As a credit card journalist, I’ve met plenty of people who don’t use credit cards or own just one. Then again, I recently met a credit card enthusiast who had over 60 different cards!
To his credit (so to speak), he didn’t carry more than a dozen with him at any one time, but only because he couldn’t fit another one in his wallet. Most people fall between these extremes.
How to decide how many credit cards you should have
Consider these dual factors…
1. Your credit history. Having just one or two credit card accounts open will limit your credit history. Additional cards also reduce your debt-to-credit ratio, the total amount of your outstanding balances divided by the total amount of credit you have been extended. Even if you pay your balances in full every month, that balance will appear to be debt on your credit history. So for a given amount of debt, having additional credit extended will lower this ratio and improve your credit score.
2. Complimentary benefits offered by different cards. One credit card might offer additional rewards at gas stations, while another might feature bonus rewards when used at a grocery store. An airline credit card might grant your priority service and bag fee waivers, while a hotel card might give you elite status along with room upgrades, free Internet service, and late checkout privileges. Finally, having a retailer’s card might offer additional rewards when shopping there, as well as perks such as free shipping and exclusive access to promotions.
So if having a few credit cards is a good thing, why not apply for as many as you can? Three reasons. First, many people find that having credit encourages them to spend more. Second, some cards come with fees that can really add up. Third, it’s a lot of work to keep up with more than a handful of accounts — each has a statement that must be reviewed and paid each month.
So what is the right number?
It’s not a magic number, but having researched the credit card industry and speaking with many experts on credit scores and credit reporting, I’ve determined that six is the sweet spot between being responsible and getting the maximum benefits.
How to get there
For credit card users who have little or no debt and have their personal finances in order, I’d recommend a single credit card for most of their daily expenses. If they may carry a balance sometimes, it should be a card with a very low interest rate and few fees, such as the Citi Simplicity or the PenFed Promise.
Next, I would get two or three cards that earn excellent rewards at specific merchants. For example, the American Express Blue Cash Preferred offers 6 percent cash back at grocery stores, and the Chase Ink Bold offers 5-times rewards at office supply stores and on all telephone, television, and Internet service. Use those cards only at the places where you get the extra rewards.
You can round out your selection by having a few cards tied to specific merchants. As someone who travels somewhere about once a month, I like to hold some travel reward cards such as the Hyatt Credit Card and the American Airlines Executive card, both of which offer valuable perks that make my travels easier.
Or you could sign up for 60 cards, save a lot, and have no life. Up to you.