Ask an Expert: Best Cash-Back Bonus Offer for a Moderate Budget?

It doesn't make sense to apply for a card with a huge initial bonus if you can't meet the spending requirements to get the reward.

Ask an Expert: Best Cash-Back Bonus Offer for a Moderate Budget? Photo (cc) by Andres Rueda

This post comes from Jason Bushey, a credit card and personal finance expert with

I recently received this question from a Money Talks News reader:

I’m looking for a cash-back bonus credit card. I have good credit and my budget (for credit card payments) is around $200 a month. What’s the best bonus offer available for that kind of money? Thanks. — Don D.

My response

Don’s question is a good one because a lot of us get excited about the excellent bonus offers we find online or on TV, only to read the fine print and realize that you need to spend an exorbitant amount in the first three months just to qualify for the bonus advertised.

The fact of the matter is that you shouldn’t apply for a credit card whose bonus offer is outside your monthly budget or spending habits. Opening such a card could mean missing out on the bonus completely, or living outside your means for a few months to earn a bonus that’s unlikely to make up for the fact that you now have a pretty serious balance to pay back.

If you have a moderate monthly budget (one close to the budget that Don describes above), there are still some excellent cash-back bonus offers available to you if you have a good to excellent credit score. But when choosing the best bonus offer for you, there are a few things to consider.

Immediate satisfaction

Some credit cards are so generous with the bonus offer that they’ll compensate you just for making your first purchase. Obviously, these cards work out great for consumers with a moderate to average budget since the minimum required to receive the bonus is essentially $1.

One example of such a card is the Barclaycard Rewards MasterCard for Excellent Credit, which rewards cardholders with 5,000 bonus points (equal to a $50 statement credit) after they make their first purchase or balance transfer. Another Barclaycard, the NFL Extra Points Credit Card, goes one step further and offers 10,000 bonus points (equal to a $100 cash-back statement credit) after your first swipe.

If you’re looking for immediate satisfaction from your new card and you have excellent credit, those are two bonus offers to consider.

Spending requirements

The next tier of bonus cash-back cards requires $500 or more in purchases on your new card within the first three months of opening your account. These cards fit squarely with Don’s budget, since $200 per month is more than enough to qualify. There are a handful of cash-back credit cards offering this kind of bonus, so consumers can look to other card features when considering which offer is right for them.

For example, the Chase Freedom card offers a $100 cash-back bonus plus a 5 percent bonus cash-back program on up to $1,500 in purchases that rotate each quarter. The ongoing bonus cash back offered by this card might be more lucrative for you than that of the Capital One Cash Rewards Card with a $100 cash-back bonus. It offers 1 percent cash back on all purchases and a 50 percent anniversary bonus on the cash back you earn each year, which basically amounts to 1.5 percent cash back on everything, always.

Maybe you don’t want to be bothered with enrolling each quarter and like to keep your cash-back options simple and low-maintenance. It’s important to consider not just the initial bonus offer, but how the card functions and the long-term cash-back prospects of a card when determining which card works best for you.

Bonus categories

It’s not only important to determine how much you spend each month, but also what you’re spending your money on when choosing the best cash-back bonus offer for your moderate budget.

For example, if you’re racking up the miles on your car and paying for it severely at the pump, it wouldn’t hurt to earn some bonus cash back for gas purchases. The Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express has an initial bonus offer that might be out of your league (150 Reward Dollars after $1,000 in purchases in the first three months), but the long-term bonus categories include 3 percent cash back at U.S. gas stations and 6 percent cash back (up to $6,000 annually) on purchases made at U.S. grocery stores.

There’s an annual fee of $75, and while you might be sacrificing some short-term cash back initially, maybe a card that rewards you substantially for your more common purchases is a better investment in the long run.

So getting back to Don’s original question, the answer to the best cash-back bonus offer for a moderate budget can really depend on an individual’s spending practices. Like anything in life, there’s more than one thing to consider. Look beyond the initial bonus to the long-term bonus opportunities available, and ask yourself whether or not a card will fit your budget rather than the other way around.


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