Cash back is the most versatile type of credit card rewards, as it can be redeemed for anything, and there’s never any doubt about how much it’s worth. Points have a value set by the credit card company and tend to be worth the most when redeemed for travel. Credit card companies won’t always clearly disclose points values, and those values can change over time. It’s possible that points could be worth 1 cent apiece one day and 0.8 cents each the next.
You can spend points for many different things. Usually, you can trade them for travel, gift cards, unique experiences, charitable donations or even cash. There are no restrictions on what you can use cash for. You can typically redeem cash back for a statement credit, paper check, or direct deposit to a bank account.
One thing credit card shoppers should watch out for are cards advertised as offering cash back that really provide points. For example, the Chase Freedom card offers “5% cash back” in certain bonus categories. But what it actually gives is 5 Chase Ultimate Rewards points per $1, which cardholders can then trade for cash back at a rate of 1 cent each.
Cash Back vs Points:
When it’s the best choice: Points for frequent travelers. Cash back for everyone else.
Let’s take a look at two high-profile cards in a battle of cash back vs. points.
Citi Double Cash tops the cash back offerings with 2% cash back on all purchases and an introductory APR of 0% for 18 months on balance transfers. It also chases a $0 annual fee and requires good credit to get.
But if you have excellent credit and you’re a frequent traveler, Chase Sapphire Preferred is a more attractive option. It gives 2 points per $1 spent on travel purchases and 1 on everything else. It has an initial bonus of 50,000 points for spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. Preferred’s points are worth 1 cent each toward cash back or gift cards or 1.25 cents each toward travel. There’s a $95 annual fee, which is waived the first year. The card requires excellent credit.
For both cash back and points cards, you can expect to lose your rewards if your account closes for any reason. Most cards don’t let your rewards expire over time. But Citi Double Cash’s cash back expires if you don’t use your card for 12 months. And on points cards alone, your points can be devalued if the issuer decides to charge more points for its rewards. So frequent redemption is essential.
So the bottom line is that frequent travelers should check out points cards. Otherwise, cash is king.