The trick is to know what kind of cardholder you are. For example, do you prefer strategic shopping to get higher returns, or would you rather get the same cash-back return on all your spending? Do you swipe your cash-back card for every purchase or only use it on occasion? Depending on your credit card habits, there's probably one that's the best fit for you.
Cards that require planning
Budget-makers and financial strategists would probably dig the machinations it takes to maximize cash-back cards that offer different reward redemption rates on certain spending categories. Twenty-one cards in Bankrate's 2013 survey offered accelerated earnings for specific permanent categories such as dining, travel, groceries and gas.
Four cash-back rewards cards in the survey were even more complex, with rotating categories that require quarterly registration. In one instance -- the U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Signature Card -- cardholders get double rewards on the category they spend the most on each month such as gas, groceries, airline travel or cellphone bills.
"(This) means that consumers have to spend more time understanding and monitoring these more complex cards," says Bill McCracken, CEO of Synergistics Research Corp. in Atlanta. "So (that's) more frustration, but (for a) potentially richer payback."
Too busy? There's a card for that
Overscheduled moms and others juggling a lot of responsibilities would rather have a cash-back card that is uncomplicated and straightforward. Seventeen cards in Bankrate's survey feature a flat cash-back ratio on all purchases -- ranging from a half-percent to 2 percent -- that wasn't affected by annual bonuses, tiered redemption or category spending.
"These consumers should get a card that has a simple structure and that offers auto-redemptions if possible," says Amy Lenander, vice president of rewards programs at Capital One. "That way, they get their rewards without spending too much time on it."
Cash-back cards come with numerous ways to redeem rewards, perfect for the convenience user. Some will issue rewards as checks, statement credits, gift cards or charity donations. Others will automatically deposit rewards directly into a bank account.
Best cards for light users
The occasional cash-back card user would be smart to stay away from cards that charge annual fees, says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com. Eleven cards in the Bankrate survey came with an annual fee, ranging between $12 to as much as $400.