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One of my favorite ways to get free money fast is to maximize cash back and credit card rewards. If used correctly, credit cards can be a great tool for improving your financial situation.
The credit card industry is extremely competitive, and that’s good news for you and me. Thanks to the banks and issuers that fight for your business, you’re able to get some great rewards for purchases you make with your credit card.
But getting the most out of your credit cards involves more than simply having a standard card that gives you 1% cash back. If you have the right cards and use them the right way, you can easily make a nice little side income with very little effort (read about how my family got a free vacation to Disney World with credit card rewards).
In this article, I’ll show you how to maximize the cashback and rewards you earn from purchases you’re already making.
Start with the Right Lineup of Credit Cards
The specific cards you have in your wallet will have a huge impact on your ability to earn cashback and rewards. Each card works differently and if you want to get the best results, you’ll need several different cards so you can use the right card for each purchase.
I’ll cover more details on specific strategies and when to use certain cards throughout this article, but let’s start by taking a look at the lineup of cards you should have if you want to get the most rewards.
- Citi Double Cash – Earn 2% cashback on every purchase (if you make at least the minimum payment each month).
- Chase Freedom Flex – Get 5% cashback on purchases in categories that rotate each quarter.
- Discover it – Also offers 5% cashback for rotating categories, just like the Chase Freedom Flex.
- Citi Custom Cash – Earn 5% cashback each month on purchases in the category where you spend the most.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred – Amazing signup bonus, 2% cashback on travel and dining, get a 25% bonus when redeeming your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
- Amazon Prime – Prime members can get 5% cashback on every purchase at Amazon.
- Chase Ink Business Unlimited – If you’re self-employed, or if you have a side hustle, you can get 1.5% cashback on your business expenses.
Important Note: Although it’s ideal to have as many of these cards as possible, don’t apply for a bunch of them all at once. Your applications are likely to be rejected if you apply for too many cards too quickly. I’d recommend applying for a max of 2-3 cards per year, and spread out the applications throughout the year.
Credit Card Hacks to Maximize Your Rewards
1. Get at Least 2% Cash Back for Every Purchase
If you have the Citi Double Cash card, you can get 2% cashback for every purchase, with no limits or caps. Technically, you earn 1% cashback at the time of the purchase, and another 1% when you pay at least the monthly minimum on time. You should be paying your credit card balance in full each month to avoid costly interest charges, so making at least the minimum payment each month is no problem.
Use the Citi Double Cash as your “everyday” card. Some of the other cards in your wallet will allow you to earn more than 2% for specific purchases (we’ll cover details in a minute) but when none of those options apply for a specific purchase, use the Double Cash and get 2%. I use the Double Cash for the majority of my purchases and the cashback really adds up over the course of a year.
→ See a comparison of the best cash back credit cards here.
2. Get 5% Cashback on Purchases in Rotating Categories
The Chase Freedom Flex card and the Discover it card are must-haves if you want to maximize cashback. The key details of these two cards are the same. You’ll get 1% cashback on all purchases, but each quarter there’s a special category (or multiple categories) that earn 5% cashback on purchases up to $1,500 per quarter. The categories vary each quarter, but you can rack up the rewards very quickly.
The advantage of having both of these cards is that you can be earning 5% cashback on purchases in more categories at any given time. Typically, but not always, the bonus offers for these two cards are different. For example, you might be able to earn 5% cashback on grocery store purchases with the Chase Freedom Flex and 5% cashback on gas station purchases with the Discover it.
You should be using these cards only for purchases that earn 5%. If a purchase does not fall into one of the bonus categories, you’re better off using the Citi Double Cash and getting 2%.
3. Get 5% Cashback in the Category Where You Spend the Most
The Citi Custom Cash also offers 5% cashback on certain purchases, but it’s different than the Chase Freedom Flex and the Discover it cards. It doesn’t use rotating categories. Instead, you’ll earn 5% cashback on purchases (up to $500 per month) in the category where you spend the most. All other purchases will earn 1%.
You should be using this card only for purchases in a specific category each month. For example, when there is no 5% cashback offer at grocery stores from the Chase Freedom Flex or the Discover it cards, you can use the Citi Custom Cash for all of your grocery purchases and earn 5% cashback.
If you have all of the cards recommended in this article, you’re spending with the Citi Custom Cash will probably rotate each month or each quarter based on the current offers from the Chase Freedom Flex and the Disover it. For example, if the Chase Freedom Flex is offering 5% cashback at grocery stores you would want to use the Citi Custom Cash for purchases in a different category, so you can get 5% cashback for as many purchases as possible.
4. Consider Specialty Cards
Now that you have the ability to earn 5% cashback on certain purchases with the Chase Freedom Flex, Discover it, and Citi Custom Cash cards, and you have an “everyday” card to get 2% cashback on all other purchases, it’s time to look at specialty cards.
There are several options here, and what’s right for you will depend on your spending habits. The key is to find cards that offer higher than 2% cash back on things you purchase frequently.
Some cards offer 3% or 4% cash back on gas, restaurants, or some other type of purchase.
One of my favorite cards is the Amazon Prime card. If you’re a Prime member, you’ll get 5% cashback on all Amazon purchases made with this card. My wife and I buy a lot on Amazon and this is the default card in our account. We use this card only, for purchases from Amazon.
Take a look at your own spending habits and find a card that has a good offer based on where you spend the most money. See a breakdown of the best rewards cards here.
5. Take Advantage of Signup Bonuses
Signup bonuses are a great way to quickly make some easy money. Bonuses typically require you to make a certain dollar amount of purchases on the card in the first 90 days to earn the cashback or rewards, so be sure you check those details.
For example, a card may offer a $150 sign up bonuses if you make at least $500 in purchases in the first 90 days. If you’re putting most of your purchases on credit card, those dollar amounts are very reasonable and you should easily qualify for the bonus.
Currently, the best signup bonus is from the Chase Sapphire Preferred. This card has an annual fee of $95, but the perks of the card more than make up for it. The bonus is currently 100,000 points, which is worth $1,000 in cashback or $1,250 in travel if booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
You’ll also get a 25% bonus on all the points you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards with the Sapphire Preferred. If you have other Chase cards, like the Freedom Flex for example, you can transfer the points to the Sapphire Preferred to get that 25% bonus with those points as well. For all of these reasons, the Sapphire Preferred is an excellent card to have.
If you’re signing up for one or two cards per year, you can easily make some good money just from the signup bonuses alone.
Best Current Credit Card Signup Bonus Offers
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Chase Sapphire Reserve
American Express Gold
Vital Dollar rating
Vital Dollar rating
Vital Dollar rating
Redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards
Redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards
60,000 bonus points
To qualify, spend
$4,000 in 3 months
To qualify, spend
$4,000 in 3 months
To qualify, spend
$4,000 in 6 months
6. Pay for Everything with Your Credit Cards
Now that you have some great rewards credit cards in your wallet, the key is to use them for every purchase. You don’t want to make any unnecessary purchases simply to earn cashback, but when you’re making a purchase anyway, use the best card. If the purchase falls in the 5% category with the Chase Freedom Flex, use that card. If you have another card that earns high cashback on that purchase (like gas), use that card. Otherwise, use the Citi Double Cash so you earn at least 2%.
Many of your monthly recurring bills can be paid by credit card. This includes things like your cell phone, internet access, cable TV, utilities, insurance premiums, and maybe even things like your car payment. If you can get all of your recurring monthly bills on a good cashback credit card, you’ll see the rewards adding up quickly.
Related reading: Simple Ways to Get Free Walmart Gift Cards
7. Use Your Cards for Big Purchases
It’s not just everyday purchase that you can use credit cards for. Big purchases are where you’ll earn a lot of cash back in no time. For example, when my wife and I purchased a car, we were able to put up to $5,000 of it on a credit card. With a 2% cashback card, that’s $100 in cashback just from that one purchase. You may also be able to pay tuition and other big bills by credit card.
Whenever you’re making a big purchase, ask about paying with a credit card. Depending on your credit card limits, you may want or need to spread the purchase across multiple credit cards.
Be sure to ask about fees for paying with credit cards. With some large purchases, you’ll be able to pay by credit card, but you might be charged an extra fee (like 3% of the purchase, for example) if you pay by card. In most cases, it doesn’t make sense to pay with a card if you’re being charged a fee.
8. Stack Your Rewards with Rakuten
If you like cash back, you’ll love Rakuten. With a free Rakuten account, you can earn cashback on purchases from thousands of websites and retail stores.
The amount of cashback varies by website/store, and sometimes it even varies by product category. With so many websites and stores participating with Rakuten it’s really easy to save some money this way.
There are basically 3 steps to earning cash back with Rakuten:
- Sign up for a free Rakuten account.
- Install the browser add-on (optional) that will automatically notify you of cashback offers when you are browsing the internet.
- Click on the notification before making a purchase to activate your cashback. (If you’re not using the browser add-on you can login to Rakuten and click through to a website before making a purchase.)
Right now Rakuten is offering a $10 bonus if you sign up through this link.
And to make it even better, if you use Rakuten and make a purchase with your cash back card, you can double dip on the rewards.
9. Link Your Card to…
There are some websites and apps that allow you to link your credit or debit card and earn cashback from purchases made with the card. Dosh and Drop are apps that allow you to link your credit cards. You’ll earn cashback for purchases made at participating stores and websites. Bumped is a similar app, but you’ll get free stock instead of cashback.
10. Purchase Gift Cards
Want a simple trick? Purchasing gift cards can be an easy way to maximize cashback and rewards, and there are a few ways to do it.
Both the Chase Freedom Flex and the Discover it cards allow you to earn 5% cashback on purchases in a certain category, on up to $1,500 in spending per quarter. If the current offer applies to grocery stores and you’ve only spent $1,000 on groceries just before the quarter is about to end, you can buy $500 worth of gift cards. Then, you can use those gift cards to buy your groceries in the future. This makes it easy to hit the $1,500 limit and get as much cashback as possible.
You may also be able to buy gift cards for other stores. For example, grocery stores and some department stores sell gift cards for many different stores, restaurants, and websites. In most cases, you can get 5% cashback on these gift card purchases if you’re buying them from a retailer that falls into the current 5% category.
Another option is to use the Slide app. This doesn’t involve rotating categories, but it’s a great way to get 5% cashback on gift cards. Through the app, you can purchase gift cards to many leading retailers and earn an automatic 5% cashback. You can use Slide at the register and get 4% cashback, but you’ll get an extra 1% when you pre-pay, making it easy to get 5% cashback.
11. Redeem Through Reward Portals
Some credit cards, including Chase Cards, have a special portal where you can redeem your rewards. In some cases, you’ll earn some extra bonuses this way. For example, if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred, you’ll get a 25% bonus on your points when you book travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. This is a huge perk and allows you to get more for your rewards.
The key here is to be sure that you’re only using the portals for things that you would buy anyway. If you won’t use it, just get the cashback. To access these portals, log in to your credit card account and navigate to the rewards area.
12. If You’re Self-Employed, Get a Cashback Business Credit Card
Are you self-employed (this includes side hustles, by the way)? If so, be sure that you’re using a cashback credit card for your business purchases. For my first few years in business I used a credit card issued by my bank. This card didn’t have any cashback or rewards, so I was leaving money on the table.
There are many cashback cards available for businesses, and sometimes you’ll find one with a good signup bonus as well. If you have employees, you can make them authorized users and also get cashback on their purchases.
The Chase Ink Business Unlimited is an excellent choice. It comes with no annual fee and rewards you with 1.5% cashback for every purchase.
13. Know Your Cards
To maximize the rewards you earn, you need to know the details of the credit cards you have. Some, like the Citi Double Cash are simple. If you have cards with rotating offers or higher rewards for certain types of purchase, be sure that you know and understand the specific offers, including any limits or caps. Knowing your cards well is key to making purchases with the card that will give you the best offer for that specific purchase.
Pay Your Balance Each Month
Getting easy cashback from your credit card is great, but you don’t want to build up debt in the process. Make sure that you’re only charging expenses that you will be able to pay in full each month. If you wind up paying interest you’ll be paying out much more than you’re earning in rewards.