Maximize Your Cash Back on Every Purchase With These Credit Card Combinations

Aug 23, 2018

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Over the last four years I’ve steadily built up a nice little stash of miles and points. I’ve redeemed some here and there for trips, but still have a quite a bit left. In fact, after recently looking at my totals in my Award Wallet account, I had a sudden realization — I don’t really need more points right now. That means realistically, I’m probably not making the right decisions when it comes to my credit card spend.

As we all know, the points and miles game is about earning and burning, and I’ve been hoarding my points. So in an echo of TPG Senior Contributor Richard Kerr’s recent Critical Points column arguing that people should “Stop Ignoring Bank of America Preferred Rewards,” I’m proposing that readers like myself should consider focusing on cash back in addition to — or sometimes even instead of — points and miles.

Why Collect Cash Back?

Aren’t points and miles worth more than cash back? Well, yes, but only if you can use them all and you’re ready to put in the time and effort needed to maximize them. On the other hand, if you have the right set of cash back cards, it takes the headache and worry away from trying to get top value out of each and every point or mile. With cash back, you know exactly what you’re getting up front.

Similar to the Chase Trifecta — which is one of the best travel rewards credit card combinations to have to maximize your earnings when it comes to valuable Ultimate Reward Points — there are also some great combinations of cards that can net you a large haul of cash back, and even without paying a single annual fee. Let’s take a look at two combinations that can maximize your cash back earnings: one that includes paying annual fees, and another without. To earn the most cash back possible, you’ll always have to use the appropriate card to maximize bonus categories.

Maximizing Cash Back With Annual Fees

This first combination comes with a total of $190 in annual fees…

Card Annual Fee Dining Travel Gas Grocery Online Purchases/ Select Streaming Non Bonus Spend
$95 3.5%* 3.5%* 2.62%* 2.62%* 2.62%* 2.62%*
$0 1.75%* 1.75%* 5.25%** 3.5%** 1.75%** 1.75%**
Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card $0 3x 3x 3x on gas station purchases 1x 3x 1x
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
$95 (See Rates & Fees) 1% 1% 3% at US gas stations 6%*** at US supermarkets 1% 1%
Uber Visa Card $0 4% 3% on hotels and airfare 1% 1% 2% 1%
*  Must be Platinum Honors with BofA Preferred Rewards to receive this rate
** Up to $2,500 a quarter, then 1% back, and must be Platinum Honors with BOA
***Up to $6,000 in purchases a year, then 1% back

The first combination contains five cards and $190 annual fees — including higher cash back category bonuses in lieu of the annual fees. In order to truly maximize this category, you’ll need to be a Platinum Honors member in Bank of America’s Preferred Rewards program, which requires you to hold $100,000 or more in total assets with the bank. This gives you a 75% bonus on all your credit card rewards, specifically for the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card and Bank of America Cash Rewards credit card. If you don’t qualify for this, I’d recommend using the no annual fee combo that I’ll talk about in a moment.

With Platinum Honors status, the Bank of America®️ Premium Rewards®️ Visa®️ card will earn 3.5% back on all travel purchases and an industry leading 2.62% on all other purchases. And if you’re driving a lot, the Bank of America Cash Rewards card gets 5.25% back on gas, up to $2,500 a quarter. If you maximize the gas category, that’s a whopping $525 back per year on gas purchases alone. And that may be easier to do than you think, since many gas stations sell gift cards to a variety of third party retailers.

However, if you don’t have Platinum Honors status, the revamped Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card is another great option for gas purchases with its unlimited 3x points (which is essentially 3% cash back) on gas station purchases. And if you’re able to combine the Propel with the Wells Fargo Visa Signature Card, you can redeem points for airfare at 1.5-1.75 cents apiece.  (The information for the Wells Fargo Visa Signature® Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.)

For groceries, you’ll want to use the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express since it earns a huge 6% back at US supermarkets, up to $6,000 a year (then 1%), for a total of $360 back per year. Keep in mind that it does carry a $95 annual fee, so you’ll definitely want to make sure you spend to the $6,000 cap on at US supermarkets each year.

Another underrated card is the no annual fee Uber Visa, which gets you 4% back on all dining purchases, including bars and take-out. However, if you also buy a lot of tickets to movies, concerts and sporting events, you might want to swap out the Uber card for the new Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card which earns 4% back on both dining and entertainment. It does carry a $95 annual fee (waived the first year), so you’ll need to make sure your spend in those categories is worth paying for the card.

With all these cards, you’re covering almost every type of spending category and effectively maximizing your cash back on every purchase if you use the right card at the right retailers. The Premium Rewards card then fills in any gaps that the other bonus categories don’t cover with its 2.62% back on everything. And note that the Premium Rewards card also features a $100 annual airfare credit and a $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck credit, so if you’re able to maximize these perks, you might only end up with $90 in total annual fees.

Maximizing Cash Back Without Annual Fees

Now let’s take a look at a combination of cards that don’t have any annual fees at all…

Card Dining Travel Gas Grocery Online Purchases/ Select Streaming Non Bonus Spend
Citi® Double Cash Card 2%*** 2%*** 2%*** 2%*** 2%*** 2%***
Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card 3x 3x 3x on gas station purchases 1x 3x 1x
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express 1% 1% 2% at US gas stations 3%* at US supermarkets 1% 1%
Uber Visa Card 4% 3%** 1% 1% 2% 1%
* Up to $6,000 purchases a year, then 1% back
** On hotels and airfare only
*** 1% when you buy plus 1% when you pay

The real beauty of this card combination is that not a single card in it carries an annual fee. So if you end up finding that there’s one card you don’t use as much, or forgot to bring your card with you, you don’t have to feel as if you lost money. You’ll never have to close a card either, since there’s no penalty to hold onto these cards for the long-term — which can help maintain a healthy credit score.

You won’t be earning as much cash back from purchases with this group of cards as the first combination, but the category bonuses from each card are still quite good. This quartet of cards also doesn’t require you to hold over $100,000 in assets with Bank of America, which is no small task.

The Uber Visa will get you 4% back on dining, which is fantastic for a no annual fee card. For all your travel needs — from airfare to hotels and ride-hailing to train tickets — the 3x points you’ll earn with the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card , equivalent to 3% cash back, will be your best bet. It’s also what you’ll use for gas, netting 3x points per dollar with no cap on earnings. And as a nice bonus, it also earns 3x points on select streaming services like Spotify and Netflix.

The Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express earns 3% cash back at US supermarkets, although that turns into 1% back after you hit the yearly $6,000 cap. Still, that could be $180 a year in cash back on $6,000 in purchases. And to round out the quartet, the Citi® Double Cash Card earns 2% back on everything, with 1% cash back when you make a purchase, and an additional 1% cash back when you pay your statement.

With these four credit cards, you’ll be netting at least 2% back on everything and 3-4% back on the bonus categories — and that’s without putting any money up front for fees! Also, both the Wells Fargo Propel and the Uber Visa Card don’t have foreign transaction fees, a surprising perk for cards without annual fees, so you can safely use them when you’re overseas.

This is a combo that you can always keep around and rely on, so if you sign up for another card and take a few months to meet the minimum spend for the bonus on it, this group of cash back cards will be waiting in the background, ready for you to return.

Potential Return

By utilizing some of the assumptions made in our story on “One Year of Earning and Burning With the Wells Fargo Propel Amex” along with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the most recent year available (2016), we can estimate what an “average” US household would spend and how much related cash back would be earned by using the right combination of cards. Here’s what your potential earnings could look like with the first combination of cards…

Category Spending Card to Use Earning Rate Cash Back
Food at home (purchased at US supermarkets) $4,049 Blue Cash Preferred Amex 6% $243
Food away from home $3,154 Uber Visa Card 4% $126
Alcoholic beverages $484  BofA Premium Rewards 2.62% $13
Housing (other lodging) $798  BofA Premium Rewards 3.5% $28
Utilities, fuels and public services $3,884  BofA Premium Rewards 2.62% $102
Household operations $1,384   BofA Premium Rewards 2.62% $36
Housekeeping supplies (purchased at US supermarkets) $660  Blue Cash Preferred Amex 6% $40
Household furnishings and equipment $1,829  BofA Premium Rewards 2.62% $48
Apparel and services $1,803 BofA Premium Rewards 2.62% $47
Transportation (gasoline) $1,909 BofA Cash Rewards credit card 5.25% $100
Other vehicle expenses $2,884 BofA Premium Rewards 2.62% $76
Public and other transportation $623 BofA Premium Rewards 3.5% $22
Healthcare $4,612  BofA Premium Rewards 2.62% $121
Entertainment (streaming) $300 Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card 3x  $9
Entertainment (other) $2,613  BofA Premium Rewards 2.62% $68
All other expenses $3,450  BofA Premium Rewards 2.62% $90
TOTALS $32,130  N/A  3.6% average cash back $1,169

Based on these numbers, you’d average about 3.6% cash back across all your spending, with a total of $1,169 in cash at the end of the year. After subtracting the $190 in annual fees, you’ll end up with $979 in rewards.

Here’s what your potential earnings could look like with the combination of no annual fee cards…

Category Spending Card to Use Earning Rate Cash Back
Food at home (purchased at US supermarkets) $4,049 Blue Cash Everyday Amex 3% $121
Food away from home $3,154 Uber Visa Card 4% $126
Alcoholic beverages $484 Citi Double Cash Card 2% $10
Housing (other lodging) $798 Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card $24
Utilities, fuels and public services $3,884 Citi Double Cash Card 2% $78
Household operations $1,384 Citi Double Cash Card 2% $28
Housekeeping supplies (purchased at US supermarkets) $660 Blue Cash Everyday Amex 3% $20
Household furnishings and equipment $1,829 Citi Double Cash Card 2% $37
Apparel and services $1,803 Citi Double Cash Card 2% $36
Transportation (gasoline) $1,909 Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card 3x $57
Other vehicle expenses $2,884 Citi Double Cash Card 2% $58
Public and other transportation $623 Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card 3x $19
Healthcare $4,612 Citi Double Cash Card 2% $92
Entertainment (streaming) $300 Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card 3x  $9
Entertainment (other) $2,613 Citi Double Cash Card 2% $52
All other expenses $3,450 Citi Double Cash Card 2% $69
TOTALS $32,130  N/A 2.6% average cash back $835

In this version, you’ll end the year with $835 in cash back and average a 2.6% return on all your purchases. Since there are no fees involved in this combination of cards, all the cash back goes into your pocket, which means you’re only earning $144 less than the group of cards with annual fees.

Welcome Bonuses and Other Benefits

I haven’t mentioned anything about welcome bonuses on any of these cards because I wanted to focus on the ongoing earning rates. But if you factor in the 50,000 point bonus after $3,000 spend in the first 90 days (worth $500) from the Bank of America®️ Premium Rewards®️ Visa®️ card and the 20,000-point bonus (worth $200) after $1,000 in the first three months from the Wells Fargo Propel Amex, then you’re up another $700 with just those two cards. Add in a few more cards and that number could nearly double.

While not all of these cards are travel centric, many still do offer benefits like secondary car rental insurance, trip insurance and price protectionThe Propel Amex includes a unique cell phone insurance benefit and the Uber Visa offers a $50 credit toward streaming services after spending $5,000 a year on the card. 

Finally, if you’re worried about carrying four or five cards around, remember that you can add many of them to a digital wallet like Apple Pay or Samsung Pay.

Bottom Line

These card combos might not be the perfect fit for everyone, and cards should be swapped in or out of your inventory depending on your needs. For someone who does a lot of shopping on Amazon, using the Amazon Prime card might make a whole lot of sense with its 5% back for Prime members at the online retail giant. Or if you’re willing to track rotating categories on a card like the Chase Freedom, you can net 5% back (with limits) at a load of interesting merchants. And there are also business credit cards that earn cash back, which could easily boost your earnings even more.

But if you’ve saved up enough transferrable points, airline miles and hotel points and want to focus on cash back, then it’s time to take a good look at your purse or wallet and start using credit cards that do just that. Even better, it’s possible to do it for little to no cost since most cash back cards don’t carry annual fees. Remember that at the end of the day, cash is king, and miles and points are sometimes subject to near-immediate and drastic devaluations. So while cash back might not be for everybody, it’s important to consider the power and simplicity of real currency when earning credit card rewards.

For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Preferred Card, please click here.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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