Sara Rathner, credit card expert for NerdWallet.com, which provides information about and reviews of credit cards and other financial products and topics.
The past year has dramatically shifted how Americans spend their money—and that has shaken up the roster of most rewarding credit cards. Homebound consumers turned to online ordering more than ever before and paid more attention to making their homes more comfortable. They relied less on dining at restaurants and more on preparing their own food at home. They put off travel and cared less about what they’re wearing. Although some of these trends will pull back, their effects on which credit cards are most valuable will linger.
For instance, a rewards card that offers travel savings and access to airport lounges is of limited value if you’re not flying, while a card that offers bonus rewards on grocery shopping becomes more attractive.
Bottom Line Personal asked NerdWallet credit card expert Sara Rathner about the best credit cards for 2021 and beyond to maximize your rewards.* (Unless otherwise noted, there is no annual fee and bonuses have no limits.)
Three online retailers have dominated during the pandemic—Amazon.com, Target.com and Walmart.com. Each has a credit card offering a big 5% cash back.
Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature offers 5% back at Amazon.com and Whole Foods—but only if you have an Amazon Prime membership, which typically costs $119 per year. The card also offers 2% back at restaurants, gas stations and drugstores…and 1% on everything else. You can claim your rewards as cash back or redeem them for Amazon.com purchases. New applicants receive a $100 Amazon gift card upon approval.
Target RedCard offers 5% back on almost all Target purchases in-store and on Target.com. It also provides free shipping for most Target.com purchases (excluded are optical and nonreturnable items and contract mobile phones) and extends the window for returns/exchanges by 30 days, which for most items means 120 days rather than 90.
Capital One Walmart Rewards Mastercard offers 5% back on purchases made at Walmart.com. You get 5% back on in-store Walmart purchases during your first 12 months as a cardholder if those purchases are made through the Walmart Pay app that is linked to the card. Other Walmart in-store purchases earn 2% back, as do restaurants, gas and travel purchases. Everything else gets 1%.
Helpful: Many Chase and MasterCard credit cards offer complementary one-year memberships for ShopRunner, a service that offers free two-day shipping and free returns at more than 100 retailers. Membership normally costs $79 per year. American Express offers ShopRunner membership free for as long as you remain an eligible card member.
Best for Home Improvement
People are spending more time at home—and more money on their homes as a result.
Lowe’s Advantage Card offers cardholders a choice when they make purchases at Lowe’s or Lowes.com—5% cash back…or special financing terms, such as 0% interest if paid in full within six months on purchases of $299 or more.
The Home Depot Credit Card offers 0% interest if paid in full within six months on purchases of $299 or more.
Warning: If you accept this Lowe’s or Home Depot financing offer but don’t pay off the purchase in full by the end of the 0% period, you will be charged retroactive interest on the entire purchase price.
Rising prices for certain grocery items such as meats have pushed supermarket bills higher, which makes cards that offer bonuses for purchases at markets extra valuable.
Blue Cash Everyday from American Express offers 3% cash back on up to $6,000 in US supermarket purchases each year (at select stores, including ALDI, FreshDirect, ShopRite, Stop & Shop, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods)…2% at gas stations and some department stores…and 1% on everything else. New cardholders also receive $150 back if they spend $1,000 in the first six months…and 20% back (up to $200) on Amazon.com purchases during those initial six months.
Blue Cash Preferred from American Express offers 6% cash back on up to $6,000 in annual US supermarket spending at select stores. It also offers 6% back on many streaming subscription services…3% at gas stations and on certain transit expenses…and 1% on everything else. New cardholders can receive $300 back by spending $1,000 in the first three months. The card has a $95 annual fee. Rule of thumb: If you spend more than $3,167 on groceries each year, it’s worth paying this card’s annual fee…if not, the no-annual-fee Blue Cash Everyday is probably better.
Food TakeOut and Delivery
Restaurant dining is down for now, but these cards offer savings whether you eat in restaurants or order food to-go or for delivery.
US Bank Altitude Go Visa Signature card offers the equivalent of 4% back on restaurant spending including to-go and delivery. Technically, you earn four points per dollar spent, but those points don’t expire and can be exchanged for cash back at the rate of one cent apiece. This card also provides the equivalent of 2% back on grocery store, gas station and streaming-service spending, and 1% on everything else. New cardholders receive 25,000 bonus points—the equivalent of $250—for spending $1,000 in the first 90 days.
Capital One SavorOne offers 3% cash back at restaurants, including take-out and delivery, as well as 2% at grocery stores and 1% on other purchases. New cardholders earn a $200 bonus by spending $500 in the first three months.
Driving is down as many people work from home, but a card that offers cash back on gas could be attractive if you expect to do lots of long-distance driving this year rather than hop on planes.
Sam’s Club Mastercard offers 5% back on up to $6,000 in gas purchases annually—even gas not purchased at Sam’s Club—plus 3% back on restaurant and travel spending and 1% on everything else. There’s no annual fee, but you must be a member of Sam’s Club, a warehouse club with an annual $45 membership fee (currently offering a $45 gift card for purchases in Sam’s Club when you sign up).
Costco Anywhere Visa by Citi offers 4% cash back on up to $7,000 in gas-eligible purchases annually—even gas not bought at Costco—plus 3% back on eligible restaurant and travel spending, 2% on Costco and Costco.com purchases and 1% on everything else. Costco membership ($60 per year) is required.
Wells Fargo Propel American Express offers the equivalent of 3% back on restaurants, gas, streaming services and travel—plus the equivalent of 1% on everything else. You actually earn points with Propel, not cash back, but those points can be redeemed for cash back at a penny apiece, including at Wells Fargo ATMs or for statement credits. New cardholders receive the equivalent of $200 back for spending at least $1,000 in their first three months with the card.
These cards are among the best options for purchases that don’t fit the spending categories above.
Citi Double Cash MasterCard offers 2% cash back on all purchases without limit.
Alternative: Alliant Cashback Signature Visa offers 2.5% cash back on virtually all purchases up to $10,000 in spending per month. But it has a $99 annual fee (waived the first year), and when that’s factored in, it tops Citi Double Cash’s 2% only if you charge more than $19,800 on it per year. You must be a member of Alliant Credit Union to qualify, but anyone can join by becoming a member of Alliant’s partner charity, Foster Care to Success—the credit union will pay this charity’s membership fee for you.
Discover it Cash Back offers 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in spending per quarter in “bonus categories” that change each quarter, plus 1% on other purchases. Those bonus categories often are well-suited to today’s shopping. Example: In the first three months of 2021, you can get 5% cash back on purchases made at grocery stores, Walgreens and CVS.…and during the final three months of this year, you can get 5% cash back on Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Target.com purchases. If you’re a new cardholder, Discover will match all the rewards you earned during your first year, essentially increasing your cash back on these purchases to 10%.
Chase Freedom Flex offers 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in spending each quarter in rotating categories, much like the Discover it card above. It also offers 3% back at drugstores and restaurants, including takeout and delivery…and 1% on everything else. Chase doesn’t announce all of the upcoming year’s categories in advance, however. New cardholders also can receive $200 for spending $500 in the first three months…and 5% back on up to $12,000 in grocery purchases in the first year.
Best for Low Interest Rates
The challenges of 2020 have left some Americans struggling to pay their bills. If you carry a balance on your credit cards, a low interest rate is much more important than a credit card’s rewards program.
US Bank Platinum Visa offers 0% APR on new purchases and balance transfers for the first 20 months with the card. After that, the variable interest rate is 13.99% to 23.99% depending on credit- worthiness.
Citi Diamond Preferred Mastercard and Citi Double Cash Mastercard, mentioned above, both offer a 0% APR on balance transfers for 18 months. After that the variable APR for Citi Diamond Preferred is 14.74% to 24.74%…and for Citi Double Cash, it’s 13.99% to 23.99%. These cards have a 3% balance transfer fee, which is relatively low by industry standards.
Best Card forFuture Travel
Travel rewards credit cards that charge big annual fees might not make much sense now, but if you’re looking forward to the day when traveling the world fully returns, a travel card that helps you save up for a future trip could be a smart choice.
Capital One Venture has a $95 annual fee and provides two miles for every dollar spent, plus a onetime bonus of 60,000 miles if you spend $3,000 in the first three months. Miles can be redeemed for travel expenses at one cent apiece, so if you reach the bonus level, you’ll have at least $660 in credit. Unlike most travel cards, its miles can be easily redeemed for virtually any travel expenses—you’re not restricted to certain airlines or hotel chains, you don’t need to chase down elusive awards tickets, and there are no blackout dates.
*Offers are current as of time of publication but can change.