Cash back credit cards are becoming more common as more and more merchants and retailers accept credit cards as a form of payment. Although cash back cards might seem like an altruistic move by card issuers, the reality is that these cards generate significant profits for them. But the truth is that these cards also provide the significant opportunity for cash back rewards and rebates, offering potentially equal benefits for all parties involved.
Thanks to the growing resurgence in online business (and thus the growing resurgence in online credit card transactions), the market is seeing a variety of new, individualized credit cards unprecedented in history. And, in keeping with the online retailing trend, one of the most prevalent of the new credit cards is the cash back credit card. Cash back credit cards work on a very simple principle: when you shop–using your cash back credit card–at certain targeted retailers or stores, a portion of the money you spend comes back to you, either in the form of a credit to your account or a check (or in some cases a gift certificate to a particular retailer.) Although the rewards are fairly small, the money you get at the end of the year amounts in some ways to a free gift from the credit card company: a way of saying “thanks”. How generous the card issuer is, right–altruistic, even?
It’s a bit more complex than that. Cash back credit cards can only function as a promotional mechanism for the card issuer and can only offer them as an incentive for increased purchase activity. You might think that the company just doles out these rewards from the money that cardholders inject into the company in the form of monthly interest, annual fees, and such, or simply from the credit card company’s cash reserves. But that’s not usually the case. The money that returns to you when you use a cash back credit card at a retailer wasn’t originally your money, or the credit card company’s money. It comes out of the retailers and merchants pocket where your transactions occur.
If you’ve ever had a credit card turned down at a restaurant or retailer because they don’t take your particular credit card, here’s why: in order to process credit card transactions, retailers pay a small percentage of the purchase amount as a fee that is payable to the credit card company. These fees are a significant profit center for the card issuers who have figured out how to co-op increased purchase activity be sharing a percentage of the merchants transaction costs with the cardholders. Ingenious, isn’t it?
If a credit card company has a cash back credit card that offers 5% of your money back on all gas purchases, you have a real incentive to buy gas from your local station more often and to buy it on credit. This means that the credit card company benefits, first because you’re using their services more often (and thus accruing higher balances), and second because every time you use your card at a gas station, the station pays right along side you.
However, this is not a bad deal for the gas station, either, since more cardholders are frequenting their station and buying more gas, only a percentage of the price of which goes to the credit card companies. This means that they’re more likely to deal with that particular credit card company, since doing so is now a powerful source of revenue for them (as well as a slightly more powerful source of expense.) And finally, once cardholders get their cash back, guess where they’ll probably take at least a portion of it, using the freshly-added credit on their cash back cards?
It’s a clever, yet symbiotic relationship. But everyone in the cash back credit card circle seems to benefit. The credit card company and the gas station generate more business, and the individual cardholder gets essentially a discount on purchases in the form of cash rebates or rewards. While the cost of these programs for card issuers will likely increase as more cardholders begin to understand and utilize these card products more effectively for their personal gain, the popularity of cash back credit cards with consumers is not likely to wane anytime soon. While not entirely altruistic, for everyone in the cash back benefit loop, cash back cards still make sense.