When the Chase Freedom card’s Q4 categories were first announced, I didn’t expect to make much use of them. However, by using PayPal to buy a few necessity items online, my family and I have already scored $13 in cash back.
I didn’t expect to make much use of the October-to-December 5 percent cash back roster (department stores, PayPal and Chase Pay). I looked longingly at the Discover it® Cash Back calendar (their 5 percent merchants this quarter are Amazon.com, Target and Walmart.com). For both cards, these rewards apply after activation on up to $1,500 in quarterly spending. After that, cardholders earn 1 percent cash back.
My family buys a lot from Amazon, and occasionally from Target and Walmart. We rarely buy from the department stores on Chase’s list, and we use PayPal and Chase Pay even less (I tried to use Chase Pay at my local grocery store last year but it failed to work on multiple occasions; apparently I wasn’t the only one having trouble, because the service will shut down in early 2020).
I figured I would use my Chase Freedom card once or twice for holiday shopping and that would be it. I quickly realized that PayPal is my golden ticket.
Last week, my wife Chelsea was in the process of buying some new clothes for our daughter Ashleigh from Carter’s. She asked which card she should use, and I replied, “Do they take PayPal?” The answer was yes, and we were just getting started on our PayPal/Chase Freedom adventure.
See related: Chase Freedom vs. Chase Freedom Unlimited
Chase Freedom rotating categories: No double-dipping
I attempted to double-dip at Carter’s, because they participate in the “Shop Through Chase” program. When you click through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal to Carters.com, you earn 2 percent extra cash back.
However, in a subsequent call with Chase customer service, I learned that I will only receive 5 percent cash back for this transaction (not 7 percent) because they only allow you to earn one promotion per transaction (whichever is more lucrative).
PayPal’s cash back earning potential
Two nights later and fresh off the Carter’s success, Chelsea was buying more clothes for Ashleigh (kids grow fast!), this time from Etsy. Do they take PayPal? Why yes, they do.
That same weekend, Chelsea realized she needed a new winter coat. She found one she liked on LandsEnd.com. They take PayPal, too! Five days into October, we had already earned $13 cash back from $266 we would have spent anyway. And this was spending that would not have qualified for bonus categories on any of our other cards.
A quarter that looked like a dud now has the potential to yield maximum value, all because of PayPal. I have to admit that, until very recently, I thought of PayPal for just two purposes: buying something on eBay and repaying a friend (similar to Venmo).
Therein lies the benefit for PayPal. Because this service is one of the Chase Freedom’s Q4 categories, I tried it for a purpose I’d never used before, and I’m sure the company is hoping I’ll do it again (especially beyond Q4). PayPal did make the checkout process smoother because my card info, name, address and other details were already saved in the system. I’m such a rewards mercenary, though, that I’ll use whichever payments option provides me with the best return, even if it’s not the most convenient.
The take-away: Use payment methods that save you the most money
If I buy something else from Carter’s in Q1, let’s say, I’d be better off getting 3 percent cash back through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. That would even outweigh the best flat-rate cash back cards such as the Alliant Visa Signature Card (2.5 percent cash back on everything with a $99 annual fee, although you get a 3 percent return and no annual fee in your first year as a cardholder), the Citi® Double Cash Card and the PayPal Cash Back Mastercard (both essentially 2 percent cash back with no annual fee – technically in Citi Double Cash’s case it’s 1 percent when you buy and 1 percent when you pay it off).
Increasingly, it feels like the Chase Freedom categories are following the loss leader model. That is, offering a hefty short-term incentive that benefits the consumer, but quickly switches to the issuer’s favor after that.
Case in point: Tolls were one of the Q1 bonus categories. It would be easy to set your E-ZPass or SunPass or whatever your state calls it to the Chase Freedom in return for 5 percent cash back and then forget about it in Q2 and beyond when those transactions would only earn 1 percent cash back.
In Q3, the Chase Freedom paid 5 percent cash back on select streaming services. That’s another classic “set it and forget it” scenario. Chase Pay is yet another (seemingly failed) example of an attempt to start a recurring payments habit.
My best advice to cardholders is to maintain a constant lookout for the payment methods that will save you the most money, even if it requires a little more work.