Cash-back cards are some of the simplest rewards cards — you buy what you’d usually buy and get cash credited back to you.
But even if you think you’re successfully maxing out your card’s program, you might be missing valuable opportunities. We asked some experts in the rewards-maximization business how to keep cash back from slipping through the cracks.
1. Don’t forget to activate the categories
Cards that offer 5 percent back in rotating categories require an extra step that too many consumers don’t take, says Maria Schriber, community, content and data manager with Wallaby. The Wallaby app helps you maximize rewards by recommending which cards to use and apply for.
“The problem is that, a lot of times, people don’t sign up [for the 5 percent categories],” Schriber says. “And you have to realize that’s a requirement to earn the 5 percent. Otherwise you’re just going to earn the 1 percent standard cash back.”
So, if you have a rotating-category card (such as Chase Freedom or Discover it), make note of your card’s deadline for registering for the 5 percent categories – or set up reminders via online banking or the issuer’s app.
Missed the deadline? You may not miss out entirely.
“The thing Chase will do that’s kind of cool is that they will retroactively apply that [5 percent] cash back as long as you sign up before the end of the quarter,” Schriber says.
2. Take advantage of all parts of the sign-up bonus
A card’s rewards categories may have caught your eye, but the real money is in the sign-up bonuses, says Vishal Maheshwari, with Mohurs, a rewards-maximization app that’s working to bring card rewards, bonus-miles programs, merchant coupons and card-linked offers under one roof.
As soon as you get your card in the mail, make note of the sign-up bonus you were approved for and how much you have to spend in the first few months to get it. Some cash-back cards, for example, may give you a $100 bonus for spending $1,000 in the first three months.
“Most of the customers are aware of the main reward categories, like 2 percent cash back on groceries, 3 percent on gas,” Maheshwari says. “But a lot of people seem to be missing those sign-up, one-time cash-back offers.”
Some rewards-maximization apps (including Wallaby) allow you to add your cards’ sign-up bonus so that the app can figure those into your card recommendations.
Even if cardholders are aware of the sign-up bonus, they may not know that the bonus has multiple parts. For example, Schriber says, some cards give additional smaller bonuses when you add an authorized user and that authorized user makes a purchase.
3. Use shopping portals and deals programs
If your card offers a card-linked deals program, it’s a favorable alternative to generalized online coupon repositories like RetailMeNot. Examples include Amex Offers (from American Express, a CreditCardForum advertising partner) and BankAmeriDeals from Bank of America.
Card-linked deals can offer extra (sometimes a lot extra) cash back at certain retailers. In addition to being more reliable, issuers’ deals are often personalized for you, based on your shopping habits.
“I’ll go to my cards first and see if there are any card-linked offers,” says Aalok Jariwala, also with Mohurs. “They are genuine, actual offers rather than what I usually find on places like RetailMeNot.”
Recently, Jariwala found himself with three birthday parties and a baby shower to attend. Using Amex Offers, he was able to double the Membership Rewards points he was able to get by buying gift cards on Amazon.
Schriber got a similar deal ($15 back after spending a certain amount on Amazon), which she also used for gift cards.
The tricky part, especially if you have multiple cards, is comparing all the card-linked deals available to you.
“It’s very tough right now for a consumer to actually utilize these offers,” Jariwala says. “There is not a single website or app which gets everything under one roof.”
For big purchases, though, checking out all your cards’ offers programs and shopping portals can really pay off.
“If you can spend three more minutes, it could really end up being worth it,” Schriber says.
4. Double dip
Maybe you’ve got a merchant coupon in hand, so you’ve already decided where to make your big purchase. Or you’ve decided to make a purchase through your airline’s shopping portal or via its dining program.
That’s a good start, but you haven’t won yet. Make that purchase with your cash-back card to get cash back on top of the coupon savings and travel rewards.
Jariwala, for example, found a coupon through Mohurs for 10 percent off a purchase at Sports Authority if he signed up for its mailing list. The app also informed that Discover Deals (Discover’s offers program) was offering 5 percent back at Sports Authority online.
“So if I had used my Citi card instead, I’d still get 10 percent for signing up for the mailing list, but I’d lose that 5 percent,” he says.
5. Pay attention to the merchant category code
Say you have the Blue Cash Preferred from American Express, which offers 6 percent back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6k in spending per year, then 1 percent). That means stocking up on groceries at Walmart will get you lots of cash back right? Not necessarily. Bonus cash back is allotted only if the store’s merchant category code (a number that indicates the type of merchant) matches the issuer’s merchant code for its bonus categories. If your local Walmart isn’t as a U.S. supermarket, you’ll miss out on all that extra cash back.
“You think you’re earning that 6 percent, but then you get your statement and realize it was only 1 percent,” Schriber says.
So do some research. American Express publishes lists of what does and doesn’t fall into its categories. Visa has a tool that lets you look up individual merchants. In a pinch, you could go to a store where you’re intending to make a big purchase and spend a dollar or two to see whether that merchant falls within your card’s bonus category.
“It’s a little laborious … because you have to wait for the charge to show up,” Schriber says. “But it’s a way to know for certain.”