If you have good credit and don’t want to fuss with deciding between or managing cash-back rewards categories on your purchases, the Sallie Mae Evolve may be a worthwhile option. You’ll get the benefits of a cash-back card, without the complications.
Each month you get an unlimited 1.25% back on all purchases, and another 25% in the two areas you spend the most on, whatever they may be. With the 25% bonus in your top two categories, you’ll effectively be earning 1.56% cash back in those areas, and there’s no cap on what you can earn.
The new-cardholder bonus matches your cash back at year’s end, creating a remarkable 2.5% cash back in the first year. It’s simple and easy, even if the overall rate isn’t much higher than flat-rate cards after the first year.
Bonus rewards automatically apply where you spend the most
Decent bonus for new cardholders
Competitive 0% interest offer on purchases and balance transfers
Non-competitive rewards rates, long-term
Limited redemption options for rewards
- Bonus rewards automatically apply where you spend the most: Most tiered cash-back cards either have bonuses for rotating categories or ask you to predict your spending patterns and choose two categories, By contrast, the Sallie Mae Evolve automatically applies your bonus to the two categories you spend the most in each month—it could be travel and gas one month, merchandise and restaurants the next month.
- Decent bonus for new cardholders: Earning 2.5% cash back on up to $20,000 of spending over the first 12 months is competitive (at least for the first year).
- Competitive 0% interest offer on purchases and balance transfers: Sallie Mae doesn’t charge new cardholders interest on either purchases or balance transfers for 15 months, which is on the longer end of the spectrum. This card could be appealing if you need to finance a big purchase or reduce high-interest debt accrued elsewhere. (You must execute any balance transfers within the first 60 days you have the card.)
- Non-competitive rewards rates, long term: Earning 1.25% back is lower than most other flat-rate cash-back credit cards, and far lower than other cards with bonus categories. So you’ll want to shop for a new card earning at least 1.5% back or more if you want a no-hassle rate. If you don’t mind the hassle or have consistent spending patterns, look for a card that rewards at least 2%–3% in your favorite categories.
- Limited redemption options for rewards: Many credit cards let you redeem rewards for gift cards, merchandise, or travel, but the Sallie Mae Evolve card is strictly a cash proposition. You can redeem for a credit on your card statement or as an electronic transfer to a bank account.
- Cash-back hassles: Most cards don’t require you to wait 12 months or spend a large amount to earn your new-cardholder bonus, with a few exceptions. As well, you must accumulate $25 in rewards (requiring a spend of at least $1,602, based on a 1.56% rate) before you can actually get the cash back, rather than being able to redeem whenever you wish. This extra step means money is building up in your Sallie Mae account rather than your own high-yield savings account.
Bonus for New Cardholders
The bonus works like this—you earn 1.25% cash back throughout the first 12 billing cycles, and at the end of the 12-month period, Sallie Mae matches that cash back on your first $20,000 in spending with an additional 1.25%. It’s not bad, but remember that some competing cards also come with bonuses new cardholders can earn by spending a relatively modest amount in their first few months.
The extra 1.25% shows up within one or two billing periods, after the 12th billing period, for a total of up to $250 cash back (if you spent $20,000).
Earning Points & Rewards
The Sallie Mae Evolve card gives you 25% more value in the two categories you spend the most money in, which translates to about 1.56% cash back. While that’s not terrible, there are plenty of cards that reward select categories at 2%, 3% or even 5% cash back, although you may not have as much choice over your monthly categories, and there may be caps.
For everything else you buy with the Sallie Mae Evolve, you’ll get the baseline 1.25% cash back, which is meager compared to the many cash-back credit cards offering 1.5% cash back on all purchases. You can even find a flat rate of 2% back on a few cards.
If you’ve got outstanding student loans, you may want to consider the Sallie Mae Accelerate card instead. That card offers the same 25% bonus if you put your rewards toward paying down your student loans, and also offers the same bonus for new cardholders.
The Sallie Mae Evolve card is pretty limited in terms of its rewards redemption program. You can redeem rewards for statement credits or electronic deposits into a checking or savings account. You’ll need to save up at least $25 in rewards before you can redeem the rewards, too.
The total amount of rewards you can earn is unlimited (other than the $20,000 in 2.5% cash back in the first year), and rewards will never expire as long as your account remains current and open. Just make sure you’ve racked up at least $25 worth if you decide to close your card, since you’ll lose them otherwise.
How to Get the Most Out of This Card
On the redemption side, you won’t have to move points around or try to figure out how to use your rewards to get the most value. You only have to decide if you want them as a statement credit or bank deposit.
So how much cash back can you really earn with this card? Let’s say your top two spending categories are groceries and gas, and you spend what the average U.S. household spends each month—$387 on groceries and $175 on gas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In those two categories alone you would earn about $105 in rewards each year (that includes the bonus rewards). After the first 12 months, you’d get another $84 as your match for the annual spend.
The beauty of this card is that if you go on vacation the following month and spend more on dining out than groceries, your bonus rate will switch over to dining out.
Finally, consider taking advantage of the introductory 0% interest offers for either purchases or balance transfers, since they last 15 months. It can buy you time to pay off a big purchase, or if you’ve piled up expensive, high-interest debt elsewhere, you can transfer it to your Evolve account and get a jump on paying it down before interest charges resume. Just remember you’ll pay a 3% fee on any amount you transfer.
This rewards credit card comes with one card benefit considered “excellent” by the editors of The Balance:
- Cellphone insurance: Qualify for secondary cellphone protection against damage or theft with up to $600 in coverage per claim. A $50 deductible applies for each claim you make, and you will receive a maximum benefit of $1,000 every 12 months.
Flat-rate cash-back cards don’t require you to do much to maximize your rewards, and this one is true to the model, albeit with a twist. Use the card for your regular purchases and you’ll earn at least 1.25% back on all purchases, with a 25% boost in your top two spending categories each month. You won’t have to predict your spending patterns to make sure you’re getting the highest rewards rate on the things you spend the most money on.
Sallie Mae has a mobile app that makes it easy to track your spending, pay bills, or dispute fraudulent transactions. Cardholders also receive free access to their FICO scores each month. Unfortunately, if you need to speak with someone over the phone, you’ll have to do so during select hours, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern Time at 1-888-295-3447.
You can temporarily “pause” their accounts if their credit card is lost or stolen. You can also set up account alerts to notify you when a purchase is made, when you’re getting close to your credit limit, and more.
Watch out for this card’s foreign transaction fee, which tacks on an additional 3% charge any time you use your credit card to make a purchase overseas. Otherwise, this card’s fees are in line with other cards like it on the market.