Chase’s 2021 Cash Back Calendar

A woman shops online with a credit card.

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The opportunity to earn 5% cash back on some of your most common purchases sounds great, but if you use a credit card with revolving bonus categories, it can require a little coordination.

The Chase Freedom Flex credit card is one of the better-known cash-back cards with changing 5% bonuses. Like cards from rival issuers Discover and U.S. Bank, it offers three-month windows when you can earn the lucrative reward rate on different types of everyday spending.

How exactly does it work? Here’s a guide and some tips to maximizing the card’s potential.

Key Takeaways

  • In recent years, Chase has set the Freedom and Freedom Flex cards apart by offering 5% cash back on common bills that don’t usually get much attention from other issuers, including your cable TV, cellphone, and streaming service bills.
  • Unlike some competitors, Chase doesn’t announce a particular quarter’s bonus category until a few weeks before the new quarter starts. But the bank tends to bring back many of the same bonus categories year after year. Since 2011, for example, Chase has added a gas bonus every year. (In 2019 and 2018, it offered a gas bonus twice: in the winter and in the summer.) The bank has also added a grocery bonus every year since 2015. Other common bonus categories include department stores, restaurants, drugstores, movie theaters, and wholesale clubs.

How the Chase Freedom Flex Card Calendar Works

Rewards cards tend to award 5% cash back more sparingly than 2% and 3%, sometimes offering it on the same one or two purchase categories indefinitely; other times giving cardholders a choice of two categories each quarter, and often imposing a limit on earnings.

In the case of the Chase Freedom Flex card, cardholders earn 5% cash back on a different combination of purchase categories every quarter, up to $75 per quarter ($300 per year). All other purchases earn 1% cash back. In other words, the 5% applies to the first $1,500 of spending in those categories each quarter, then you’ll earn 1% back on even the bonus categories.

You’ll need to affirmatively opt in every three months to receive the bonus, but Chase makes that easy to do by sending you reminder emails with a button you only have to press once—you won’t even need to sign in to your account. You can even earn the 5% retroactively for the quarter, as long as you activate by the final deadline, which is usually a couple of weeks before the quarter ends.

Let's say you forget to sign up until late in the quarter. You'll still get 5% cash back for any purchases you've made the whole first quarter in the qualifying categories. However, if you don’t make that deadline, every purchase you made during the quarter will earn just 1% cash back.

How to Optimize Your Freedom Card Spending 

Although you can wait until almost the last minute, it can pay to activate early so you're conscious of the earning opportunities that lie ahead. Chase typically announces upcoming bonus categories a few weeks before the start of a new period, and that’s the earliest you can activate your bonus. The bank provides reminders you can add to your favorite online calendar, or you can set a reminder on your own. Use that two- to three-week window to not only opt in, but strategize your spending.

It’s not always easy to maximize your cash back with a rotating bonus card, but you can improve your chances if you plan ahead. For example, shift the timing of planned purchases, such as holiday gifts or new clothes. Or buy gift cards during a 5% bonus period, then use those gift cards throughout the year.

October Through December: Walmart and PayPal

From Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, 2021, you can earn 5% cash back on the up to $1,500 in purchases at Walmart and when paying with PayPal elsewhere. (You'll need to link your Chase Freedom Flex card to your PayPal account first.) Thanks to PayPal's evolution from a digital-focused payment service to a use-almost-anywhere payment service, you can earn 5% back online and off. (Unfortunately, paying with PayPal at Walmart still earns the same 5%.) And since Walmart is the retailer that retails almost everything, together these two categories set cardholders up nicely for a modest amount of holiday-shopping savings.

This year, in addition, Chase Freedom Flex cardholders will also earn 5% back on their top spending category. This offer is capped at the first $1,500 of spending in your top category (so, up to $75 back). Eligible categories are:

  • Travel (including Transit)
  • Dining
  • Home Improvement Stores
  • Grocery Stores (not including Target and Walmart purchases)
  • Drugstores
  • Gas Stations
  • Select Live Entertainment
  • Select Streaming Services
  • Fitness Clubs

Also note that you can "stack" these offers. If you make your top category purchases using PayPal, you will earn 9% back (1% base earning, plus 4% for your top category and 4% for PayPal).

No matter the category, check Chase’s merchant list to see exactly which types of purchases or retailers are excluded from the 5% bonus.