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Why Can’t I Tell If I’m Earning Cash Back?

woman credit card computerI’m a big fan of Discover’s cash back program. It’s saved me hundreds of dollars over the years.

Yet, I feel like the credit card company is trying to keep me in the dark, perhaps hoping it can get away with not giving me as much cash back as it’s promised.

Discover entices consumers to sign up for its credit card by offering 1% back on all purchases and 5% back on spending categories that change quarterly.

But once you become a cardholder, you’ll learn there’s no easy way to tell if Discover is accurately crediting your account with the cash you think you’re earning.

This problem isn’t unique to Discover, but it’s the only cash back card I hold, so it’s the only one I can thoroughly analyze.

On my monthly statement, Discover breaks my cash back into two categories: 5% Cashback Bonus and Everywhere Else (i.e., 1% cash back). But it doesn’t say how much I earned from each transaction.

To know whether I earned as much cash back as Discover promises, I’d have to go through my statement, calculate the cash back percentage I believe I’m entitled to from each purchase, then see if that sum matches Discover’s totals.

I tried it out.

I went through my last five statements line by line and used a spreadsheet to categorize each of my purchases according to whether I thought they should have earned 1% or 5% back.

It took me four hours to review five statements. I was able to figure out how my cash back was calculated on three statements. I gave up on one and contacted customer service for clarification on another.

It turns out I received all the cash back I was entitled to. But confirming it wasn’t easy. In some cases, it was impossible to discern on my own.

For example, whether you earn 5% back in the bonus categories depends on how the merchant categorizes itself, something the consumer doesn’t know.

So, if I know I made a purchase online, but the merchant’s name on my bill doesn’t end in “.com” or “online,” was it categorized as an online purchase that got me 5% under Discover’s fourth-quarter promotion, or was it categorized as a regular purchase earning 1% back?

Look, I don’t want to mess around with spreadsheets for hours to figure out what combination of purchases adds up to the cash back amounts posted on my bill.

Who has the time for that?

Plus, for most consumers, trying to track down missing cash back amounts, which are probably small, isn’t worth the trouble.

If a credit card company is going to advertise cash back as a major reason why I should carry its card, though, it should let me know how much cash back I’m actually earning on each purchase. This information would only strengthen my desire to remain a cardholder, as I’d be able to tell exactly how rewarding it is to use my card.

The company says you can call 800-DISCOVER and get the cash back breakdown from a customer service representative.

But, if Discover has those details, why not print them on cardholders’ statements?

And who wants to spend the time to call customer service? Going over my statements is tedious enough.

Discover should just add a column to monthly statements showing the dollar amount of cash back earned on each purchase.

Yes, it turns out Discover credited me correctly, but why not avoid the doubt cardholders like me have that the credit card company is trying to deceive? Be transparent.

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Comments (2)
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2 Existing Comments
  1. woodshop2300 said:
    on February 17th at 02:00 pm

    Mastercard and Visa are the same way. Statements don’t tell you anything useful.

    I’ll give Visa a little credit though, at least you can look up the category info for a Visa Merchant online before you buy using the Visa Supplier Locator.

  2. Brian92104 said:
    on February 17th at 04:20 pm

    Great article! I had to contact Discover on a couple cash-back purchases and they were corrected right away. This was usually due to a merchant being mis-categorized in their system.