How to Score 5% Cash Back Every Quarter with Rotating Rewards Categories

An image to accompany a story about the best bonus category cash back cards Getty Images/PM Images/Nikolay Zaiarnyi
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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 FlexDiscover it Cash Back
Q1: January – MarchSelect streaming services, wholesale clubs, phone, cable, and internet servicesGrocery stores, Walgreens, and CVS
Q2: April – JuneGas stations, home improvement storesGas stations, wholesale clubs, and select streaming services
Q3: July – SeptemberGrocery stores (excluding Target and Walmart), select streaming servicesRestaurants and Paypal
Q4: October – DecemberWalmart, PayPalAmazon.com, Walmart.com, and Target.com

Benefits

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%). 

Pro Tip

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 every purchase 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. 

Drawbacks

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, streaming, 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. 

Editorial Independence

As with all of our credit card reviews, our analysis is not influenced by any partnerships or advertising relationships.

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%). This quarter’s bonus categories are Walmart and PayPal, and the deadline to activate is Dec. 14, 2021. 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 5% cash back on grocery store purchases (not including Target or Walmart purchases) on up to $12,000 spent in the first year, 5% on Chase travel purchased through Ultimate Rewards, 3% on dining at restaurants and drugstores, 1% on all other purchases. Through December, you can also earn 5% back on up to $1,500 spent in your top spending category, among travel (including transit), dining, home improvement stores, grocery stores (not including Target or Walmart), drug stores, gas stations, select live entertainment, select streaming services, and fitness clubs. If your top spending category is one that already earns rewards, you can earn combined rewards and boost some eligible categories up to a potential 9% cash back. 

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.

Chase Freedom Flex℠

Chase Freedom Flex℠

Editor’s Score: (4.7/5)
  • Intro bonus:
    $200
  • Annual fee:
    $0
  • Regular APR:
    14.99% – 24.74% Variable
  • Recommended credit:
    670-850 (Good to Excellent)
  • Apply Now externa link icon At Chase’s secure site
Discover it® Cash Back

Discover it® Cash Back

Editor’s Score: (4.7/5)
  • Intro bonus:
    Cashback Match™
  • Annual fee:
    $0
  • Regular APR:
    11.99% – 22.99% Variable
  • Recommended credit:
    670-850 (Good to Excellent)
Citi® Double Cash Card

Citi® Double Cash Card

Editor’s Score: (4.4/5)
  • Intro bonus:
    N/A
  • Annual fee:
    $0
  • Regular APR:
    13.99% – 23.99% (Variable)
  • Recommended credit:
    670-850 (Good to Excellent)
  • Learn more externa link icon At our partner’s secure site

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.