After owning more than a dozen travel credit cards, I finally got my first cash-back card — and I've already earned $525 in rewards

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  • I opened the Chase Freedom Unlimited® recently, and I’ve already earned 35,000 points.
  • The welcome bonus was 20,000 points ($200 after spending $500 in the first three months from account opening), and then I earned another 15,000 with my daily spending.
  • By transferring those points to my Chase Sapphire Reserve®, I can redeem them for $525 in value.
  • Read Insider’s guide to the best Chase credit cards.

Some might say I’m a little obsessed with travel rewards credit cards — to the tune of having owned nearly 20 of them.

In all these years of collecting credit card rewards, I’ve never bothered with cash-back cards because I’m an avid traveler who prefers points and miles. However, when the pandemic hit and travel came to a screeching halt, I started to wonder whether it was finally time to open my first cash-back credit card.

I decided the answer was yes, and in two months, I’ve already earned $525 in rewards.

We’re focused here on the rewards and perks that come with each card. These cards won’t be worth it if you’re paying interest or late fees. When using a credit card, it’s important to pay your balance in full each month, make payments on time, and only spend what you can afford to pay.

Chase Freedom Unlimited®

Chase Chase Freedom Unlimited®

This was especially true given that at the time, the Chase Freedom Unlimited® and Chase Freedom Flex℠ were offering 5% back on groceries, currently one of my biggest spending categories, for your first year. Even though this offer is no longer available for new cardholders, the Chase Freedom cards still have one of the highest rewards rates of any cash-back credit card with no annual fee. 

I opted for the Chase Freedom Unlimited® over the Chase Freedom Flex℠. The two cards have some similarities, with both offering 5% back on travel booked with Chase and 3% back on dining and drugstores. However, the Chase Freedom Unlimited® offers 1.5% back on everything else, whereas the Chase Freedom Flex℠ gets you 5% back on up to $1,500 in combined spending per quarter in rotating bonus categories when you activate (then 1%) and 1% back on everything else. I didn’t want to have to worry about maxing out rotating bonus categories, so the Chase Freedom Unlimited® was best for me.

How I earned $525 in rewards in just 2 months

Both cards also offer one of the best sign-up bonuses you can get on a no-annual-fee credit card — $200 after spending $500 in the first three months from account opening. The bonus and earning is actually in the form of Chase Ultimate Rewards points, worth 1 cent apiece when you redeem for cash back — so $200 is actually 20,000 points.

I earned the sign-up bonus fairly quickly thanks to the low minimum spending requirement, and I’ve been earning another 7,500 points per month with my regular spending. Altogether, I’ve earned about 35,000 points since opening the card just two months ago. 

That’s $350 in cash back, but when I transfer the points to my Chase Sapphire Reserve® account, they’re worth 1.5 cents each when redeemed for travel booked through Chase or with Pay Yourself Back — so 35,000 points are actually worth $525.

How I’m using my rewards during the pandemic

Granted, I’m not doing a lot of traveling due to the pandemic, so redeeming credit card points has gotten trickier. That’s part of why I wanted a cash-back card.

Luckily, Chase has made it easier by introducing the Pay Yourself Back feature that allows you to use your Ultimate Rewards points to essentially “erase” purchases in certain categories until April 30, 2021, with an increased value. With the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, points are worth 1.25 cents each, and with the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, 1.5 cents each, when you redeem for grocery, dining, home improvement store, and eligible charity purchases. 

Quick tip: Chase Ultimate Rewards points don’t expire as long as your account is open and in good standing, so it’s OK to save them for a trip after the pandemic is over. But if you want to use them now, there are lots of good ways to redeem Chase points that don’t involve travel.

I’ve used Pay Yourself Back to save $597 on groceries and food delivery already during months when my spending was higher than normal. I even used this new redemption option to get a Nintendo Switch with credit card points. I’ve also used my Ultimate Rewards points for socially-distant travel by booking rental cars and private vacation homes.

Other high-value cash back credit cards I considered

As a traveler who is temporarily opting for cash-back cards, there’s no better option than the Chase Freedom cards. However, there are some other excellent cash-back cards on the market that I considered.

For example, the Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card is packed with value for anyone who spends a lot on food. The 4% cash back on dining and entertainment is about as good as it gets, plus you get another 2% back on groceries. I was tempted but decided I don’t spend enough money on the bonus categories to justify a $95annual fee.

I also considered the Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card and the Citi® Double Cash Card, which are two of the best cash-back cards with no annual fee. I like that the Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card lets you choose your bonus spending category and comes with a generous cash welcome bonus.

While the Citi® Double Cash Card doesn’t have a welcome offer, it does offer the highest rewards rate of any flat-rate cash back card — 2% on all purchases (1% when you make a purchase and 1% when you pay it off). That being said, even the 1.5% back that I earn with the Chase Freedom Unlimited® is worth more because I can redeem Ultimate Rewards points for a higher value.

Ultimately, the best credit card for you depends entirely on your spending habits and rewards goals. For me, the Chase Freedom Unlimited® was a clear winner.

Citi Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®Chase Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit CardChase Chase Freedom Unlimited®

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