card.
- To maximize simplicity, get a cash back card.
How we evaluate credit cards
These are the criteria that we used to whittle hundreds of credit cards down to the few cards that we recommend.
Rewards or cash back program
How many points or how much cash back does a card earn? And under what conditions?
This is where the bulk of rewards value comes from, so when in doubt, choose the card with the better rewards program.
And watch for restrictions on rewards. It’s common to have a points boost of 5X on a spending category combined with a cap or restriction on how that charge is made. Some of the travel cards force you to book through their website in order to get the full points bonus on that charge. To me, that significantly reduces the value of the card. I place a lot of value on flexibility and choice.
Get a deep understanding of your card’s rewards program so you know exactly how it’ll work.
Most credit cards have a bonus offer for new customers. It usually works like this:
Get X if you spend $Y within Z days.
Hit that milestone and you’ll get the bonus added to your account within a few months.
Be careful with these though. If the spending amount is a huge stretch for you, it’s a sign that the card isn’t a good fit for your current spending habits. Whenever I’m looking at a bonus program, I only consider it if I can easily hit the spending amounts that trigger the bonus.
One hack is to get a new card around the same time that you’re making a larger purchase that you already planned and saved for. Furniture is a great fit for this. If you’re already planning on getting a new couch or mattress, that could get you the bonus on its own. Get your new card, make the purchase, immediately pay down the balance with the money you already saved, get your bonus.
While it’s good to look around for the best bonus promo on the card you want, we never choose cards based on the bonus program alone:
- You’ll be using the card for years, the perks matter a lot more than the bonus.
- Points are not created equal. One card might offer 100,000 bonus points while another offers 60,000 points. There’s no way to tell which one has the better deal without really digging into the value of their points programs.
- Just about every great card has a decent bonus.
- Point hackers will chase bonus programs but we don’t recommend that approach. There are more important things for you to focus on.
We recommend choosing the card you want based on the rewards program and perks. Then accept whatever bonus the card happens to offer.
There are a number of perks that you might get from your credit card. For some, perks are more important than rewards.
Most credit cards have a host of perks that we all forget about, like car rental insurance and lost luggage protection. Standard perks that come with most cards:
- Rental car insurance
- Purchase protection
- Return protection
- Extended warranties
- Trip cancellation insurance
- Lost luggage replacement
These perks are so ubiquitous that you don’t have to factor them in when choosing the card you want. If one of them is super important to you, double check and make sure the card you’re considering does have it.
There ARE perks that only come with certain cards. These are the perks we get excited about. They include:
- Uber reimbursement
- Global Entry and TSA Precheck reimbursement
- Lounge access
- Travel reimbursement
- Hotel upgrades and credits
If a perk is super valuable to you, it could be worth getting a less valuable rewards program just for the perk. Frankly, this is why most people get the American Express Platinum. Access to the Centurion lounges makes flying much more enjoyable.
Some credit card fees matter more than others.
While we absolutely hate maintenance fees on checking and savings accounts, all the best rewards cards have annual fees. The rewards and perks easily cover the annual fees as long as you’re regularly using the card. Cards tend to fall into three tiers with their annual fees:
- No annual fee: There are no-fee cash back and rewards cards out there. The perks and rewards will be limited but it is possible to get a no-annual-fee rewards card.
- $100 annual fee: Most of the good rewards programs start with annual fees in $90-100 range. This is a good level for your first rewards card.
- $500 annual fee: The best cards are at this level, like the American Express Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve. They have perks none of the other cards have.
If cash is tight and you’re watching every dollar, get a no-annual-fee card. Once you’re more financially comfortable, the $100 annual fee cards open up the real rewards programs. And after you’re making $100,000 or more per year, get one of the $500 annual fee cards to maximize your rewards.
There are other fees to look out for too, like the foreign transaction fee.
I hate foreign transaction fees. I travel internationally a few times a year and I only choose cards without them. Traveling is expensive enough — the last thing I want is a 1-3% charge on top of everything.
Even if you don’t travel and you don’t think this is a big deal, you can still get hit with a foreign transaction fee within the U.S. The fee triggers any time a charge goes through a foreign bank. So if you buy something online, even if the price is in U.S. dollars, you could get an extra fee without realizing it.
Plenty of cards still have foreign transaction fees, so watch for this if you travel.
Some folks love playing points games.
I am not one of those people.
I want 1-2 cards that I can always default to. I’d much rather get 80% of the value without having to spend any time thinking about points.
No matter how good the rewards program is, it’s just not worth the effort if I have to actively think about it. I have plenty of more important things that need my attention.
When looking at rewards programs, look out for these common traps:
- Rotating rewards categories. Cards that change the rules are never worth the extra effort in our opinion.
- Increased rewards for minor spending categories. I don’t really care if I get 10X points when buying 7-Eleven slushies. Give me a break. I need categories where I spend regularly.
- Points that get locked up in obscure programs. Yes, a random hotel credit card might give more points per dollar than other cards. But are the points worth anything if you can only use them at a hotel you never wanted to go to?
If a rewards program has too many restrictions, we don’t include it in our recommended cards.
What about the card APR?
I never pay attention to it. I can’t even tell you what the APRs are on my cards because I always pay the balance off every month.
Look, if you don’t pay off your balance every month, it’s not worth doing a rewards program at all. You’ll pay more in interest than you’ll ever get back in rewards. Get out of debt, get ahead of your spending, and build a habit of paying off your balances.
First build the financial habits and stability to pay off your balance every month. Then, and only then, should you get a rewards credit card.
The two best rewards credit cards
So what are the best rewards and cash back cards? Here are our recommendations.
The best overall rewards credit card
- “Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- Named “”Best Premium Travel Credit Card”” for 2018 by MONEY® Magazine
- $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
- 3X points on travel immediately after earning your $300 travel credit. 3X points on dining at restaurants & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases. $0 foreign transaction fees.
- Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
- 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Access to 1,000+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select
- Up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®”
If you travel at all, get this card. The perks are phenomenal.
First, you get $300 reimbursed every year on travel charges. I just booked a domestic flight yesterday and I got the whole flight reimbursed.
No foreign transaction fees either. The card’s also a Visa, which is the most widely accepted card internationally. That’s as good as it gets for having a reliable credit card to use internationally.
Global Entry and TSA Precheck were game changers for me when traveling. Half my stress and anxiety when traveling was eliminated. I never imagined how much better I’d feel without having to take my shoes off or my laptop out when going through security. Getting the application reimbursed is an amazing perk. Pro-tip: Get Global Entry, which includes TSA Precheck and is only slightly more expensive.
I spend a lot on travel and food. For racking up points, the Chase Sapphire Reserve is perfect for me. I get 3X on the majority of my spending. If only they had 3X points on cashmere sweaters, I would be in heaven.
There is one big downside: the $450 annual fee. That’s high for a lot of people.
The travel and Global Entry reimbursements do cover most of the fee. With the $300 annual travel reimbursement, the annual fee comes down to $150. We also have the $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck. These programs last 5 years, so that equals $20 per year. Basically, the real annual fee is $130.
When most travel rewards cards have annual fees of $95, paying $130 for the Chase Sapphire Reserve in order to get 3X points on travel and restaurants is a fantastic deal.
The best cash back credit card
- “Earn 2% cash back on purchases: 1% when you buy plus 1% as you pay
- Balance Transfers do not earn cash back
- 0% Intro APR on Balance Transfers for 18 months. After that, the variable APR will be 15.74% – 25.74% based on your creditworthiness*
- Click ‘Apply Now’ to see the applicable balance transfer fee and how making a balance transfer impacts interest on purchases
- No categories to track, no caps on cash back, no annual fee*”
I love the simplicity of this card. 2% cash back, no nonsense. Get your first 1% cash back when you spend, get another 1% when you pay down the charge. There’s no cash back limits and no annual fee either.
You won’t get cash back on any balance transfers but that’s pretty reasonable in our view.
There isn’t much in the way of perks, but that’s not why you should be considering this card in the first place.
It’s a no-frills, ultra-simple, maximize your cash back card.
For those of you who want to get a card and never think about your rewards every again, the Citi Double Cash is the card for you.
There is one major downside to the Citi Double Cash card. It has a 3% foreign transaction fee, which is super high. If you travel regularly, the 3% fee will stack up fast and negate any of the cash back rewards that you’ve earned. So only get the Citi Double Cash card if you rarely travel internationally. If you do travel regularly, I have another cash back option for you later on in this post.
Other cards to consider
Depending on your circumstances, there are a few other cards that could be the best option for you. Let’s go through them.
- “Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel”
The Chase Sapphire Preferred has a slightly less valuable points program and fewer perks than the Chase Sapphire Reserve. And the Sapphire Preferred comes with a smaller annual fee at $95.
You’ll still get 2X points on travel at restaurants, a great bonus offer, and no foreign transaction fees.
But you’ll be missing the travel credit, Priority Pass™ Select for lounge access, and the Global Entry or TSA Precheck credit. And you’ll only be getting 2X points instead of 3X points on travel and restaurants.
We recommend getting the Sapphire Preferred if the $450 annual fee on the Sapphire Reserve is too much of a stretch. The Sapphire Preferred is a great first step into the world of rewards credit cards that have annual fees. Plus, you can always upgrade to the Sapphire Reserve later.
If you make more than $100,000 per year, you should probably go straight to the Sapphire Reserve card.
- “One-time $150 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening
- Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day
- No rotating categories or sign-ups needed to earn cash rewards; plus, cash back won’t expire for the life of the account and there’s no limit to how much you can earn
- 0% intro APR on purchases for 15 months; 16.24%-26.24% variable APR after that
- 0% intro APR on balance transfers for 15 months; 16.24%-26.24% variable APR after that; 3% fee on the amounts transferred within the first 15 months
- Pay no annual fee or foreign transaction fees
- See if you qualify for a better offer with Capital One:”
Yes, the 1.5% cash back isn’t as high as the 2% cash back from the Citi Double Cash.
But the Capital One Quicksilver has no foreign transaction fees, which means it’s perfect for folks who travel internationally and want the simplicity of a cash back card.
The annual fee does depend on your credit score. If it’s good enough, it’ll be waived. Otherwise the annual fee is $39.
If you travel internationally once per year and want a cash back card, we recommend getting the Capital One Quicksilver card.
- “Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
- Enjoy Uber VIP status and free rides in the U.S. up to $15 each month, plus a bonus $20 in December. That can be up to $200 in annual Uber savings.
- 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel.
- 5X Membership Rewards points on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com.
- Enjoy access to the Global Lounge Collection, the only credit card airport lounge access program that includes proprietary lounge locations around the world.
- Receive complimentary benefits with an average total value of $550 with Fine Hotels & Resorts. Learn More.
- $200 Airline Fee Credit, up to $200 per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one qualifying airline.
- Get up to $100 in statement credits annually for purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue on your Platinum Card®. Enrollment required.
- $550 annual fee.
- Terms Apply.”
The Amex Platinum is all about the perks. If you’re looking to get perks that none of the other cards have, this is the card for you.
The Uber reimbursement is awesome. I easily spend $15/month on Uber rides, so that’s money right back in my pocket.
What’s the Uber VIP status that comes with the card? It’s an exclusive option that will match you with drivers who have a rating of 4.8 and above. It’s certainly nice, but it’s only available in a handful of cities. It also means you could wait a lot longer in order to get a driver with a high enough rating. It’s cool, but I wouldn’t get too excited by it.
The 5X points on flights and hotels booked directly with airlines is a pretty amazing perk. But I wouldn’t use it myself on flights. Honestly, I only book flights directly through airlines. I’ve heard too many horror stories from sites like Expedia or Orbitz. A good friend of mine booked a flight through Expedia and the airline never received the notice, so they didn’t reserve a ticket for him. He didn’t find out until he showed up for his connecting flight and had to buy another ticket on the spot for a crazy price. The worst part is it took him 9 months to get a refund from Expedia. I avoid that nonsense completely by finding the flight I want through Hipmunk or Google Flights, then booking directly through the airline.
One of the best perks of the Amex Platinum is getting access to the Centurion Lounges. These lounges are swanky — some of the nicest lounges out there. Unfortunately, they’re not in that many airports yet. Check to see if your main airport has one there. If you fly out of or through one of these airports regularly, this perk is a game-changer and is worth the annual fee on its own.
What about the 1000+ other lounges?
Credit card companies always inflate lounge access numbers. They’ll include a bunch of third-rate lounges that you’ll never want to go to anyway. Or they’ll add airport restaurants that offer a $20 discount off your meal in order to call that a “lounge.” When looking at lounge perks, I always check the exact lounges that are included in the airports that I fly through regularly.
So don’t assume you’ll be able to walk into any lounge. The majority of lounges will be out of your reach.
- “Earn a $200 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months.
- 6% Cash Back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%) – that means spending $60 a week at U.S. supermarkets could earn over $180 back per year.
- 3% Cash Back at U.S. gas stations. 1% Cash Back on other purchases.
- You spoke, we listened. Over 1.6 million more places in the U.S. started accepting American Express® Cards in 2018.
- Cash Back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be easily redeemed for statement credits, gift cards, and merchandise.
- $95 annual fee.
- Terms Apply.”
Do you have a long commute and spend over $100 per week in groceries?
For families, getting 6% cash back on groceries is amazing. Most families easily spend over $100 per week on groceries, so it won’t be hard to hit the annual cash back limit. You’ll hit it if you spend $115 per week — that works out to $360 in cash back per year on groceries that you have to buy anyway. That’s like getting 3 weeks of groceries for free. It’s too bad there’s a cap. This card would be incredible if there wasn’t one.
The other key perk on the American Express Blue Cash is the 3% cash back on gas. Right now, this wouldn’t do anything for me since I live in a city and rarely drive. But when I was growing up, gas was one of my biggest expense categories. I lived in a small town in Colorado that was 45 minutes from anything. My family and I were filling up our gas tanks every 2-3 days. Getting 3% cash back would have been amazing.
You’ll also get 3% cash back on streaming subscriptions and transit (taxis/rideshare, buses, parking, tolls, trains, etc.). The streaming cash back is nice, but there’s only so much any of us can spend on streaming in a given month. And while I know folks that spend a ton of money on rideshares, they tend to get the Chase Reserve card since they spend even more money on travel and restaurants. The cash back on these categories will help but I wouldn’t expect it to make a major difference in your rewards.
Watch out for the 2.7% foreign transaction fee on this card. I’d avoid using it when traveling internationally.
In other words, if you have a family and a long commute, consider getting the Amex Blue Cash to maximize your rewards on groceries and gas.
Should you get multiple rewards cards?
Don’t even consider having multiple cards until you’re comfortably spending over $3,000 per month.
I do recommend getting two rewards cards sooner rather than later if you want an American Express card. As great as the American Express cards are, plenty of businesses don’t accept them. So you’ll want a backup Visa or Mastercard when you can’t use your American Express. For a backup rewards card, I’d get one with a lower annual fee since you won’t be using it as often.
I might consider getting two rewards cards if my lifestyle covered multiple rewards programs. Let’s say I was spending a lot of money on gas, restaurants, and travel every month. In that case, the Chase Sapphire Reserve and American Express Blue Cash Preferred would be a great combo. I’d put all my groceries and gas on my American Express Blue Cash Preferred and put my travel and restaurant expenses on my Chase Sapphire Reserve. I’d rack up a ton of points and cash back with a system that I could easily remember.
I set a limit for myself of only having 2-3 cards. After that, things get too complicated.
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