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How to maximize rotating category bonuses in the new year

Summary

Rotating category bonuses allow you to score 5-percent cash back rewards each quarter if you have a Chase Freedom or Discover card. These tips will help you maximize your earnings.

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If you prefer cash back to miles or points, earning a quarterly rewards bonus on purchases may be right up your alley.

Even if the bonus categories don’t always match your spending habits, they can still be an attractive alternative to a flat-rate cash rewards card.

Remembering to activate the bonus each quarter is the first rule to master. The second is knowing how to maximize your card’s full potential.

As you start the new year, use these tips to make the most of quarterly rewards bonuses.

See related: 4 fine-print traps to watch out for in credit card rewards programs

1. Mark your calendar for rotating bonus categories

Familiarize yourself with the year’s quarterly bonus categories sooner, rather than later.

“Credit cards that offer quarterly rewards usually post calendars on their site that tell you which types of purchases get the bonus,” says J.R. Duren, senior editor of consumer review site HighYa.com.

  • Discover’s cash back calendar for 2019 includes 5 percent cash back quarterly bonuses for grocery stores, gas, ride-sharing services, restaurants and Amazon.com.
  • Chase Freedom releases its list of rotating categories on a quarterly basis. For the first quarter of 2019, the list includes gas station, drugstore and toll purchases.
  • As a reference, Chase’s 2018 5 percent cash back quarterly bonus categories also included department stores, wholesale clubs, restaurants and Chase Pay.
  • Both Discover and Chase offer rotating category bonuses on up to $1,500 in combined purchases. Also, you need to activate the bonus or opt-in every quarter in order to be eligible for the bonus.

David Gafford, marketing director at credit card processor Shift Processing, uses the Discover it® Cash Back card to earn quarterly cash back rewards. He records each quarter’s bonus category on an address label, then trims it down and applies it to the back of the card for easy reference.

“It’s so simple, and yet it helps us hit our maximum each quarter because we know when to use which card to maximize bonuses,” says Gafford.

See related: Chase Freedom vs. Discover it

2. Let last year’s quarterly bonus spending be your guide

As you review your card’s cash back calendar for the upcoming year, consider:

  • Where you spent the most with your card last year (and are likely to do so again this year).
  • Whether you have any large purchases planned for the year ahead.
  • Your average monthly spend for each bonus category that’s coming up.

This can help tailor your rewards card spending for each quarter accordingly.

For example, if you have a Discover card that offers cash back in rotating categories, you may want to earmark holiday shopping for the fourth quarter, when you can earn the 5 percent cashback bonus on Amazon.com purchases. You could plan to stock up on pasta, canned goods and other non-perishable foods in the first quarter to max out the bonus on groceries.

3. Leverage stacking for added value

Stacking your card’s quarterly bonus with online shopping portals and cash back apps can elevate your rewards earnings.

“Cash back sites such as TopCashback.com or Ebates can be used with bonus categories, as well as an online mall,” says Geesey. “Cash back sites and online malls are mutually exclusive, so choosing which one to use will depend on whether the card user values cash back or miles more but often times, these shopping malls offer limited time bonuses as well.”

While Discover Deals has shut down, Chase’s Ultimate Rewards shopping portal is still going strong. You can use the Chase Freedom card to earn bonus points when you shop top-rated brands like Apple and Under Armour through the portal.

Likewise, Chase Offers also provides another opportunity to stack cash back rewards with your Chase Freedom card.

Sites like TopCashback, Ebates and Ibotta, meanwhile, make it easy to earn cash back when you shop partner retailers through one of these portals.

Ebates, for instance, recently ran a promotion offering up to 10 percent cash back at Amazon on selected items. Match that up with a quarterly bonus for Amazon purchases and you get nearly 15 percent off in the form of cash back rewards.

4. Consolidate quarterly bonuses to get more mileage from redemptions

You can also get more from quarterly bonus rewards by redeeming strategically. Duren says the ideal way to do this is using the Chase trifecta of the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (or Chase Sapphire Reserve, if you have that card), Chase Freedom and Chase Freedom Unlimited cards.

“The Freedom Unlimited is what you use for daily spending because its 1.5 percent rewards rate is the best among Chase cards,” says Duren. “The Chase Freedom has rotating 5 percent bonus categories, so use that card for the 5 percent purchases up to $1,500.”

Continuing, he says that “if you hit $1,500 in bonus spending before the quarter is up, switch back to Freedom Unlimited for those purchases, as the Freedom’s regular rewards rate is only 1 percent.”

Duren notes that you can redeem rewards earned with both cards for cash, at a value of 1 cent each. The better deal, however, is transferring them to the Sapphire Preferred card.

Once you transfer quarterly bonus rewards to Sapphire Preferred, you can redeem them for travel, with each point worth 1.25 cents each. Or, you can transfer rewards to one of Chase’s 13 airline and hotel travel partners on a 1:1 basis.

You can do the same with the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. In that case, you’d boost your rewards redemption value to 1.5 cents each when redeeming for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards.

You should note, however, that the Reserve card has an annual fee of $450. Meanwhile, the Preferred’s annual fee is only $95.

See related: Chase Ultimate Rewards guide: Maximize points

“With a general cash back card and a card that specializes in rolling quarterly bonuses, we maximize our rewards without the hassle of carrying a wallet full of rewards cards that we never quite know when to use.”

5. Fill the quarterly rewards bonus gap

Both Chase and Discover cap quarterly bonus earnings to the first $1,500 in purchases. After that, you continue earning 1 percent cash back until the new quarterly bonus is ready to activate.

If you know you’re on track to exceed the quarterly maximum, having a backup card at the ready can keep the cash rewards rolling in. Just don’t go overboard.

“I have friends who have seven or eight credit cards, each with a different reward bonus,” says Gafford. “They’ll have a different card for airline miles, dining out, groceries, business purchases and more. The trouble they have is that most of the time they don’t remember where they’re supposed to use each card.”

See related: Best flat-rate cash back cards

When it’s time to pay, he says they often make the mistake of choosing the card with the lowest rewards rate. To avoid that same pitfall, Gafford turns to the Citi Double Cash card – 2 percent cash back (1 percent when you buy, 1 percent when you pay your bill on time) on all purchases if you pay them in full – once he hits the bonus limit with his Discover card, always paying the balance in full each month.

“With a general cash back card and a card that specializes in rolling quarterly bonuses, we maximize our rewards without the hassle of carrying a wallet full of rewards cards that we never quite know when to use,” he says.

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Credit Card Rate Report Updated: May 23rd, 2019
Business
15.61%
Airline
17.50%
Cash Back
17.60%
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17.62%
Student
17.79%

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