Awesome cash back combos

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Greg recently wrote a post about awesome credit card combos. In that post, he addressed terrific card combinations from Amex, Capital One, Chase, Citi, and Wells Fargo. Some readers pointed out the elephant in the room: Where’s the cash back? I love transferable currencies and the ability to get outsized value from points as much as anyone, but for many people cash is king. In this post, I wanted to address what was missing from Greg’s previous post: a couple of awesome cash back credit card combos.

Why did Greg leave out a cash back strategy?

Greg is on vacation this week, so I’ll have to wait for the podcast to grill him about why he left out cash back, but I’m guessing that Greg skipped a cash back combo for two main reasons: the reduced potential for outsized value and the fact that the vast majority of cash back credit cards have no annual fee.

If you’re wondering why a lack of annual fee is a problem, it isn’t. Fee-free is great, but rather it means that it is very difficult to distinguish which cards belong in the wallet. Most of Greg’s awesome credit card combos consist of 2-3 credit cards. His Citi combo consisted of four, but only one of those cards had an annual fee. Given a bunch of good cash back credit cards on the market that have no annual fee, there really isn’t anything stopping you from getting six or eight or twelve of those fee-free cards to meet every possible bonus category you’d like.

However, it isn’t realistic to carry a wallet of a dozen cards (and still easily remember the use case for each one of them). If I wanted to focus on cash back, these are the card combinations I would consider.

Bank of America (combo and info assumes Platinum Honors status, see below)

Premium Rewards + Cash Rewards + Travel Rewards

Card Name w Details & Review (no offer)
Bank of America Travel Rewards (with Platinum Honors Preferred Rewards)

Annual Fee: $0

Card Type: Visa Signature

Base
2.625X
(2.63%)
Travel
5.25X
(5.25%)

Earning rate: With Platinum Honors status with Bank of America's Preferred Rewards program, this card earns: 2.625X points for all spend (and 5.25X for travel purchased through BOA's travel center)

Bank of America Premium Rewards (with Platinum Honors Preferred Rewards)

Annual Fee: $95

Card Type: Visa Signature

Base
2.625X
(2.63%)
Travel
3.5X
(3.5%)
Dine
3.5X
(3.5%)

Earning rate: With Platinum Honors status with Bank of America's Preferred Rewards program, earn: 3.5X travel and dining ⚬ 2.625X everywhere else

Bank of America Customized Cash Rewards (with Platinum Honors Preferred Rewards)

Annual Fee: $0

Card Type: Visa Signature

Base
1.75%
Travel
5.25%
Dine
5.25%
Gas
5.25%
Grocery
3.5%
Shop
5.25%
Other
5.25%

Earning rate: With Platinum Honors status with Bank of America's Preferred Rewards program, earn: 3.5% at grocery stores and wholesale clubs and 5.25% on gas up to the first $2,500 in combined purchases each quarter

Combo details: A temporary 3.5% back at grocery stores through the end of 2021 plus long-term earnings of 2.625% cash back everywhere, 3.5% dining, 5.25% travel booked through Bank of America and 5.25% on up to $2500 per quarter in your choice category with a single $95 annual fee (which may be mitigated by that card’s annual travel credit) is a stellar combination for those who can get Platinum Honors status – see more below.

Why this is a great combo: You can’t talk about cash being king without talking about Bank of America credit cards. That’s because those who have $100K+ in any combination of cash and investments between Bank of America and Merrill Lynch or Merrill Edge, the discount brokerage arm of Merrill gets a 75% bonus on Bank of America credit card earnings (note: this bonus applies on Bank of America-branded cards, not on co-brand cards like Alaska or Virgin Atlantic). That’s huge because it means the Premium Rewards card earns a flat 2.625% cash back everywhere which is the best uncapped ongoing return on unbonused spend on the market. If you have this card available to you, it makes earning miles on other cards feel expensive. Indeed, if you choose to instead spend on a card that earns 2x miles, it is like buying those miles for 1.3c per mile since you could have had 2.625c with Bank of America. The Cash Rewards card provides a choice category (which can be changed monthly) worth 5.25% with Platinum Honors on up to $2500 spend per quarter (provided that you don’t waste any quarterly bandwidth on grocery stores and wholesale clubs). Finally, the Travel Rewards card offers 5.25% cash back on travel purchased from Bank of America. The simplicity here is key: rewards from the Premium Rewards and Cash Rewards cards can be taken as cash deposited into your bank account (Travel Rewards can erase travel purchases or they can be combined with rewards on the Premium Rewards card and then cashed out at a value of $0.01 each via the Premium Rewards card) and there are no rotating categories to track or extra steps to cash out via gift cards purchased at a specific type of store, etc.

On the other hand: These cards aren’t particularly interesting unless you can get Platinum Honors status. The good news is that even self-directed IRA accounts count toward the requirements for status (and keep in mind that self-directed accounts through Merrill Edge feature no-fee ETF and stock trades). If you can make Platinum status ($50K in cash / investments), that can still be decent. However, those unwilling or unable to meet deposit requirements won’t find earnings here competitive.

Variation: If you can meet the requirements on the business side, the return there can also be very interesting with the Business Cash Rewards card.

See also: Bank of America cards: awesome if you have $100K lying around.

Mixed Cash Back Wallet

Alliant, Affinity, Brex, Citi Custom Cash, Freedom Flex, Discover

Card Name w Details & Review (no offer)
Chase Freedom Flex

FM Mini Review: Great for 5X and 3x categories and World Mastercard benefits. Excellent companion card to Sapphire Reserve, Sapphire Preferred, or Ink Business Preferred.


Annual Fee: $0

Card Type: Mastercard World

Base
Dine
Shop
Other

Earning rate: 5x travel booked through Chase ⚬ 5X Lyft through March 2025 ⚬ 3x dining ⚬ 3x drugstores ⚬ 5X in rotating categories on up to $1,500 spend per quarter. 2022 Q2: 5x Amazon and select streaming services

Noteworthy perks: Free DashPass for up to 3 months upon activation ⚬ Cell phone protection ⚬ Lyft credits

See also: Chase Ultimate Rewards Complete Guide

Citi Custom Cash Card

FM Mini Review: This is a great card to have and hold for a single category where you spend no more than $500 per month as it represents an excellent return without rotating categories to track.


Annual Fee: $0

Card Type: Mastercard

Base
Travel
Dine
Gas
Grocery
Other

Earning rate: 5x on purchases in your top eligible spend category each billing cycle, up to the first $500 spent, 1x thereafter. Eligible categories: Restaurants, Gas Stations, Grocery Stores, Select Travel, Select Transit, Select Streaming Services, Drugstores, Home Improvement Stores, Fitness Clubs and Live Entertainment. ⚬ 1x on all other purchases

Discover it®

FM Mini Review: This is a great choice for its rotating 5% categories


Annual Fee: $0

Card Type: Discover

Base
Gas
Other

Earning rate: 5X in rotating categories, up to $1500 spend per quarter. 2022 Q2: 5% gas stations and Target

Noteworthy perks: Discover Cash Back is worth more than face value when redeemed for partner gift cards

Alliant Cashback Visa Signature Card

FM Mini Review: Good cash back card for everyday spend as long as you do not spend more than $20K per billing cycle (at which point a 2% card would be better). Lack of foreign transaction fees is a positive.


Annual Fee: $0

Card Type: Visa Signature

Base
2.5%

Earning rate: Tier One Rewards (which now requires $1,000 in an Alliant high-yield checking account and 2 electronic transactions per month) offers 2.5% cash back everywhere on up to $10K per billing cycle, then unlimited 1.5% cash back beyond $10K in purchases in a billing cycle. (Note that some purchases, like those from GiftCards.com, are not eligible for cash back)

Noteworthy perks: No foreign transaction fees

Affinity Cash Rewards Visa® Signature Credit Card

FM Mini Review: The Affinity Cash Rewards Visa Signature card could be really interesting for its rotating categories since the fine print indicates that it stacks on top of ordinary earnings.


Annual Fee: $0

Card Type: Visa Signature

Base
1%
Dine
2%
Gas
2%
Grocery
2%
Other
5%

Earning rate: 5% back at all bookstores, including Amazon (note: this is capped at $3500 in purchases per month) ⚬ Extra 5% back in rotating categories (Q2 2021: Clothing & Accessories, Home Supplies, Drug Stores) ⚬ 2% back at restaurants, gas stations, and supermarkets

Noteworthy perks: No foreign transaction fees; cell phone protection

Brex Cash

FM Mini Review: If you have a qualifying business, it's a no-brainer to sign up for this fee-free account.


Annual Fee: $0

Card Type: Mastercard World Elite

Base
Travel
Dine
Biz
Other

Earning rate: 8x Rideshare ⚬ 5x Brex Travel ⚬ 4x Restaurants ⚬ 3x on recurring software like Salesforce, Zendesk, Twilio, and more ⚬ 1x everywhere else

Noteworthy perks: Transfer points 1 to 1 to airline programs: Aeromexico, Air France Flying Blue, Avianca Lifemiles, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, Emirates Skywards, JetBlue, Qantas, Singapore KrisFlyer ⚬ $5K AWS credits ⚬ Up to $100K AWS Activate credits ⚬ Up to 50% off UPS shipments ⚬ 25% off Slack for 12 months ⚬ 20% Annual Zoom Subscription discount ⚬ 50% Dropbox discount ⚬ Up to $150 Google Ads credit ⚬ 40% off first 12 months QuickBooks ⚬ And many more discounts

Combo details: This combination takes cards from 6 different issuers. However, with three rotating-category cards, I imagine you’ll only really need to carry four or maybe five of them at a time. This combo earns at the following rates:

  • 8% rideshare via Brex Cash
  • 5% grocery on up to $500 per billing cycle via Citi Custom Cash
  • 5% Amazon on up to $3500 per month via Affinity
  • 5% rotating categories via Affinity, Freedom Flex, and Discover
  • 5% travel booked through credit card portal via Freedom Flex or Brex Cash
  • 4% dining via Brex
  • 3% pharmacy via Freedom Flex
  • 2.5% everything else (sort of)

A couple of key notes about the earnings:

  1. Some may question the Citi Custom Cash as the grocery card. A card like the Amex Blue Cash Preferred, which offers 6% back at US Supermarkets on up to $6K in purchases per year (then 1%) might come to mind first. However, the Custom Cash is better. The Blue Cash Preferred offers the chance to earn $360 per year in cash back on US Supermarket purchases, but it carries a $95 annual fee. After accounting for that, you’re only earning a net $265 cash back — equivalent to 4.4% cash back. Citi offers 5% back on up to $6K per year (but divided differently: with Citi you earn it on up to $500 per billing cycle) with no annual fee. You could earn up to $300 cash back with the Citi card. The Blue Cash Preferred is only a better choice if you’ll use its other bonus categories, but even then the next best category is 3% on gas, and with this combo you could be getting at least 2.5% on gas with the Alliant card (and possibly as much as 5% if you’re able to buy gas station gift cards with your cards that earn 5%), so it would take a lot of spend for the Blue Cash Preferred (or other cards like it) to beat out the Custom Cash. In either case, you may spend more than $500 per month at grocery stores, at which point other cards will need to fill the gap.
  2. The Affinity card is included because it offers monthly 5% back at Amazon and also because it has quarterly categories that sometimes stack on top of ordinary bonus categories (for example, dining has been a 5% category that has stacked on top of the card’s ordinary 2% back on dining for a total of 7% back). I understand the application process for this card isn’t straightforward, but it makes for a complement to other cards in this wallet.
  3. Is it necessary to add Discover to the mix? I included Discover because they typically offer a number of opportunities during the year to get outsized value from your cash back. For instance, you can redeem $25 in Discover Cash for higher-value gift cards at various merchants, which can stretch the buying power of your cash back earnings further.
  4. The Alliant card is changing pretty significantly according to a report last night from Doctor of Credit. I’d say that the new changes makes the card far more complicated than necessary (and too complicated to be very appealing to anyone other than the rewards enthusiast community), but it is probably a mathematical win: the $99 annual fee is being removed and the card will earn 2.5% cash back on up to $10K per billing cycle, then 1.5% assuming you can meet some pretty simple checking account requirements also. See the post at Doctor of Credit for more info on the hoops to jump through. Given the 2.5% earnings on the first $10K and 1.5% thereafter, you’ll come out ahead of a flat 2% back card in any billing cycle in which you spend less than $20,000.
  5. Note that those who spend a lot on gas should consider adding (or replacing one of the rotating category cards with) the Costco Visa, which earns 4% on gas on up to $7K per year. On the other hand, you may be able to get gas gift cards via some of the 5% opportunities with this combo.

Why this is a great combo: No annual fee! While the Alliant card above is listed with an annual fee currently, Doctor of Credit reports that will soon change and then this combo should be fee-free. This card combo earns between 2.5%-8% cash back on many popular spending categories utilizing cards that carry no annual fee, making for a solid wallet.

On the other hand: This combination isn’t for the minimalist. While your wallet won’t quite rival George Costanza’s, you will probably have to make labels (at least for the Player 2 in your household) to remember which card to use where. That’s not the end of the world and I’d argue worthwhile for the earnings here. But if you crave simplicity, this wallet isn’t it for you.

Variation: If you want to trim this back, you could reduce this wallet to Affinity (5% each month at Amazon should cover you for many categories), Chase Freedom Flex (for 3% dining & drugstores and 5% on travel booked through Chase), and Alliant (for ~2.5% everywhere else). That will still give you two rotating category 5% cards and bonus categories that will cover a wide range of needs.

Wrap Up

I enjoy the thrill of flying up front and staying in luxury hotels for pennies on the dollar, but it is important to remember that the travel redeemed with miles and points does come at the cost of pennies — it is not free. Every transferable point, airline mile, or hotel point earned comes at an opportunity cost given that you could be earning strong cash back rewards on cards like these. I’ve written before that we’re always paying for our miles and cash back combinations like these highlight the truth in that. For those to whom cash is king, the price may in fact be too high to ignore the annual earning power of cash back combinations like these. Personally, I prefer to utilize options like those above as additional tools in my wallet that create the cash reserves I can use to pay for flight taxes, paid hotel nights, and other types of travel, but part of the fun in this game is that there are many winning strategies. Someone who focuses entirely on cash back could certainly have a winning combination with some of the options above

What is your favorite cash back card combo? Let us know in the comments.

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Reno Joe

Nick, sorry for the late comment / question on this article.

Can the Alliant Visa work in two player mode? That would bring it to $20k per month at 2.5 percent. If yes, might it work with one checking account or would separate checking accounts be required?

Thanks.

Separately, if someone wants to go the single card strategy for regular non-bonus categories, the BofA card with a bonus base rate of 2.625 percent would fail for us. It has foreign transaction fees. If we carve out foreign purchases, we’re defeating the single card strategy for “all other charges.” Just trying to make is easy for Player 2.

Ed k

All this is great information, but I can’t help remembering the great unicorns of years ago. Such low hanging fruit and unlimited, until they weren’t. Now my area has no liquidation avenues… all dried up. I knew it would happen one day, but I still have my eye out for the new unicorns that may pop up. And, I have more ways to spend now to get the bigger bonuses, so my attention is mostly on that yet still use the right card for at least the best percentage rewards I can get for my spend. Now, if I can just use my airline points, credits and plenty of free lux hotels, but time and life got in the way plus some nasty times in the hospital during the pandemic. But, I’m still here in this earthly body, so got more work to do to help others. We only have one life to do that here and then it’s on to eternity. Showing God’s love everyday while I still have breath. Learned a lot of lessons this past year.

BW3

I’m mostly going to go all-in with Citi cards. Double Cash, Custom Cash, Rewards+, and Costco Visa hit almost every major category from 2.2%-5.5% if cashed out through Rewards+ and no annual fees.

Another Jeff

So what you’re saying is that Schwab Platinum is a bad deal for cash back? Someone finally realizes this 🙂

dee m

Of course, there is an additional motivation when transferring 100k+ to ME in the form of bonus especially for Roth and IRA ETF investors or MF long term investors. And the $95 AF is easily recouped by purchase of seats or AA GC. Unless this goes away, BoA has barely any competition as simplicity and cash are true kind in days of clutter and complexities.

anonymous

It’s too bad some of their good cash back cards have a foreign transaction fee.

Devon

Unsung hero of the Preferred Rewards ecosystem has to be the one cobrand that does participate – the AAA Visa. Platinum Honors status yields 5.25% on Travel and AAA purchases (uncapped), 3.5% on gas, grocery, wholesale clubs, and drugstores (uncapped), and 1.75% everything else.

Can redeem for cash at 1.0 cpp which is great in its own right, but can also get 1.4 cpp if you actually need to make AAA purchases and can make use of a AAA voucher to offset those costs.

anonymous

I read in the terms of _my_ BofA AAA Visa that Platinum Honors only applies to the base point, not the bonus categories. That makes it “only” 3.75%, 2.75%, and 1.75%. Still an excellent card.

I only use it for travel, and I don’t have Platinum Honors. I wish the redemption threshold were lower than $50, though, because without travel it can take a long time to accumulate 5000 points, plus I have to waste a small amount on un-bonused spend to keep the card active.

I don’t have any other BofA cards, but I’ve read that this one makes it easier to cash out points from other cards (by pooling them).

Nick’s correct about the regional availability.

anonymous

I have to correct myself! Apparently the terms have changed since last I looked. Preferred Rewards now applies in full. Nice!
https://www.bankofamerica(dot)com/credit-cards/products/aaa-credit-card/

Devon

Interesting, as they are marketing it as getting the full 5.25% and 3.5%. I do see the difference in the T&Cs vs. a card like the Premium Rewards where they spell out that it earns 2 base points on travel and dining, not 1 base and 1 bonus so I could believe it either way.

Do you have any level of preferred rewards with BoA? If so I’m curious if in practice they are giving you uplift on just the base point or the bonus points for travel too. I had a similar question about booking travel via the BoA travel center using the Travel Rewards card, since those T&Cs have the same issue with base and bonus points for Preferred Rewards.

anonymous

I corrected my previous comment above, but it hasn’t been approved yet (probably because I included a link). It does appear that BofA are now giving the full Preferred Rewards treatment, so it seems you were right. Very cool. I don’t have Preferred Rewards at the moment.

Last edited 1 year ago by anonymous