The Chase Freedom® and the Chase Freedom Unlimited® have certain things in common. Both are cash-back credit cards with long 0% APR periods, no annual fees and names plucked from motivational posters.
But their rewards structures are quite different:
- The Chase Freedom® offers 5% cash back in rotating spending categories on up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter (activation required). It offers 1% back on everything else. New cardholders can also earn this sign-up bonus: Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.
- The Chase Freedom Unlimited® earns 3% cash back on all purchases in your first year up to $20,000 in spending, and an unlimited 1.5% cash back after that. As of April 2019, it no longer offers an upfront sign-up bonus.
The cards offer many of the same perks, but the best card for you depends on your spending habits.
How do the cards’ features compare?
A quick look at how the Freedom cards stack up:
|Chase Freedom®||Chase Freedom Unlimited®|
|Sign-up bonus||Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening||Double Cash Back: Earn 3% cash back on all purchases in your first year up to $20,000 spent. After that earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases.|
|Introductory APR||0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 15 months, and then the ongoing APR of 17.24% - 25.99% Variable APR||0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 15 months, and then the ongoing APR of 17.24% - 25.99% Variable APR|
|Rewards||5% cash back on rotating bonus categories (up to $1,500 in spending per quarter) each quarter you activate|
1% back on everything else
|3% cash back on up to $20,000 in purchases in the first year; 1.5% cash back on all other purchases|
|Are rewards transferrable?||Yes — you can transfer rewards to any of your other Chase cards in the Chase Ultimate Rewards® program||Yes — you can transfer rewards to any of your other Chase cards in the Chase Ultimate Rewards® program|
What kind of spender are you?
Each Freedom card offers an incentive in the first year: The Chase Freedom® features an upfront sign-up bonus; the Chase Freedom Unlimited® earns a higher promotional rate on all purchases up to $20,000.
If you spend more than $10,000 in your first year, that higher promotional rate makes up for the lack of a $150 sign-up bonus. But that’s not the only calculation you’d need to make. Far from it.
The upfront incentives go away after year one, and the two cards’ ongoing rewards rates are very different. There are several variables to consider.
How much spending can you reasonably put on a credit card in a year?
To take full advantage of the Chase Freedom Unlimited®’s first-year promotional offer, you’d need to spend $20,000. That may not be realistic for some, while others might blow right past that amount.
To fully max out the 5% bonus categories on the Chase Freedom® each quarter, you’d need to spend a total of just $6,000 a year ($1,500 per quarter). But …
How well will your spending match up with the 5% bonus categories?
The short answer: It’s impossible to know. The Chase Freedom® doesn’t announce its 5% rotating categories in full until shortly before you can activate them. You won’t be able to plan ahead of time.
If the bonus category happens to be gas stations and you don’t own a car, it might be tough to optimize your spending that quarter.
Scenarios to consider
To compare the Freedom cards in the first two years of membership, NerdWallet calculated the rewards earnings in three scenarios. For each, we assume the cardholder will spend $20,000 per year — enough to max out the first-year promotional rate on the Chase Freedom Unlimited®, and more than enough to max out the 5% bonus categories on the Chase Freedom® each quarter.
Scenario 1: The Chase Freedom® optimizer
This person times their purchases so perfectly that they manage to max out the 5% bonus categories every quarter. That means that they earn the sign-up bonus in the first year, plus 5% back on $6,000 in annual spending, and 1% back on the remaining $14,000 in both years.
- Total cash back in the first year: $590
- Total cash back in the second year: $440
- Total cash back over two years: $1,030
Scenario 2: The Chase Freedom® realist
This person uses the Chase Freedom® regularly, but sometimes the bonus categories just don’t match where their money typically goes. While they earn the sign-up bonus in the first year, they get 5% back on only $3,000 in annual spending, and 1% back on the remaining $17,000 during both years.
- Total cash back in the first year: $470
- Total cash back in the second year: $320
- Total cash back over two years: $790
Scenario 3: The dedicated Chase Freedom Unlimited® user
This person doesn’t want to think about where and when they can earn 5% cash back, so the flat rate on the Chase Freedom Unlimited® is more their speed. They’ll earn 3% back on their spending in the first year, and then 1.5% back in the second year.
- Total cash back in the first year: $600
- Total cash back in the second year: $300
- Total cash back over two years: $900
Looking for no-fuss value? Go with the Chase Freedom Unlimited®
The no-nonsense Chase Freedom Unlimited® is the better choice if you want a card with simple terms.
It’s better for the budgeter. Flat-rate cards such as the Chase Freedom Unlimited® are delightfully predictable. You don’t need to tailor your spending to bonus categories to get a good rewards rate. That makes it easier to avoid overspending.
Say the Chase Freedom® is paying 5% back on purchases at Amazon.com. If you don’t normally shop there, you might feel compelled to change your habits — and potentially spend more — to get the extra rewards.
It’s low maintenance. The Chase Freedom Unlimited® doesn’t require you to activate categories every quarter. Basically, this card helps you earn robust rewards with less effort. It won’t leave you Googling spending categories in the checkout lane.
It pairs well with other cards. The Chase Freedom Unlimited® is a go-along-get-along type of card. It’s a great companion to the tiered reward cards in your wallet, such as co-branded airline cards, grocery cards and gas cards. You can take advantage of your tiered card’s bonus categories and use the Chase Freedom Unlimited® to buy everything else. The Chase Freedom® is less versatile. And depending on the quarter, its bonus categories might clash with the kind of spending that your co-branded cards reward most.
Willing to spend time to maximize rewards? Go with the Chase Freedom®
The Chase Freedom® is your card if you like to squeeze the most value from every purchase.
It offers useful 5% categories. A tiered card is only as good as its bonus categories. And in that regard, the Chase Freedom® excels. It has regularly rewarded spending at such merchants as restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations. Here are this year’s categories:
|Chase Freedom® bonus rewards categories for 2019|
|Q1 (Jan. 1 - March 31)||Gas stations, tolls and drugstores|
|Q2 (April 1 - June 30)||Home improvement stores and grocery stores|
|Q3 (July 1 – Sept. 30)||"Summer" — TBD
(In 2018: Gas stations, Lyft, Walgreens)
|Q4 (Oct. 1 – Dec. 31)||"Holiday" — TBD
(In 2018: Department stores, wholesale clubs, Chase Pay)
These broad categories make it easier to reach your quarterly maximum. For example, if the current 5% category is grocery stores, you can use your card to buy a gift card for a restaurant you frequent from the supermarket. In effect, you’re earning 5% back on restaurants, too.
If you can reach the quarterly caps on the Chase Freedom® without spending more than you normally would, it becomes much more valuable over time than the Chase Freedom Unlimited®.
Its limited-time offers tend to stand out. The rewards structure of the Chase Freedom® seems as though it was devised by a team of psychologists to boost cardholder joy. Depending on your shopping habits, they can make you feel like you just won the lottery. For the second quarter of 2019, for example, the Chase Freedom® brought back 5% cash back on home improvement store purchases for the first time since 2014 — just in time for families to spring-clean and get the yard ready for summer.
Why not both?
If you’re having trouble choosing between the Chase Freedom® and the Chase Freedom Unlimited®, here’s a simple solution: Get both.
These cards are often treated like rivals, but they work really well together. Use the Chase Freedom® for its 5% categories and the Chase Freedom Unlimited® to earn more than 1% back on everything else. You can even transfer your rewards between accounts and redeem them all in one go. If you do decide to get both, space out your applications by at least a few months to minimize the impact to your credit score.
Both cards offer excellent value on their own. But together, they become even more valuable.