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.

Photo Credit: ©iStock.com/4×6, Â©iStock.com/Pgiam, Â©iStock.com/Ridofranz

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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What is a credit card statement credit?

A recent trend in credit card rewards is increased flexibility in how you can redeem your cash back, points or miles. You can book travel, invest, get gift cards and more – but one of the most common ways a credit card company will issue rewards is as a statement credit.

Statement credits may seem simple, but they’re handled a little differently by each rewards program, and there’s a lot to consider when you’re trying to decide if they’re the best way to redeem cash back or other rewards.

See related: What is cash back?

What is a statement credit?

Put simply, a statement credit is money credited to your account. In its most basic form, a statement credit is not much different from a payment. Like a normal monthly payment, a statement credit is deducted from your card balance, reducing the amount of money you owe. But where cardholders are responsible for payments, credits come from either a merchant or card issuer.

rewards cards also allow you to redeem the points or miles you’ve earned as statement credits. While some cards allow you to use a statement credit to reduce your balance with no restrictions, others only apply credits to your account after you meet certain criteria or make purchases in specific spending categories.

Statement credits on cash back cards

Cash back cards usually make it easy to redeem your points as a statement credit. In most cases, all you need to do is meet the card’s minimum redemption criteria, then choose a statement credit as your redemption method. Once a credit is applied to your account, your card balance decreases accordingly.

If, for example, you were to spend $3,000 with a flat rate 1 percent cash back card, you’d earn a $30 credit; and if you were to redeem this entire credit, $30 would be deducted from your account balance.

While many cards give you the option to request your cash back in the form a check, some only allow you to redeem as a statement credit – so be sure to read your issuer’s terms carefully. After all, when you get your cash back as a check or direct deposit, the money is yours to spend or save as you’d like. With a statement credit, however, the funds are “trapped” in your account and only impact your card balance. If you stop using your card or close your account, you could lose any cash back or points you haven’t redeemed.

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, for example, allows you to book travel through the rewards center at a rate of 1 cent per mile. But if you redeem your miles for cash back as a statement credit, their value is cut in half to just 0.5 cents per mile.

If you prefer to redeem your rewards as a statement credit, make sure doing so doesn’t dilute the value of your points or miles, as each rewards program grants and values statement credits a little differently.

Statement credits for an introductory bonus

Statement credits also frequently appear as part of a card introductory or annual bonus, when issuers offer to reward you if you spend a certain amount of money within a given timeframe. The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, for example, offers a $250 bonus after you spend $1,000 with your new card in the first 3 months. Instead of simply sending you a check for $250, however, American Express credits your account $250 after you’ve met the conditions of the offer. Once received, the credit will cover the next $250 you charge.

Statement credits for card benefits

Many cards also award extra perks in the form of a statement credit. The United Explorer Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example, each offer up to a $100 credit to cover the cost of a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application.

In these cases, a statement credit is applied to your account only after you make the eligible purchase and cannot be used for anything else.

How statement credits work with the major rewards programs

Here’s how some of the major rewards programs treat statement credits:

Rewards program Can you redeem rewards as a statement credit? Minimum redemption Rewards rate when redeemed as a credit
Discover cards Cashback Bonus Yes None 1:1
Bank of America Cash Rewards Yes None ($25 for automatic redemptions) 1:1
American Express Membership Rewards Yes $25 1:0.6
Chase Ultimate Rewards Yes $20 1:1

Should I redeem my points as a statement credit?

Once you know what a statement credit is and how it’s treated by your rewards program, you’ll probably wonder if it’s smart to redeem your points or miles in this form. While the answer will depend on your spending habits, goals and financial situation, it makes more sense in certain circumstances.

If you’re trying to decide whether you should redeem your points as a credit statement, consider the following:

  • Are you going to carry a balance? If you’re not sure whether you’ll be able to pay off your balance in full by the due date, redeeming your points as a statement credit makes sense. You’ll knock a chunk off your balance and make it easier to pay in full and avoid interest charges. Keep in mind, however, that statement credits are not usually considered payments, so if you can’t help carrying a balance, you’ll still have to make a minimum out-of-pocket payment.
  • Does your card offer an incentive for redeeming points as a statement credit? Some cash back cards offer redemption bonuses when you opt for a statement credit over “true” cash back in the form of a check or direct deposit. If that’s the case, and you plan to continue using the card, go with a statement credit to get more mileage out of your cash back rewards.
  • Are your points worth less when redeemed as a statement credit? If you’re using a card with a more flexible rewards program, redeeming your rewards as a statement credit is likely possible, but not necessarily wise. Check your issuer’s terms to see if your points lose any value when redeemed as a statement credit. If 1 point is worth 1 cent when used for travel purchases, but only 0.5 cents when redeemed as a statement credit, you’re missing out on a lot of the value you’ve earned. If you have no interest in travel, see if you can get full value out of your points in a roundabout way, like redeeming points for gift cards at stores you frequent.

Other ways to redeem your credit card rewards

Many cards offer several other options for redeeming your rewards. In addition to statement credits, you may be able to redeem cash back, points, or miles for:

  • A direct deposit – You can link your bank account so that when you hit “redeem,” that money goes directly to your account. For some, this is more satisfying than receiving a statement credit.
  • A check – If you don’t mind waiting, many credit card issuers will mail a check for the value of your rewards.
  • Gift cards – Some credit cards allow you to exchange your points or cash back for gift cards. Make sure that you’re getting the same or more value before you choose this option – sometimes the dollar value of gift cards is different from what you would get redeeming for a statement credit or direct deposit.
  • Merchandise – Credit card issuers sometimes have shopping portals that give you the option to use your cash back or points to pay for merchandise. This is another option that you should approach with caution. Do the math to make sure you’re getting the same dollar value as you would with a direct deposit or statement credit.
  • Travel – Travel redemption options vary from card to card, but there are two main methods, one of which is receiving a statement credit for travel purchases you’ve already made. The other is using the issuer’s portal to book travel, such as flights or hotels, online.

Final Thoughts

A statement credit is just one way you can receive bonuses and redeem the rewards you’ve earned. If you’re using a cash back card, it could be a smart, low-maintenance way to reduce your balance and build good spending habits. If you’re using a more flexible rewards or travel card, though, make sure redeeming as a statement credit still gets you fair value for your points or miles.

Source: creditcards.com