Cash is king when it comes to credit card rewards

Bloomberg photo by Daniel Acker

Visa and Mastercard credit cards are pictured Sept. 18, 2018.

Cash is king in many of life's situations, from wedding presents to real estate transactions. It's also the most preferred credit card perk in the U.S.

A new CreditCards.com survey found 49% of American adults have a cash back credit card, a six percent increase from last year. It's an easy option for consumers who don't want to worry about complicated point systems or meeting certain spending requirements.

"Cash back is a great starting point because it's so simple," said Ted Rossman, an industry analyst at CreditCards.com. "Just think of it as free money."

Cash back card holders were the most likely to redeem their rewards: 88% did so at least once in the last year. At least three quarters of all card holders redeemed rewards across all five categories.

Millennials cashed in more than any other generation. Half of 23 to 38 year-olds received cash back from their credit cards at least monthly. Roughly a quarter did so weekly. The generation's credit activity bodes well for the upcoming Apple Card, said Rossman. One of the main draws of the card, which is a partnership between the tech company and Goldman Sachs, is that cash rewards are paid out to customers the same day as the purchase. Most cash back cards offer rewards monthly.

The Apple Card is expected to launch sometime this summer with 3% cash back on all Apple purchases, 2% every time a customer uses Apple Pay (the digital payment app) and 1% any time the physical card is used.

The most popular rewards categories for cash back are groceries (35%), travel (27%), gas (23%) and dining (14%), according to an earlier CreditCards.com study.

Although Americans prefer cash back cards, they're not necessarily the best bang for your buck. An average cash back card returns 1.25%, according to Rossman. Transferable travel point cards can have values upwards of 5% when special offers and sign up bonuses are taken into consideration. Such cards, however, requires vigilant monitoring by users, who often have to trade one card for another to get the best deal, Rossman added.

No matter the type of credit card, no reward will be worth it if you don't pay off your balance. "They get the rewards but the math is not their friend," Rossman said of consumers who carry a balance. Interest rates usually hover around 18%.

The CreditCards.com report surveyed over 2,500 U.S. adults online earlier in July, employing a non-probability-based sample designed to provide nationally representative results.

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