Methodology: U.S. News reviewed hundreds of credit cards to identify those that offer 5% cash back, based on factors including rewards earning rate, rotating bonus categories, bonus spending limits, sign-up bonuses and annual fees.
How Can 5% Cash Back Cards Offer More?
With 5% cash back credit cards, you have the opportunity to earn cash back on qualifying purchases at a rate that’s higher than the typical 1% to 2% cash back. You can usually earn 5% cash back on rotating bonus categories, your choice of categories, dedicated year-round categories or all purchases with a particular retailer. You’re not likely to find a card that offers 5% cash back on purchases in all categories.
Do 5% Cash Back Cards Have Limits?
Five percent cash back is a great rewards earning level. But it’s not without limits.
“These cards almost always come with a catch,” says Chelsea Hudson, senior public relations officer and personal finance expert at rebates website TopCashback.com. “From not offering 5% cash back across the board to caps on how much of your spending can qualify for the 5% rewards, research is key to maximize how much money you earn for every dollar you spend.”
Most cards with rotating cash back categories require that you activate the bonus rewards each quarter. Otherwise, you’ll just earn at the regular rate, usually 1% cash back. Activating is simple enough. You can do it when you log in to check your account or pay your bill.
More importantly, these cards may not offer unlimited earning on 5% bonus categories. It’s common to see a limit of 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in bonus category purchases each quarter. That’s a limit of $300 in 5% bonus cash back each year.
Although you’re often limited on how much you can earn at 5% cash back, most of these cards offer unlimited 1% cash back on purchases that aren’t in a bonus category or that exceed the quarterly bonus limit. Let’s say you spend $3,000 on dining annually. If that’s spread out evenly throughout the year and one quarter has a 5% cash back bonus, you’ll earn $37.50 cash back in the bonus quarter and $7.50 for each of the other three quarters. That’s $60 cash back on dining annually.
Cards with a quarterly limit on 5% cash back purchases may not be a good choice for a card that you use for most purchases year-round. Other cards can offer higher flat rates on cash back, up to 2%.
However, there are 5% cash back cards that don’t impose a limit on how much you can earn and don’t require activation of bonus rewards each quarter. For example, the Amazon Rewards Visa Signature Card earns 5% back on qualifying purchases year-round with no limit on earnings. But 5% earning is only available to cardholders with a paid Amazon Prime membership.
How Can You Maximize the Value of 5% Cash Back Cards?
Cards that offer 5% cash back with rotating bonus categories can be a good choice when your purchases line up with quarterly bonus categories – but not necessarily for purchases that don’t qualify for the higher cash back rate.
Research bonus categories and plan out your purchases accordingly when using rotating 5% cash back cards, Hudson says. If you know your card’s rotating cash back calendar for the year, or at least the upcoming quarter, plan purchases so that they align with the card’s bonus categories, especially if they are purchases you plan to make at some point in the year anyway.
When choosing a new 5% cash back credit card, look ahead at the cash back calendar, if possible, and compare it with your spending. It’s a good idea to look at past calendars to get an idea of which categories might be offered in the future, too.
A popular strategy for 5% cash back cards is to use them exclusively for purchases that qualify for 5% cash back, pairing them with another card that earns a 1.5% to 2% flat cash back rate on purchases that don’t qualify for the 5% rate.
“I would advise against using only your 5% card for all purchases,” Brackenbury says. “It will limit the amount of rewards you can earn for all of your spending.”
It can get complicated trying to keep up with which cards earn 5% cash back on which purchases throughout the year. Brackenbury recommends communicating with other cardholders in your household to make sure they know which purchases to use the card for.
How Should You Use a 5% Cash Back Card?
As with any credit card, you should use a 5% cash back card with caution. Be aware of the card’s limitations, and manage your account responsibly to avoid paying more in interest and fees than you earn in rewards.
“Be sure to read the terms and conditions closely to understand where rewards can and cannot be earned,” Brackenbury says. For example, your card may earn 5% cash back at grocery stores, but not if you’re buying groceries at Walmart or Target.
Brackenbury recommends staying up-to-date with categories by reviewing your account online and reading emails from your card provider.
And don’t give in to excessive spending just because you’re earning 5% cash back. If you carry a balance, you can expect to pay an annual percentage rate of about 17% to 24%, which far outweighs the value of 5% cash back rewards.
If your card has a $1,500 quarterly limit on bonus spending, the most bonus cash back you can earn in the quarter is $75. That’s valuable – but not worth straining your budget over. The best strategy for using 5% cash back cards is to make the most of bonus rewards on purchases you’d make anyway and nothing more.