For most people pursuing credit card rewards, having a great 2% credit card in your wallet can go a long way toward earning a good pile of rewards. But with a little bit of work, it’s practical to get 5% cash back rewards or 5x points almost everywhere. And you can do it without signing up for dozens of cards.
Here are my top strategies to get 5% or 5 points per dollar almost everywhere.
Credit card welcome bonuses
Yes, I mentioned in the lede that you can get 5x everywhere without signing up for dozens of cards. But this list would be lacking if I didn’t mention that the fastest way to earn rewards through your credit cards is by going after credit card welcome bonuses. These are incentives that card issuers give to incentivize new credit card customers. Welcome bonuses usually require you spend a certain amount of money on the card in order to earn the welcome bonus, which can be several hundred dollars.
The quality of welcome bonuses varies, but a typical welcome bonus on a no-annual-fee credit card might be a $200 reward after spending $1,000 in the first three months. This welcome bonus represents a 20% return on your spending for the first $1,000 you put on the card. Premium cards that require an annual fee can have a much, much higher welcome bonus.
To find a welcome bonus, check out these articles:
- The Best Welcome Bonuses – Our take on the best current welcome bonuses, updated monthly.
- The Best Chase Ultimate Rewards Welcome Bonuses – Chase Ultimate Rewards offers cash back rewards, plus opportunities for elevated rewards value through travel and is the best rewards program.
Card-linked merchant offers
Many credit card issuers offer card-linked promotional offers. These offers incentivize spending at partners, often in the form on additional cash back for purchases at those merchants. For most people most of these offers will be at places you won’t otherwise shop. But some of the offers can give you additional cash back at places you shop anyway.
Personally, I’ve found and used offers like this at restaurants I frequent, gas stations, coffee shops, office supply stores, grocery stores, electronics stores, and even Amazon. At least once a month, I’m earning an extra 10-20% back on some place thorough one of these card-linked offer programs.
Here are the banks that have card-linked offer programs:
- American Express – Amex Offers
- Bank of America – BankAmeriDeals
- Chase – Chase Offers
- Citi – Citi Merchant Offers
Cash back portals
Whenever I make a purchase online, I look for ways to stack up cash back rewards through cash back portals. These portals offer shoppers additional cash or points when clicking through their links to shop at partner stores. Cash back portals pay out the most rewards for purchases at specialty merchants, but sometimes they offer additional rewards at big-box retailers as well. Rakuten regularly gives 1% cash back for purchases at Target. And I have gotten targeted offers for 15% back on purchases at Walmart from Capital One Shopping.
My go-to resource for finding which cash back portals are paying rewards Cash Back Monitor. This site is continuously updated and lists the cash back rates of all major portals across hundreds of online stores.
My recent wins through cash back portals include a 15% back at Dell deal the same week as Prime Day, which I used in combination with some buyers club purchases to finish a credit card welcome bonus and earn some additional cash.
While there are dozens of cash back portals, always clicking through the portal offering the highest rewards isn’t necessarily the best strategy. I’m happy to get slightly lower rewards to reduce complexity and only keep track of accounts at a few portals. These days, I stick with Rakuten, Capital One Shopping and TopCashBack.
Gift card purchases
Some credit cards offer increased rewards at places like gas stations, grocery stores and office supply stores. Many of these types of stores also sell gift cards. You can use gift cards purchased at a place where you can get 5% rewards to bring spending into a bonus category. Let’s take a look at how this works.
I have several cards which get me elevated rewards on grocery store purchases:
- Blue Cash Preferred gets me 6% back on my first $6,000 of grocery store purchases every year.
- My Citi Dividend card, Chase Freedom Flex, and Discover It cards all offer 5% cash back in rotating categories. At least two of these cards offer 5% on grocery store purchases at least part of the year.
- My Citi Custom Cash card can get me 5% on up to $500 of grocery store purchases each month.
And I use these cards to buy gift cards at Hy-Vee (a grocery store chain in the Upper Midwest) to places I am likely to shop. I’ve purchased gift cards to Home Depot, Best Buy, Target, Starbucks and Apple in the last year. I don’t have a card that gets me 5% cash back at any of these places, but by buying gift cards during my grocery store trip, I was able to get an effective 5% back on these purchases.
Of course, grocery stores aren’t the only places that sell gift cards. Office supply stores (a bonus category on the Chase Ink Cash) and gas stations (a 3% category on many cards) sell gift cards.
In addition to closed-loop gift cards, which can only be used at specific stores, Hy-Vee (and other places) sell open-loop gift cards. Open-loop gift cards are the Visa, Mastercard, American Express and other gift cards that you can use anywhere those cards are accepted. These cards are available at a lot of places like gas stations, grocery stores, office supply stores and other places that you can earn 5% using a credit card. Staples recently added variable-load Visa gift cards that can be loaded with up to $500 to their selection.
Sometimes the gift card deals are even better
Hy-Vee frequently runs a promotion where I can get $10 off of each $150 of Mastercard gift cards I purchase. This means I can walk out of Hy-Vee with a $450 Mastercard gift card and pay $425.95. ($450 value of the gift card + $5.95 purchase fee – $30 discount.) I then use this card to pay for small purchases where I don’t have a credit card that gets elevated rewards. When I factor in that I purchased this gift card with a 5% rewards credit card, I’m getting an effective 10.1% cash back on this spending. Not too shabby.
Now, you don’t need to be near a Hy-Vee to take advantage of deals like this.
- Kroger (grocery store) frequently runs gift card deals where you can stack a fuel point discount for more rewards. Other grocery stores offer similar promotions.
- Office Depot frequently runs deals where you can buy Visa and Mastercard gift cards and get a $15 discount when you buy $200 worth, which more than covers the purchase Fee. (Use an Ink Business Cash card to get 5% back at office supply stores.)
- Staples often has Visa gift cards for no purchase fee. (Use an Ink Business Cash card to get 5% back at office supply stores.)
GC Galore, run by my friend Stephen Pepper, is a great resource for finding these deals.
This list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the 5% rotating category cards. These cards, which include the Citi Dividend card, Chase Freedom Flex, and Discover It cards all offer 5% cash back in rotating categories that change quarterly.
The Citi Custom Cash deserves a special callout. Like the rotating category cards, the Custom Cash offers 5% back on a limited amount of spending. But how you earn rewards on the Custom Cash is different. You earn 5% back on the first $500 of spending in the select category where you spend the most each month. Used strategically, the Citi Custom Cash can augment your other cards and get you 5% back on an additional category. It’s even possible to get multiple Custom Cash cards.
Some merchants also have their own cards that earn 5% for purchases in-store. The Target Red Card give you a 5% discount on most things you buy at Target and Target.com. The Amazon Rewards Visa Signature card offers 5% cash back at Amazon. And the Walmart credit card offers 5% back on Walmart.com (but not in-store) purchases.
It is possible to get 5% back or 5x everywhere without too much effort by using a combination of 5% credit cards and gift cards. If you stack promotional offers and fuel points, you can earn much more. And if you’re willing to sign up for a new credit card every once in a while, you can easily get much greater rewards.
Frequently asked questions
Banks are generally okay with buying gift cards at third party merchants, as long as you are not buying Visa or Mastercard gift cards and finding a way to convert them back into cash. Buying a Starbuck gift card, an Applebees gift card, or a Visa gift card that you intend to use for purchases at an office supply store is okay.
If you’re buying an occasional gift card with your American Express card, you have nothing to worry about. Most of the reports of rewards clawbacks on American Express cards come from heavy-hitters buying Visa and Mastercard gift cards and finding ways to turn those gift cards into cash. If you want to be super-safe, just don’t use a gift card purchase on an American Express card to meet a spending threshold for a sign-up bonus.