The pandemic cured my fear of credit cards — and helped me net over $150 in cash-back rewards

Kerkez/Getty ImagesThe author is not pictured.
  • A few years back, I charged about $US1,400 on my Chase Freedom® to furnish a new apartment after a breakup.
  • I made minimum payments on the card for years but barely made a dent in my balance, so after transferring the balance to a 0% interest card and finally getting out of debt, I swore off credit cards.
  • But at the start of the pandemic, when Chase offered me 5% cash back on groceries, I decided to give credit cards another day – and I’ve been rewarded heartily.
  • See Business Insider’s list of the best cash-back credit cards »

I am bad at credit cards.

Not bad in the sense that I’ve racked up tens of thousands of dollars of debt that I can’t pay off, but in the sense that they scare me and I’ve been unwilling to face my fear – until recently.

My history with credit cards isn’t great

Let me back up a little bit. A few years ago, I went through a life-altering breakup and moved into my first solo place in Los Angeles. I’d lived alone for years before, but this was the first time I’d been on my own in the US after moving from Canada. I didn’t have much of anything since I’d lived with my partner the previous four years, so I was starting fresh – a new couch, an area rug, a tiny kitchen table and chairs, a desk, some art. I had some cash on hand, but I put the bigger purchases on my Chase Freedom® to the tune of about $US1,400.

Because my expenses practically doubled overnight (after sharing the cost of living for so many years prior) I was only able to make small payments on my card – $US50 here, $US100 there. I figured if I at least paid the minimum, my credit score wouldn’t be impacted, and if I could spare a little extra, I’d get to zero that much faster.

That’s not exactly the way things worked out. Three years on, my minimum-payment strategy had left me with a credit card bill about the same size as I’d started out with. So, in September 2017, I finally signed up for the Citi Simplicity® Card – a 0% interest balance-transfer card – and set myself on a strict payment schedule. In April 2019, I made my last payment. Freedom!

That’s when my fear of credit cards really took root.

Once I was out of debt, I never wanted to get back into it

When I was finally debt-free, I was terrified of charging even a dollar on my Chase Freedom® card. Even though I was earning more money, had no trouble balancing my budget, and knew I could earn cash back by using my card and paying the balance in full every month, the (theoretical) idea of getting into debt again set my hair on fire. It was a nonstarter.

I worried that I’d somehow lose control and start spending wildly (never going to happen, I am extremely cheap), or that I’d lose my job and suddenly be unable to meet my financial obligations (possible, but unlikely). I’d charge a tank of gas or a grocery bill here and there in hopes of boosting my credit score, but I’d pay it off as soon as the charge cleared. And I didn’t care about using my card to play the cash-back game; my debt-related anxiety outweighed that potential free money.

But of course, the pandemic changed things. It changed everything for everyone.

Getting to know my credit cards again

At the start of the pandemic, in early March, the electric motor in my Prius went out. The cost to replace it: about $US2,500. I didn’t want to burn through my emergency fund in case I needed that money later on, so I did a weird thing – I paid the bill on my Chase Freedom® then immediately opened up another balance-transfer card (the Amex EveryDay Card) and transferred my balance there. It will be paid off in less than a year, before the 0% interest period ends. I earned some decent cash-back rewards on my Chase Freedom, too.

Later that month, Chase informed me that my Freedom card would earn 5% cash back on groceries between April and June. Like most other people, my grocery bill had gone through the roof since I’d been stuck at home, so that cash back offer was tempting. I decided to take advantage, especially since the rewards I earned on my car repair bill were fresh in my mind.

Between April and June, I put every grocery bill on my Chase Freedom® and paid the bill in full every month. With the 5% bonus offer, I earned $US51 cash back in those months alone – and I hadn’t racked up any debt or paid a cent in interest.

Since then, I’ve been putting all my flexible spending on my credit card (things like utility bills and subscriptions are auto-paid through my checking account). In total, I’ve earned over 16,000 points in 2020, and I’m still paying the bill in full every month. No interest, please!

I hate spending money on things that are useless (like interest charges) or abstract – like annual fees for travel rewards credit cards – so I will probably never be a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve gal, but at least I’m giving credit cards another try. Plus, thanks to my newfound relationship with my Chase Freedom, I’ve already earned about $US160 worth of rewards points this year. As I keep using my credit card during the pandemic and paying it off right away, I’ll hopefully have enough cash back to cover a hotel or Airbnb stay on the other side of this thing – my own version of travel rewards.

Chase Freedom®Related Content Module: More Credit Card Coverage

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.