For quite a while now, there have been two cards worth mentioning for everyday, non-manufactured, real honest-to-God spend: the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card, which gives 2% cash back on all purchases, and the Barclaycard Arrival (now Arrival+) MasterCard which earns 2 Arrival "miles" per dollar spend, redeemable for 1 cent each against travel purchases, with a 10% rebate on all travel purchase redemptions.
With its $89 annual fee, the Arrival+ MasterCard is theoretically only superior (with its 10% rebate) to the Fidelity Investment Rewards card if you spend over $44,500 per year on your Arrival+. Thanks to Barclaycard's liberal approach to annual fee waivers, that hasn't actually been a binding constraint for literally anyone I have talked to about the card. But that fee waiver policy could change at any time, so the annual fee is still important to be aware of.
Citibank has now entered the market with what claims to be a 2% cash back, no-annual-fee MasterCard. It's no secret that I've given Gary Leff a hard time about his fawning treatment of the card, but I'm not one to throw babies and bathwater out together. I'll probably get the card one of these days, and this is how I'll use it.
What we know – and don't know – about Citi Double Cash
The new Citi Double Cash card earns 1% cash back on purchases and an additional 1% cash back "as you pay." I assume my readers' first reaction to this scheme was the same as mine: "Wait, can I earn 1% cash back on bill payments?!?" Here's the relevant entry in the card's Terms and Conditions:
"Cash Back on Payments: You will also earn 1% cash back on payments you make that appear on your current month's billing statement as long as the amount paid is at least the Minimum Payment Due that is printed on your billing statement and there is a balance in the Purchase Tracker. The balance in the Purchase Tracker is reduced by eligible payments you make. When the Purchase Tracker reaches $0, you won't earn cash back on payments until more eligible purchases are made." (emphasis mine)
Good try, but whoever came up with the unlimited 5-ThankYou-Point-per-dollar offer has apparently been let go, so they aren't just shoveling cash willy-nilly into furnaces anymore.
What we don't know is what the hell a "Purchase Tracker" is and, most importantly, whether purchases show up there immediately upon posting or only after a statement has closed.
There's simply no way to know until datapoints start coming in, but that's a potentially huge difference: will folks who pay off their entire balance before each statement closes earn 1% or 2% cash back on their purchases?
For those who do wait to pay off their balances until after their statement closes, the final 1% cash back won't be earned until two months after the initial purchase was made. That makes the card a hybrid between the "old" Blue Cash's 2-statement delay and the Fidelity Investment Rewards card's 2% cash back program, which allows you to redeem all your rewards each month (as long as you've accumulated at least $50 in cash back).
The beauty of negative-interest-rate loans
Many cards offer 0% introductory interest rates on purchases. The goal, naturally, is for customers to run up large bills during the interest-free period, then pay them off over time (or, realistically, never) once the promotional period ends. It's a ludicrously simple – and effective – trap for unsuspecting customers.
Few of those 0% introductory rate cards offer 1% cash back on all purchases. None of them have offered 2% cash back on all purchases, until now.
The Citi Double Cash card offers 15 months of 0% interest rate financing for purchases (and balance transfers, but with their 3% balance transfer fee).
The 1% immediate cash back rate makes your initial manufactured spend purchases free once your first statement closes. Except they're better than free: they're interest-free. Fund Kiva loans with a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card, stick the money in a Mango 6% APY saving account, or pay off your Blue Cash card and go around the track another time or two each month. No matter what you do with the money, your returns will be printed at the bank's expense, since the 15-month loan is interest-free.
Then 14-and-a-half months later, pay off your Citi Double Cash card with your favorite miles-earning debit card and pocket another 1% cash back on the amount you've been floating.
That's how I'll be using my Citi Double Cash card, once I make up my mind to actually apply for one. I'd love to hear from readers who have already decided to jump in: what the hell is a Purchase Tracker, and what else do we need to know about the card?