Three Percent Cash Back for a Few, and Less Debt for Many

There is, of course, some fine print.

Users have two ways to earn 3 percent cash back. If you spend over $100,000 per year, you earn the 3 percent reward and keep earning it for the rest of that year and all of the next year, until you requalify or fail to do so. If you can’t spend that much, you can also hit the 3 percent mark by referring enough of your friends to the system: four new people each year, but only if they set up direct deposit and zap their paychecks into a Zero account at least two times and make two purchases with the card.

Cash-back rewards are available at lower tiers, too. Everyone gets 1 percent cash back as a baseline. People who spend $25,000 or refer one person per year get 1.5 percent cash back. Spend $50,000 or refer two people, and the cash back rises to 2 percent.

A quick note to the card nerds out there: Yes, you can get cash from an A.T.M. Yes, it’s technically a cash advance on a credit card. No, you won’t have to pay cash advance fees. Yes, the A.T.M. owner might charge a small fee. No, Zero is not paying that fee unless you qualify for the 3 percent club.

So let us consider this 3 percent offer and set it against the history of lofty — and often broken — promises here in cardland.

Zero’s business model is insulated somewhat by the fact that the vast majority of its users will almost certainly not earn 3 percent cash back.

Most people need an income of at least $250,000 to support $100,000 in annual spending. And as for those referrals, think about everything that has to happen to successfully make four each year.

You’ve got to be nervy enough to push cards on behalf of the company. Your friends and family have to trust you. Then, they must disrupt two vital systems in their financial lives, switching both their checking accounts and their primary credit card. Doing that involves rearranging automated transfers with all the entities that interact with those accounts each month: pushing in paychecks and other deposits, or pulling out bill payments.