The Chase Freedom Flex℠ card just announced its 5 percent cash back categories for the second quarter of 2021: gas stations and home improvement stores. The promotion applies on up to $1,500 in eligible spending, then cardholders get 1 percent cash back after that. Activation is required.
I’m a big Freedom Flex fan. However, I’m starting to think that while its rotating 5 percent categories get a lot of attention, the card’s primary value lies elsewhere. When the Freedom Flex evolved out of the now discontinued Freedom card last September, it added solid year-round earnings potential. This includes 5 percent cash back on travel booked through Chase and 3 percent on dining and at drugstores. The old Freedom card gave 1 percent on everything aside from the rotating 5 percent cash back promotions.
It’s a small sample, but the first two quarters of 2021 suggest that the Freedom Flex’s rotating categories are moving in a more niche direction. Historically, the Freedom card focused on groceries in Q2, which is about as universal a spending category as you can find.
Taking the road less traveled
Some of what I suspect Chase is doing here is trying to zig as others zag. Maybe they felt like groceries were overdone in 2020. At one point, it felt like almost every credit card offered heightened grocery rewards as COVID restrictions spurred grocery spending while other categories such as travel and dining plummeted.
By emphasizing internet, cable and phone services and select streaming services in Q1 2021, Chase leaned into the work and play at home theme with a couple of niche categories that few other cards maximize. Q1 also included wholesale clubs, a pandemic-friendly grocery-like category (although not as mainstream).
I can see why Chase picked home improvement stores in Q2. Spring is a big season for DIYers, and home improvement spending has been way up throughout the pandemic. My critiques of home improvement stores as a 5 percent category are: 1) it lacks broad appeal and 2) it’s boom or bust. If you rent your home, you may spend very little at home improvement stores. And even among homeowners, big projects are interspersed with quiet times.
Last year, my family spent a ton on renovations. This year, we don’t have much planned (unless something breaks, of course, which is always a possibility). I’ll buy some lawn and gardening supplies, but those won’t get me anywhere close to the $1,500 limit. There are a couple of workarounds that could help me and others get solid value out of this promotion.
One is that some home improvement stores, such as The Home Depot and Lowe’s, sell gift cards from a variety of retailers. You could stock up on these and effectively save 5 percent at a lot of different places. Another idea is that most home improvement stores sell much more than building supplies. Even if you’re not renovating per se, maybe you’re in the market for something like a new desk chair, lamp, area rug, coffee table or closet organizer. If it’s money you would have spent anyway, you might as well get 5 percent cash back.
Gas stations are often among the Freedom Flex’s 5 percent categories. Many years they’re a Q3 offering, which emphasizes the summer road trip tradition. While the latter portion of Q2 has an early summer vibe, I question how much driving most of us will do in Q2 2021.
Even though there are reasons to be optimistic about the COVID situation, we’re still in a pandemic, after all. Chase’s daily spending tracker shows that gas spending has been slow to recover and remains about 20 percent below its pre-pandemic trend. Many employees are still working from home and most people are still avoiding large public gatherings. Based upon recent comments by President Joe Biden and his top health advisors, it feels like a lot more people will be hitting the road in Q3 than in Q2.
For what it’s worth, I always find gas to be an underwhelming 5 percent category. Even before the pandemic, in 2018-19, the average American household spent just $2,101 annually on gas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The gift card tip can save you here, too, as many gas stations have gift card racks featuring many different options.
I hope the Freedom Flex returns to 5 percent categories with more widespread appeal in Q3. For example, I’d be happy with groceries, Amazon.com or PayPal, all of which have made previous appearances on the Freedom 5 percent calendar. But its year-round rewards categories and extended warranty and purchase protection benefits still make the Freedom Flex a solid no annual fee card, even when you’re not in love with the rotating 5 percent categories.
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