Information is accurate as of the publish date. Some offers are no longer available.
The right cash back credit card can help you save on your most frequent purchases and put more money back in your pocket each month. And while we generally like cash back cards for their simplicity over other types of credit card rewards, some of the best cash back value can come from cards that require a bit of extra work.
Unlike flat cash back cards that offer a single percentage on every purchase or cards with tiered rewards categories that don’t change, cash back cards with rotating bonus categories require you to keep up with the categories in which you’ll earn bonus rewards each quarter. In exchange, you’ll earn a higher cash back rate than many other cards offer.
Cards with rotating bonus categories generally earn 5% cash back on eligible purchases each quarter. Categories are chosen by the issuer and may include anything from select streaming services to groceries and even individual retailers like Walmart or Costco. If you don’t mind planning your budget in advance to score the best savings, these cards can help you earn hundreds of dollars back each year.
Here’s more about how rotating cash back cards work, and how to choose the right one for you:
Rotating Bonus Categories, Explained
Cash back cards with rotating bonus categories earn bonus rewards in new categories each quarter, or every four months. When a new quarter comes around, you are responsible for logging into your account and activating the new categories to begin earning the 5% rewards (specific activation requirements vary by card).
Your card issuer will inform you of upcoming categories before they go into effect. These categories are often geared toward everyday spending. As an example, here is an overview of every category the two most common rotating bonus cash back cards — Chase Freedom Flex℠ and Discover it® Cash Back — offered in 2021:
|Chase Freedom Flex||Discover it Cash Back|
|Q1: January – March||Select streaming services, wholesale clubs, phone, cable, and internet services||Grocery stores, Walgreens, and CVS|
|Q2: April – June||Gas stations, home improvement stores||Gas stations, wholesale clubs, and select streaming services|
|Q3: July – September||Grocery stores (excluding Target and Walmart), select streaming services||Restaurants and Paypal|
|Q4: October – December||Walmart, PayPal||Amazon.com, Walmart.com, and Target.com|
If your spending habits closely match the spending category, you can unlock some significant savings opportunities each quarter. These cards offer 5% in rotating bonus categories each quarter, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate. That’s higher than what you’ll typically see from flat cash back cards (usually 1.5% to 2%) or tiered category cards (most often between 2% and 4%).
Pairing a bonus category cash back card with a flat rate card could be a savvy strategy to help you earn bonus rewards on every purchase.
Also, rotating categories may give you an opportunity to save with retailers that may be excluded from common rewards categories. For example, Target and Walmart, as well as wholesale clubs like Costco, usually don’t count toward grocery bonus rewards — but each of these merchants is routinely found among rotating bonus categories at least one quarter out of the year.
Because these cards generally charge no annual fee, they can also make a good pair with other cash back cards you may have in your wallet. If you already earn flat rewards on purchases with a card like the Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card, for example, you can continue using that card for non-bonus spending, but level up your savings in specific categories when your purchases fall within an eligible bonus category.
On the flip side, if the bonus categories don’t match your regular spending, you’ll mostly miss out on the bonus cash back with these cards. For instance, if the rotating bonus category for a given quarter is for gas station spending but you don’t have a car, you won’t be able to maximize that bonus category during those four months.
Another drawback can be the spending caps on your rewards. While many other cash back cards offer unlimited rewards in bonus categories, these cards cap your 5% earn after $1,500 in spending each quarter. After that, you’ll earn just 1% back. That means, if you meet the cap each quarter, you can only earn up to $300 in rotating bonus rewards categories annually.
These cards also require you to strategize your spending more than you may need to with other cash back cards. If you have a card like the Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card, you’ll always earn a standard 3% back on dining, entertainment, popular streaming services, and groceries (excluding Walmart and Target), no matter when you spend. But with rotating bonus categories, you’ll need to be more diligent about keeping up with exactly where you’ll earn the most rewards and how that might change your spending.
For example, say you had the Chase Freedom Flex in 2021. To best maximize your 5% rewards on grocery spending throughout the year, you would have had to shop at a wholesale club like Costco during the first quarter of the year, then buy your groceries from the local supermarket during the third quarter, and finally, switch to Walmart for your groceries during the fourth quarter.
Rotating Cash Back Credit Cards
Chase Freedom Flex℠
Chase Freedom Flex is a rotating cash back card that also has many of the benefits of tiered bonus rewards.
With the no annual fee Chase Freedom Flex, you’ll earn 5% on up to $1,500 in combined purchase in quarterly bonus categories when you activate (then 1%). Chase only announces upcoming categories a few weeks before the new quarter begins, so you won’t be able to plan your quarterly spending far in advance — but you can use categories from previous years for an idea of typical offerings.
In addition, you can earn a $200 welcome bonus after spending $500 within the first three months. Plus, get 5% on Chase travel purchased through Ultimate Rewards, 3% on dining at restaurants and drugstores, 1% on all other purchases.
Discover it® Cash Back
The Discover it Cash Back card earns 5% cash back on everyday purchases each quarter (up to $1,500 in quarterly purchases, then 1%) when you activate, and 1% cash back on everything else. With this card, it’s especially important to activate your rotating quarterly categories early — 5% rewards only apply after activation, and won’t be added retroactively to any eligible purchases you make before you activate.
Discover also announces its categories for the entire year in advance, making it easy to plan your spending accordingly. Past categories have included Amazon, grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, PayPal, and more. It has a $0 annual fee.
How to Take Advantage of Rotating Bonus Categories & Maximize Cash Back Rewards
The most important thing you can do to maximize rotating bonus categories is keep up with which of your purchases are eligible for 5% cash back, and remember to activate your rewards quarterly. Also make sure you use your rotating cash back card only on spending within your budget that you can pay off when your statement is due. If you carry a balance on your card, the high interest you’ll accumulate can quickly wipe out any 5% savings.
Here are a few more ways to make sure you’re getting the best value from a cash back card with rotating bonus categories.
Check Your Spending Habits
Before applying for a new cash back credit card with rotating bonus categories, look back at your past spending and compare it to previous quarters’ rotating bonus categories. If you don’t typically spend with merchants that commonly come up in an issuer’s quarterly rotation, you likely won’t get much out of the card.
For example, select streaming services and Walmart are previous categories offered by both the Chase Freedom Flex and Discover it Cash Back. But if you don’t pay for streaming, or you don’t live near a Walmart location, there may be an entire quarter out of the year during which you don’t earn 5% rewards. In that case, you might be better off with a flat rate or tiered card instead.
Pair With a Flat Cash Back Card
Pairing your rotating cash rewards card with a card that earns flat rewards on every purchase can be a good way to really maximize savings on your regular spending.
For example, if you have both the Chase Freedom Flex and Citi® Double Cash Card, you can maximize your spending that already falls within the Freedom Flex’s 5% rotating quarterly categories along with the card’s other bonus categories. Then, you can use your Citi Double Cash for everything that falls outside those categories to guarantee a baseline 2% cash back (1% when you make your purchase, and another 1% when you pay it off) on everything.