CNN Underscored reviews financial products such as credit cards and bank accounts based on their overall value. We may receive a commission through the LendingTree affiliate network if you apply and are approved for a card, but our reporting is always independent and objective.
Our quick take: The Citi Custom Cash℠ Card was only recently launched in June, yet it’s a promising option in a sea of popular cash back credit cards. The card matches up with other rewards credit cards that offer 5% cash back in a set of rotating categories, but the Custom Cash has a major advantage — you automatically earn 5% back in the one eligible category you spend the most in each billing cycle.
- Earn 5% back in the one eligible category you spend the most in each billing period up to $500 in purchases, and 1% back on all other purchases
- Cash back is awarded as Citi ThankYou points that can be combined with a premium Citi card and turned into more powerful flexible travel rewards
- 0% introductory APR on purchases and balance transfers for the first 15 months, followed by a variable APR of 14.74% to 24.74% after the intro period ends
- No annual fee
- Can be difficult to predict which category you’ll spend the most in, thus making it hard to maximize rewards on all your purchases
- High 5% balance transfer fee (with a $5 minimum)
- 5% back in rewards is capped at $500 in spending each billing cycle
Current sign-up bonus: Earn $200 in bonus cash when you spend $750 on purchases within three months of opening the account.
Best for: People who want to earn 5% back in a category they spend the most in each billing period without having to plan or think about it. This card is also a solid option for anyone who wants to avoid paying interest when they make new purchases and/or carry a balance for the first 15 months they have the card.
Digging into the Citi Custom Cash Card
The Citi Custom Cash Card is one of the most recent additions to the world of cash back credit cards. It’s designed to compete with cards that offer 5% back in rotating categories such as the Chase Freedom Flex℠ or the Discover it® Cash Back, but the Citi Custom Cash Card doles out bonus cash back in its own way.
There are a few factors that make the Citi Custom Cash Card different. For starters, card holders earn 5% cash back on up to $500 spent in their top eligible category each billing cycle (then 1% back). And while the eligible categories are set in stone, they’re broad enough to appeal to almost anyone.
You also don’t have to “enroll” in any preset categories to maximize your bonus rewards. Instead, the 5% back is automatically awarded in the eligible category where you’ve spent the most each billing cycle. This means you could theoretically have a different 5% back category every month of the year.
However, your bonus rewards are limited since you only earn 5% back on up to $500 in spending per billing cycle. This means you can earn a maximum of $25 back in bonus rewards per billing cycle, or a total of $300 back per year. But that’s on top of the 1% back you earn on all your other purchases.
Advantages of the Citi Custom Cash Card
The best part about the Citi Custom Cash Card, aside from the fact that it doesn’t have an annual fee, is that it’s very much a “set it and forget it” type of card. Since your 5% cash back is awarded to your top eligible category automatically based on your spending, you don’t have to worry about keeping track of an ever-changing list of categories.
Also, with such a broad list of eligible 5% back categories, you should have no problem getting 5% cash back on at least some purchases each month. The current eligible categories are:
- Gas stations
- Grocery stores
- Select travel
- Select transit
- Select streaming services
- Home improvement
- Fitness clubs
- Live entertainment
New card holders can also earn a sign-up bonus of $200 in cash back after spending $750 on purchases within the first three months of opening the account. That’s a low spending threshold to meet for a relatively generous bonus.
As a side note, it’s also important to note that this card actually awards its cash back in the form of Citi ThankYou points instead of traditional cash back. While you can easily redeem those points for a statement credit at a rate of 1 cent per point, it also opens up other redemption options.
Specifically, if you also have either a Citi Premier® Card or a Citi Prestige card (though the Citi Prestige is no longer open to new applicants), you can combine the ThankYou points earned on the Citi Custom Cash Card with your premium card and transfer them to any of Citi’s airline partners, potentially getting even more value for them than just 1 cent per point.
Finally, new Citi Custom Cash Card holders get a 0% introductory APR on both purchases and balance transfers for the first 15 months, which can be very helpful if you need to temporarily carry some debt. But make sure you pay it off in full by the end of the 15 months, because the rate rises to a variable APR of 14.74% to 24.74% once the introductory offer expires.
Disadvantages of the Citi Custom Cash Card
One downside of the Citi Custom Cash Card is that to really maximize its rewards scheme, you need to have another credit card that offers more than 1% back on regular purchases, and then do some careful planning.
For instance, let’s say you pair the Citi Custom Cash Card with the Citi® Double Cash Card, which earns 2% cash back on everything you buy — 1% when you make a purchase, and another 1% when you pay it off. To make the most of the 5% back you earn with the Custom Cash, you’d almost have to use it in just one category each month, then switch all your other purchases to the Double Cash. That’s because if you used the Custom Cash in several different 5% back categories within a billing cycle, you’d wind up earning only 1% back in all but one of them.
Separately, the Citi Custom Cash Card charges a balance transfer fee of 5% with a minimum of $5, which is higher than the typical 3% fee charged by many balance transfer credit cards. So if your main need is to consolidate debt at a low interest rate for a limited time, you may want to look for another option that carries a lower fee.
Stacking up the Citi Custom Cash Card against our benchmark
CNN Underscored uses the Citi Double Cash Card as our “benchmark” credit card. That doesn’t mean it’s the best credit card on the market — rather, it means we use it as a basic standard to compare other credit cards and see where they score better, and where they’re worse.
Here’s how the Citi Custom Cash Card scores against our benchmark. The features of each card in the below chart are colored in green, red or white. Green indicates a card feature that’s better than our benchmark, red indicates the feature is worse than our benchmark and white indicates the feature is either equivalent or cannot be directly compared to our benchmark.
As you can see, these two cash back credit cards are very similar. However, it’s easy to see why you might choose one over the other in many different scenarios.
For example, the Citi Double Cash makes predicting your rewards easier since you get a flat 2% back on all purchases — 1% when you buy and 1% when you pay it off. This card also has a longer balance transfer offer of 18 months, and a lower balance transfer fee of 3% (minimum $5). This makes it a safer bet when it comes to maximizing your rewards on all your spending, as well as a much better option for debt consolidation.
On the flip side, the Citi Custom Cash offers 5% cash back on up to $500 in spending per billing cycle, which may work for people who want to maximize their rewards in certain categories. It also comes with a sign-up bonus, which can boost your first year rewards haul. Also, the Citi Custom Cash has an introductory APR on purchases for 15 months, whereas the Citi Double Cash doesn’t.
Other credit cards similar to the Citi Custom Cash Card
If you’re looking specifically for cards that earn 5% cash back, you’ll want to take a look at the Chase Freedom Flex and the Discover it Cash Back. Each of these cards gives you 5% back on up to $1,500 spent in rotating categories each quarter, then 1% back. But they are fairly different beyond that.
For example, the Chase Freedom Flex also offers 5% back on travel through Chase and on Lyft rides (through March 2022), and 3% back on dining and drugstore purchases. The Freedom Flex also starts you off with $200 in bonus cash when you spend $500 within three months of account opening.
But when it comes to the 5% categories of the Chase Freedom Flex, you’re restricted to a set of categories set by Chase that change each quarter, and you need to enroll in those bonus categories each time to earn the cash back. So there’s two tasks to keep in mind each time the categories change — enrolling in the new category set and then remembering to use your card on a new set of purchases.
The Discover it Cash Back also comes with no annual fee and has a set of quarterly rotating bonus categories that you must enroll in each time they change. You also only earn cash back with the Discover it card — there’s no way to convert the cash back to more valuable travel points.
But the Discover it does have an intriguing sign-up bonus: The issuer matches all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, which means those 5% bonus categories can actually turn into 10% bonus categories at the end of the first year you have the card. The Discover it also has an introductory offer on purchases and balance transfers, so make sure to compare your options if that’s your focus.
Should you get the Citi Custom Cash Card?
The Citi Custom Cash Card is definitely worth considering all on its own if you want to earn rewards without an annual fee. After all, this card gives you the chance to earn 5% back in a single category every billing cycle, and you can also earn a generous bonus of $200 when you spend $750 within three months after opening the account.
But the best way to use the Citi Custom Cash Card is to pair it with not just one but two other Citi cards. If you also get a Citi Double Cash Card, you can use the Custom Cash on the one category you spend the most in each month to earn 5% back in that category, and then earn 2% cash back on everything else with the Double Cash. Then, by having the Citi Premier as well, you can turn all that cash back into valuable travel points and let your credit card rewards take you off on an exciting adventure.
Find out which credit cards CNN Underscored chose as its best credit cards of 2021.