Chase has long been a top issuer for cash back credit cards that earn cardmembers rewards on a diverse range of products and services. Its newest rotating bonus category option, the no-annual-fee Chase Freedom Flex℠, earns its owners:
- 5 percent cash back on up to $1,500 in combined bonus category purchases each quarter you activate (then 1 percent)
- 5 percent on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards
- 5 percent cash back on Lyft rides (through March 2022)
- 3 percent on dining (including restaurants, takeout and eligible delivery services)
- 3 percent on drugstore purchases
- At least 1 percent on all other purchases
While the original Chase Freedom® credit card is no longer be available to new applicants, the issuer’s recently announced third-quarter bonus categories for 2021 still apply to existing Freedom cardmembers.
From July through September 2021, Freedom Flex and existing Freedom cardmembers earn 5 percent cash back at grocery stores (excluding Walmart and Target) and select streaming services (up to $1,500 in purchases, then 1 percent).
Freedom Flex 2021 cash back bonus calendar
The first step to maximizing your bonus category rewards is keeping up with the Freedom Flex rewards calendar—which means knowing which Chase categories are eligible to earn the bonus cash back. There are new categories every quarter, and Chase announces these categories shortly before the quarter begins.
Here’s a look at Chase’s bonus categories for 2021 compared to the 2020 categories, so you can get an idea of what to expect:
|2020 categories||2021 categories|
|Q1: January to March||
|Q2: April to June||
|Q3: July to September||
|Q4: October to December||
Cash back categories earn the everyday at least 1 percent cash back, plus a bonus 4 percent, which totals 5 percent back on up to $1,500 in combined bonus category purchases each quarter (activation required, then 1 percent).
This cash back bonus gives you the potential to earn $75 in cash back each quarter you reach the $1,500 spending cap. Purchases that are made outside of the bonus categories will earn at least the standard unlimited 1 percent cash back per dollar spent unless they fall under the Flex card’s new year-round bonus categories.
How to activate your Chase bonus categories
Bonus categories must be activated each quarter to receive the full 5 percent cash back, and you can ensure they’re activated in a number of ways.
One of the easiest activation methods is using the Chase Mobile app. Rewards can also be activated online through your account hub, by phone, email or at a designated Chase location. If you need a reminder to activate, try setting one in your calendar to make sure you don’t miss out on any rewards categories.
Once you’ve activated a category, you’ll earn 5 percent cash back on all category purchases during the quarter—even those made before activation that quarter—for up to the $1,500 quarterly purchase maximum, then 1 percent. If you have multiple Chase accounts, be sure you activate categories for each of them.
Maximize this quarter’s bonus categories
The Q3 Chase Freedom Flex bonus categories for 2021 reward spending at grocery stores (except Walmart and Target) and for select streaming services. Here’s how you can make the most of them:
- Focus on grocery store spending: You can load up on nonperishable food items, re-stock your deep freezer or spend on various non-food items offered at your local grocer. Many grocery stores have plenty of items that you can earn cash back on including supplies, gift cards and other goods. Remember purchases at Target and Walmart are not considered part of your grocery store spending this quarter.
- Pay up your streaming subscription(s): Get discounts on the following streaming services: Disney+, Hulu, ESPN+, Netflix, Sling, Vudu, Fubo TV, Apple Music, SiriusXM, Pandora, Spotify and YouTube TV. Some streaming services offer discounts with annual billing arrangements. If possible, opt for annual billing. With an additional 5 percent back, you can save even more.
Get a head start on planning for Q4 bonus categories with these tips (assuming Q4 bonus categories will be the same as 2020):
- Plan your holiday shopping. The timing of this bonus category couldn’t be more perfect. If you’ve got holiday shopping to do, using your Chase Freedom Flex card will give you an automatic 5 percent cash back when you shop at Walmart.
- Online shopping. Make sure your Chase Freedom Flex card is linked to your PayPal account. Then, use PayPal as much as you can: send funds to friends and family money, shift your shopping to PayPal-eligible online purchases and prioritize stores that use PayPal here for point-of-sale purchases at the register to give yourself more opportunities for 5 percent cash back.
Comparison: Chase Freedom Flex rotating categories vs. Discover it® Cash Back bonus categories
The Discover it Cash Back also offers rotating bonus categories, and, like the Freedom Flex, you can earn a total of 5 percent cash back on up to $1,500 in bonus category purchases per quarter (then 1 percent, when activated), plus 1 percent cash back on everything else.
Unlike Chase, Discover announces its full year of bonus categories in advance. Here are the Discover it® Cash Back bonus categories for 2021:
- Jan–March 2021: Grocery stores (not including Target and Walmart), Walgreens and CVS
- April–June 2021: Gas stations, wholesale clubs and select streaming services
- July–Sept. 2021: Restaurants and PayPal
- Oct.–Dec. 2021: Amazon.com, Target.com and Walmart.com
Chase and Discover both like to reward similar types of spending with grocery, gas station and drugstore spending as some of the most popular and repetitive categories. If you really want to maximize your cash back rewards, you could apply for both the Freedom Flex and the Discover it Cash Back cards and use them simultaneously.
The one big difference between Discover’s program and Chase’s is that with Discover, you earn 5 percent cash back only on rotating bonus category purchases after you activate (on up to $1,500 in bonus category purchases per quarter (then 1 percent).
With Chase, you earn 5 percent cash back on all bonus category purchases made within the designated quarter—even if you don’t activate your bonus categories until the last possible date. No matter which cash back card you choose, make sure you activate those categories to avoid losing out on rewards.
There’s one more thing you need to know about the Discover it Cash Back: Discover’s Cashback Match program will match all of the cash back you earn during your first year as a cardholder. If you max out your bonus category spending and earn $75 cash back per quarter for the entire year, Discover will match your $300 with another $300 in cash back rewards.
Comparison: Chase Freedom Flex rotating categories vs. Citi Custom Cash℠ Card bonus categories
Citi’s new Citi Custom Cash℠ Card doesn’t have rotating categories like the Freedom Flex but it does deliver a new way to earn 5 percent cash back on changing categories.
Instead of activating quarterly categories, you automatically earn 5 percent cash back on your top spending category each billing cycle (up to $500, then 1 percent back). All other purchases earn 1 percent rewards.
At the end of the billing cycle, you’ll earn 5 percent cash back on purchases within one of these 10 categories (whichever you spent the most in that billing cycle):
- Gas stations
- Grocery stores
- Select travel
- Select transit
- Select streaming services
- Home improvement stores
- Fitness clubs
- Live entertainment
The Citi Custom Cash is a much lower-maintenance card since you don’t need to wait for specific bonus categories or activation dates. The same roster of 5 percent bonus categories are set in stone year-round.
Granted, you can’t formally select which bonus category you want each billing cycle, but you can track your spending to make the most of a category in a given billing cycle and save large expenses for another rewards card that carries no cash back cap if that would maximize your earnings.
Speaking of available categories, you also get a wider variety of purchases that may earn 5 percent back with the Citi Custom Cash. The Freedom Flex and other rotating category cards typically have around seven or eight bonus categories throughout the year instead of the Custom Cash card’s 10.
The Custom Cash card’s categories are also a bit more general. For example, instead of the Freedom Flex’s Whole Foods Market category in Q3 of 2020, the Citi Custom Cash can earn 5 percent back at grocery stores in general.
The Freedom Flex’s 5 percent rotating category structure does have a few advantages, however, over the Custom Cash card’s rewards style. Most apparent is that the Freedom Flex’s bonus categories don’t have a spending cap each billing cycle. Instead of a $500 spending cap each billing cycle, you get a $1,500 spending cap each quarter. While each card’s total quarterly spending cap is equal, the Freedom Flex card’s approach makes it easier to maximize cash back if you have bigger purchases or a billing cycle with lots of expenses.
The Freedom Flex typically has two or three 5 percent bonus categories at once as well. This is even better for smaller categories like streaming services that might not be your biggest expense each month since you won’t have to leave extra cash back on the table if you can’t max out your top category.
The Freedom Flex’s quarterly categories also tend to be a bit more diverse according to the season. For instance, you’ll usually earn 5 percent back on major online retailers like Amazon.com each year, but the Citi Custom Cash doesn’t earn rewards for online shopping at all.
Although the Custom Cash card’s categories are geared more toward everyday spending and have rare offerings like live entertainment rewards, you’ll probably only earn boosted cash back on grocery store purchases or other costly categories like dining each billing cycle if it’s your primary credit card.
How to redeem rewards with Freedom Flex
In order to redeem rewards, your account must be open and in good standing. Rewards are tracked as points, and each dollar earned in cash back is equal to 100 points. Cash back can be redeemed as a statement credit or a direct deposit into an eligible checking or savings account at a U.S. bank.
Your cash back rewards should show up immediately to your credit card account, once redeemed. When you check your statement, you’ll see bonus category rewards listed as “Bonus from Q1 5 percent category.” As long as your account is open and in good standing, your points won’t expire.
You can also redeem your points using the Chase Ultimate Rewards hub. Points can be redeemed through Ultimate Rewards for travel, gift cards, experiences, online shopping and more.
Alternatively, pairing the Freedom Flex with a more premium Chase credit card—such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve®—has the potential to boost your redemption value between 25 percent and 50 percent, if you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Both of these premium cards charge an annual fee, however, so make sure your return in cash back will be worth the annual investment before you apply.
The bottom line
The Freedom Flex is a stellar cash back option if you have good to excellent credit and use your card to do shopping in a variety of places. For further information on the ideal cash back card for you, check out Bankrate’s picks for the best cash back credit cards in 2021.