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Best credit cards for back-to-school shopping

Check items off your list while optimizing cash-back rewards and welcome bonus offers.

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Families with kids in school will pay around $850 on average for supplies this year, according to the National Retail Federation. Parents of college students face a heftier bill -- $1,200 on average per family -- on top of tuition and room and board. There are a bunch of other pandemic-related supplies that may push those numbers higher this year, as masks, sanitizing wipes and hand wash have become integral items in the backpack.

If you're on the hook for purchases like these, rewards credit cards can earn points, miles or cash back on every purchase. Making use of credit card rewards isn't just about racking up free travel; you can earn rewards for other less glamorous expenses including back-to-school shopping.

As always, shopping with a credit card must be done strategically and with some degree of discipline. If you're not paying off your balance monthly, what you pay in interest may exceed any rewards (or welcome bonus) you might earn. 

Read more: Best laptop for college 2021

Sander Tamm, CEO of the learning platform E-Student, also recommends looking for a card without an annual fee -- unless you know you'll be able to offset that cost with rewards. "Find a credit card with no annual fee. It's hard to justify the extra cost, and you likely won't get your money's worth," he says. After all, an annual fee of $95 or more could be a sizable chunk of your school supplies. 

The following credit cards for back-to-school shopping were selected after a deep dive look into nearly two dozen rewards cards, including cash-back cards. The finalists were chosen based on their rewards rates, fees and rewards redemption requirements. 

Read more: Best student credit card 

Best credit card for earning rewards on back-to-school purchases

Card Highlights
Intro BonusN/A
APR13.99% – 23.99% (Variable)
Recommended Credit Excellent, Good
Reward Rates
  • Earn 2% on every purchase with unlimited 1% cash back when you buy, plus an additional 1% as you pay for those purchases.
Annual Fee$0
Intro Purchase APRN/A
Additional Details
Intro Balance Transfer APR0% intro for 18 months on Balance Transfers
Balance Transfer Fee 3% of each balance transfer; $5 minimum.
Balance Transfer APR13.99% – 23.99% (Variable)
Late Payment Fee Up to $40
Foreign Transaction Fees 3%
Penalty APR Up to 29.99% (Variable)
Rewards & Redemption Details
  • Earn 2% on every purchase with unlimited 1% cash back when you buy, plus an additional 1% as you pay for those purchases.

Our Take

The Citi Double Cash Card offers one of the simplest ways to earn cash back quickly. You'll earn a flat rate of 2% without having to worry about making purchases from only qualifying retailers or having to think about spending categories. The catch: 1% is awarded at the time of purchase and the other 1% when you pay off the balance. The good news is, this method is like earning an award for paying off your credit card.

Best credit card for earning rewards on back-to-school purchases (runner-up)

Card Highlights
Intro BonusEarn a $200 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.
APR14.99 - 23.74% Variable
Recommended Credit Excellent/Good
Reward Rates
  • Earn 5% cash back on grocery store purchases (not including Target® or Walmart® purchases) on up to $12,000 spent in the first year.
  • Earn 5% on Chase travel purchased through Ultimate Rewards®.
  • Earn 3% on dining and drugstores.
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.
Annual Fee$0
Intro Purchase APR0% Intro APR on Purchases for 15 months
Additional Details
Balance Transfer Fee Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Balance Transfer APR14.99 - 23.74% Variable
Foreign Transaction Fees 3% of each transaction in U.S. dollars
Penalty APR Up to 29.99%
Rewards & Redemption Details
  • Earn 5% cash back on grocery store purchases (not including Target® or Walmart® purchases) on up to $12,000 spent in the first year.
  • Earn 5% on Chase travel purchased through Ultimate Rewards®.
  • Earn 3% on dining and drugstores.
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

Our Take

The Chase Freedom Unlimited offers some of the highest rewards rates, with at least 1.5% cash back on all purchases and higher cash-back percentages on money spent on eligible travel through Chase, grocery store, drugstore and dining purchases. In addition, new members get a welcome bonus of $200 after making $500 in purchases within the first three months. It's one of the fastest, simplest ways to earn cash back faster to offset the cost of back-to-school shopping. And if you miss this year's school shopping season, no worries -- rewards don't expire as long as your account is open.

Best credit card for back-to-school electronics purchases

Card Highlights
Intro BonusEarn $750 bonus cash back after you spend $7,500 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening
APR13.24% - 19.24% Variable
Recommended Credit Good, Excellent
Reward Rates
  • Earn 5% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on internet, cable and phone services each account anniversary year
  • Earn 2% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations and restaurants each account anniversary year
  • Earn 1% cash back on all other card purchases with no limit to the amount you can earn
Annual Fee$0
Intro Purchase APR0% Intro APR on Purchases for 12 months
Additional Details
Balance Transfer Fee Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Balance Transfer APR13.24% - 19.24% Variable
Foreign Transaction Fees 3% of each transaction in U.S. dollars.
Penalty APR Up to 29.99%
Rewards & Redemption Details
  • Earn 5% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on internet, cable and phone services each account anniversary year
  • Earn 2% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations and restaurants each account anniversary year
  • Earn 1% cash back on all other card purchases with no limit to the amount you can earn

Our Take

I know what you're thinking -- this is a business card. But if you freelance or have a side hustle -- and 1 in 3 Americans do -- you may also qualify.

The card is ideal for parents who need to ramp up for the school year with tech including laptops, tablets, webcams or smart devices. Your investments are protected through extended warranty protection, which adds one year to the manufacturer's warranty. In addition, you'll receive purchase protection against theft or damage for up to 120 days after purchase, up to $10,000 per claim and $50,000 per account. Best of all, paying for school/office supplies at office supply stores and internet, cable and phone services can earn you an extra 5% cash back (on up to $25,000 in combined purchases each year).

Best credit card for shopping for back-to-school supplies on Amazon

Card Highlights
Intro BonusUp to $150 Amazon Gift Card instantly upon approval
APR14.24% to 22.24% Variable
Recommended Credit N/A
Reward Rates
  • 5% back at Amazon.com and Whole Foods Market with eligible Prime membership*
  • 2% back at restaurants, gas stations, and drugstores*
  • 1% back on all other purchases*
Annual Fee$0
Intro Purchase APRN/A
Additional Details
Balance Transfer Fee Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Balance Transfer APR14.24% to 22.24% Variable
Late Payment Fee Up to $39
Foreign Transaction Fees None
Rewards & Redemption Details
  • 5% back at Amazon.com and Whole Foods Market with eligible Prime membership*
  • 2% back at restaurants, gas stations, and drugstores*
  • 1% back on all other purchases*

Our Take

The pandemic further strengthened Amazon's stranglehold on e-commerce. Let's face it: Ordering from Amazon is fast, cheap and easy. There's no need to drive around looking for specific items from the school supply list any longer -- if you need it, it's probably on Amazon and can be at your doorstep the same or next day. And, if you're trying to support more local businesses, you can buy school supplies from small businesses on Amazon -- you can even narrow in by region. 

The Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card* benefits are enhanced when combined with a Prime membership (which costs $119 per year). You can quickly redeem your rewards at checkout or request cash or gift cards to use elsewhere. In addition, college students or parents who are building credit may be able to get approved with a less-than-perfect credit score. Amazon's card preapproval tool can tell you if you're prequalified in just a few seconds with no effect on your credit report, so you can get an idea of your chances of approval before you apply.

Best credit card for online shopping for back-to-school supplies at Target

Card Highlights
Intro BonusN/A
APR22.90% (Variable)
Recommended Credit Good/Excellent
Reward RatesN/A
Annual Fee$0
Intro Purchase APRN/A
Additional Details
Late Payment Fee Up to $40

Our Take

The REDcard credit card* can earn you 5% off your purchases online, in-store and at Starbucks located within Target stores. The card comes with plenty of perks that regular Target shoppers can make use of, long after the back-to-school season is over. Among them is free shipping for most Target.com purchases and an extra 30 days for returns. Stock up early on the school supplies before they're gone. And if you purchase a back-to-school item your kids end up not needing, you have an extra month to return the unused items.

Another option to consider

See Rates and Fees
Card Highlights
Intro BonusIntro Offer: Unlimited Cashback Match - only from Discover. Discover will automatically match all the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year. There's no minimum spending or maximum rewards. You could turn $150 cash back into $300.
APR11.99% - 22.99% Variable
Recommended Credit Excellent/Good
Reward Rates
  • Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places each quarter like Amazon.com, grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations and when you pay using PayPal, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate.
  • Earn 1% unlimited cash back on all other purchases – automatically.
Annual Fee$0
Intro Purchase APR0% for 14 months
Additional Details
Intro Balance Transfer APR0% for 14 months
Balance Transfer Fee 3% intro balance transfer fee, up to 5% fee on future balance transfers (see terms)*
Balance Transfer APR11.99% - 22.99% Variable
Late Payment Fee None the first time you pay late. After that, up to $40.
Foreign Transaction Fees None
Rewards & Redemption Details
  • Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places each quarter like Amazon.com, grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations and when you pay using PayPal, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate.
  • Earn 1% unlimited cash back on all other purchases – automatically.

Our Take

If you have some big back-to-school shopping lined up and need some breathing room, the Discover it Cash Back* card provides you with over a year (14 months 0% intro APR) to pay off your purchases interest-free (11.99% to 22.99% variable APR thereafter) -- the only card on this list with a longer 0% intro APR period on purchases is the Chase Freedom Unlimited with a 15-month 0% intro APR period on purchases (14.99% to 23.74% variable APR thereafter). As long as you're smart about paying off the balance before the 14 months are up, you effectively get a free loan to cover your school-related expenses. Discover will also match your first year's rewards -- so if you accrue $300 in rewards within your first year, you could receive up to another $300 in rewards from Discover.

To get the most out of this card, you'll want to shop strategically based on quarterly rotating categories that earn you 5% cash back upon activation (on up to $1,500 in quarterly purchases, then 1%) -- you'll get 1% back on all other purchases. From July to September 2021, categories include restaurants and PayPal. If you plan on shopping online for back-to-school gear, maximize your cash back by checking out with PayPal and linking your Discover card. From October to December 2021, the categories update to include Amazon.com, Target.com and Walmart.com -- so if PayPal isn't an option and you can wait on a big-ticket purchase until then, you can earn more back in rewards. You can use your rewards directly at Amazon or via PayPal checkout, have them applied as a statement credit or transfer them to your bank account.

Tips for saving money during back-to-school shopping 

Don't start shopping until you do a little preplanning. Consider the following ideas to beat the national average on back-to-school spending.

Create a budget

Avoid overspending with a budget based on the supplies you need and how much you are willing to spend. Stick tight to your plan and avoid getting swayed by trendy back-to-school fashion or sought-after gear. A budget is the best way to avoid spending more than you can afford -- when you stick to it.

Use gift cards

To maximize rewards hacking and minimize overspending, leverage the power of gift cards by buying one for the amount of your school supply budget. You won't be able to go over the limit, helping you control your spending. And if you're smart about where you buy the gift card, you can also earn more cash-back rewards.

Erik Budde, CEO of GigaPoints, a platform that provides personalized credit card recommendations based on a user's spending, suggests buying a gift card for your back-to-school shopping at a high-rewards category store, such as a grocery store. 

"Since Amazon [and other types of] gift cards are sold at so many different types of retailers, this tactic works in a variety of different places," Budde says. "Many credit cards offer bonus points at office supply stores, drug stores and more." 

Essentially, you may be able to earn points when you buy a gift card at a high rewards category store, while limiting your spending to the gift card amount. 

Compare deals

It's always smart to comparison-shop. Look online, in-store and in ads to find the best prices on the items your kids need. You may need to group your supplies by retailer to get the best deals -- it might involve buying some items online and others at specific retailers, but the extra effort may be worth the savings.

Use that cash back

If you already have a cash-back credit card, don't forget to use any rewards you've earned by applying them towards your purchases at checkout or as a statement credit when the bill is due. 

Cards reviewed

  • Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature card
  • Apple Card
  • Bank of America® Customized Cash Rewards Secured Credit Card
  • Best Buy® Store Card
  • Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
  • Capital One Platinum Credit Card
  • Capital One Walmart Rewards® Mastercard®
  • Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
  • Chase Freedom Flex℠
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
  • Citi Custom Cash℠ Card
  • Citi® Double Cash Card 
  • Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi
  • Discover it® Cash Back
  • Ink Business Cash® Credit Card
  • SimplyCash® Plus Business Credit Card from American Express
  • Staples® More Account
  • Target REDcard™ Credit Card
  • U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card
  • Wells Fargo Active Cash℠ Card
  • Wells Fargo Platinum card

More credit card advice

*All information about the Target Redcard Credit Card, Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card, and the Discover it Cash Back has been collected independently by CNET and has not been reviewed by the issuer.

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