How Many Credit Cards Should You Have?

Nov 11, 2016 | Be First to Comment!

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What’s in your wallet?

No, I’m not just quoting CapitalOne commercials - although the bank did hit on a great question to ask when it comes to your credit cards. So seriously: what’s in your wallet right now? How many credit cards do you have?

And more importantly, how many credit cards should you have?

The short answer is, it depends. Like almost everything when it comes to personal finance, the right answer for you depends on the factors, challenges, and goals unique to your personal situation.

The long answer involves diving into those different pieces to help you determine how many credit cards you should have in your name at any one time.

How Many Credit Cards Is Too Many?

Another thing that makes this question tricky to answer is the fact that everyone has a different opinion. Some staunchly anti-debt crusaders will say even one credit card is too much!

I started asking this question for myself when I wanted to learn more about travel hacking. As Nomadic Matt puts it, travel hackers are “the people constantly chasing miles, rewards points, and elite status. They are looking for every possible way to game the system for as much free travel as they can.”
When I was in my early 20s with a low income but a lot of financial knowledge, travel hacking sounded like the perfect solution. I wanted to travel more but needed to find a way to do it on the cheap.

By travel hacking, I could use credit cards to generate points I could redeem for travel - instead of using my cash savings to pay for trips. This worked well for me because I was financially responsible.

I never carried a balance on my credit cards and only charged what I already planned to spend on my cards. I never manufactured spending or used “I gotta get reward points!” as an excuse to spend beyond what my budget said I could.

Travel hacking works best when you take advantage of opening new cards and getting sign-up bonuses. These usually require you to spend a certain amount (somewhere between $1,000 and $3,000) in a certain time frame (usually 60 to 90 days). When you meet those requirements, you get a lot of points all at once.

But after you hit the bonus, it’s hard to earn points through everyday spending. You might need to spend $100 just to get 1 point - and redeeming flights could cost thousands of points.

The solution if you travel hack? You churn credit cards, meaning you consistently open new accounts to hit new spending bonuses, and you slowly close out older cards you already got the bonus on.

And because I was financially savvy, I wondered - how many credit cards should I have? How many is too many?

How to End Up with 6 Credit Cards Before You’re 25

My travel hacking did enable me to save thousands of dollars on a few trips. I went to New Orleans and didn’t pay a dime for my hotel or flight. I only paid $300 to fly to Dublin after using points to pay for the rest of the plane ticket.

These and other trips like them were great experiences, especially because I saved so much cash. But through my adventures in travel hacking, I determined my limit was 6 different credit cards.

I tracked them all carefully, but it was a lot to keep up with. I wasn’t even 25 and the total amount of credit available to me was almost $150,000.

When I added up the credit limits on all my cards, it scared me a little. I never went into credit card debt, but the fact that I could spend far more than I could afford to repay overwhelmed me. By the time I reached my late 20s, I decided to narrow down the cards in my wallet.

Now, I carry just three credit cards and they all serve a specific purpose. I have an American Express business card that I use for my business expenses, another American Express card tied to a specific hotel chain that I use for my everyday spending, and a Visa card tied to a specific airline that I use if an establishment doesn’t accept American Express.

That’s my personal answer to how many credit cards should you have: as many as you need for specific purposes. In my life right now, that’s a card for business, a card for personal use, and a backup just in case.

It’s Really Not the Quantity: It’s the Quality

Your answer may look a little different than mine - and in fact, it probably should. That’s because your financial habits, behaviors, and goals are likely different than mine!

You can use one credit card or 10 credit cards and end up with the same credit score over time. What will impact your score is how many new accounts you open in a short amount of time, or how many inquiries you generate on your report.

But the specific number of total accounts won’t directly change your credit score. So to help you determine how many credit cards should you have in your own wallet, don’t think about a specific quantity. The real answer lies in how you manage the cards you do have.

This requires that you be honest with yourself. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I have a lot of debt right now?
  • Am I struggling to manage my finances?
  • Do I have a reason to need or want multiple credit cards?
  • Is my credit score low?

If you answered “yes,” to most of these, you should consider having just one or two credit cards - and learning how to use them wisely. Once you can manage just one or two cards well, then you can revisit the conversation and see if adding another card makes sense.

On the other hand, if you feel confident about how you manage your finances and your credit you might want more cards. Just make sure you track every single one carefully and only charge what you can afford to repay.

When I used multiple cards, I kept an Excel spreadsheet that listed out the type of card, the last four digits on the card, the credit limit, and when I opened the account - along with some other important info. This kept me organized and ensured that nothing slipped through the cracks.

To really reap the benefits of holding many cards, make sure your collection is diverse so you have options when you go to pay. And continue to keep low balances on the cards and pay them off on time and in full each month. These actions will help boost your credit score.

The Benefits (and Downsides) of a Lot and a Little

Whichever way you choose to go, it’s important to recognize that there are pros and cons to both having lots of cards and forgoing cards entirely. If you want to use as few cards as possible, it will be easier to keep up with your spending, card use, and balances.

Not only is it easier to track your own activity, but it’s easier to monitor your cards for fraudulent charges. You should always read through every statement to make sure the charges are accurate and ones you made. Having just one or two cards makes that a lot easier to do every month.

With just one or two cards, it’s also easier to stay out of financial trouble. No matter how many cards you have, you need to take responsibility for your spending. But keeping two cards with $5,000 worth of available credit tends to limit the financial damage you can do to yourself.

Having multiple cards with various limits gives you more opportunity to overspend, lose track of your balances, and end up in debt.

But only holding a small number of cards can also limit your credit score. If you use one card and regularly exceed a 30% credit utilization ratio, your score could suffer. Having lots of cards means you probably have more available credit, making it easier to maintain a low utilization ratio. That could help your score improve over time.

To have multiple cards also gives you multiple opportunities to build a positive payment history. That’s a huge chunk of your score, so showing you can successfully manage a number of cards can boost your credit too.

FICO Credit Score Factors and Their Percentages

FICO credit score factors Percentage weight on credit score: What it means:
Payment history 35% Your track record when it comes to making (at least) the minimum payment by the due date.
Amounts owed 30% How much of your borrowing potential is actually being used. Determined by dividing total debt by total credit limits.
Length of credit history 15% The average age of your active credit lines. Longer histories tend to show responsibility with credit.
Credit mix 10% The different types of active credit lines that you handle (e.g., mortgage, credit cards, students loans, etc.)
New credit 10% The new lines of credit that you've requested. New credit applications tend to hurt you score temporarily.

There’s more flexibility with your payment options with lots of cards. If you have more than one or two that you can use, you always have a backup in case a card is lost, stolen, or simply not accepted.

And of course, more cards could mean more rewards. That’s why I carried a lot of cards back in the day. I took advantage of special offers and sign-up bonuses. Because I carefully managed and tracked every card, using many lines of credit helped me create a great credit score and save money on travel.

How Many Credit Cards Should You Have in Your Wallet?

Ultimately, this decision is up to you. There’s no one right (or wrong) answer.

You might have a specific purpose or goal you want to achieve. You should carry five credit cards if you’re looking to maximize flexibility, spending power, or rewards. But you should carry just one credit card if your financial goals are more along the lines of getting out of debt or learning to manage your money.

Be honest with yourself and recognize the level of complexity you can handle in your financial situation. Stick with just one or two cards if you want to keep things simple. Look into more cards with specific purposes if you feel comfortable getting more complicated and adding on more responsibility.

Best Credit Cards for Your Specific Needs

Credit Card Notable Feature Who It's Best For
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express Bonus cash back rates on groceries and department stores. People who shop regularly at supermarkets and prefer cash back rewards.
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express Extremely high bonus cash back rates on groceries and department stores. People who spend more than $132 per month on groceries and prefer cash back rewards.
The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express Earn bonus rewards at supermarkets. People who shop frequently at supermarkets and use the credit card at least 20 times per month.
The Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express Earn bonus rewards at supermarkets and gas stations. People who shop frequently at supermarkets and gas stations and use the credit card at least 30 times per month.
Blue Sky from American Express® Earn rewards points for travel statement credit. Frequent travelers who want flexibility with their travel rewards.
American Express® Green Card Earn rewards points under the Membership Rewards program. People who don't have great credit and also want to work their way up to better American Express cards.
American Express® Gold Card Earn bonus rewards points on airlines and dining under the Membership Rewards program. People who dine out and flying regularly and want to participate in the American Express Membership Rewards program.
American Express® Premier Rewards Gold Card Earn bonus rewards points on airlines, dining, gas, and groceries. Get a $100 airline credit. People who travel frequently and spend a lot with airlines, restaurants, gas stations, and supermarkets.
Platinum Card® from American Express Get access to premium travel perks including unlimited access to 900+ airport lounges, elite status with hotel loyalty programs, and more. People who travel frequently and prefer to do so with premium perks and privileges.
American Express Serve® Prepaid debit card with low fees and convenient features. People who don't want or cannot get a credit card but still want to be able to pay with a card while minimizing fees.
BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ Earn bonus cash back on gas and groceries. People who frequently make purchases at gas stations and grocery stores.
BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Earn 1.5 miles per dollar spent on all purchases. People who want to earn travel rewards without any annual fee.
BankAmericard® Simple credit card with a long 0% intro APR period. People who want a simple credit card that also allows to minimize interest charges on a major purchase.
BankAmericard® Better Balance Rewards™ Earn $25 for each quarter that you pay more than the monthly minimum on time. People who want to earn cash rewards for making responsible monthly payments, not spending.
BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ for Students Earn bonus cash back on gas and groceries. Students who spend a lot at supermarkets and gas stations.
BankAmericard Travel Rewards® for Students Earn 1.5 miles per dollar spent on all purchase. Students who want to turn their spending into free travel.
BankAmericard® for Students Simple credit card with a long 0% intro APR period. Students who want a simple, no-frills credit card to learn responsibly credit card usage.
BankAmericard® Better Balance Rewards™ for Students Earn $25 for each quarter that you pay more than the monthly minimum on time. Students who want a simple credit card that also allows to minimize interest charges on a major purchase.
Capital One Venture® Rewards Earn unlimited 2X miles per dollar on all purchases. People who travel often and don't want to restrict their rewards to a particular airline or hotel.
Capital One VentureOne® Rewards Earn unlimited 1.25X miles per dollar on all purchases. People who want to earn travel rewards, but don't want to pay any annual fee.
Capital One® Quicksilver® Rewards Earn 1.5% cash back on all spending. People who don't have any defined spending patterns and want to earn decent cash back on all their purchases.
Capital One® Quicksilver®One Rewards Earn 1.5% cash back on all spending, but there's an annual fee. People with average credit who want to earn simple cash back rewards on their spending.
Capital One® Platinum Designed for people without good credit to help rebuild credit with no annual fee. People with bad/average credit who want a credit card to improve their credit without a security deposit.
Journey℠ Student Rewards from Capital One® Earn up to 1.25% cash back on all spending and get a higher credit limit with 5 consecutive on-time payments. Students who want a credit card that will offer cash back on all kinds of purchases.
Capital One® Secured MasterCard® A secured credit card with an extremely low initial deposit requirement to help rebuild credit immediately. People who have poor credit and don't have a lot of cash for a big security deposit.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Earn bonus miles on travel and dining. Points can be transferred to partnered airline and hotel programs. Redeem rewards travel at a discount through Chase Ultimate Rewards. People who want to earn travel rewards that can be transferred to multiple airline and hotel programs while getting different travel protections.
Chase Sapphire Reserve® Get statement credits for travel spending and Global Entry membership. Free Priority Pass Select membership and bonus rewards on travel and dining. People who travel internationally and dine out frequently.
Chase Freedom® Earn 5% cash back on categories that change every quarter. People whose shopping patterns changed based on the season and prefer to earn high cash back on those purchases.
Chase Freedom® Unlimited℠ Earn 1.5% cash back on all spending. People who prefer to earn a good cash back rate on every purchase.
Chase Slate® Introductory offer tends to include 0% APR on balance transfers for an extended period of time. Also, balance transfer fees are waived during the first 60 days People who are trying to pay down their high-interest debt quickly through the use of debt consolidation.
Discover it® Earn 5% cash back on certain categories that change every quarter. People who want to earn high amounts of cash back on season-appropriate items.
Discover it® Chrome Earn bonus cash back at gas stations and restaurants. People who drive and eat out often.
Discover it® Miles Earn 1.5% miles on all spending and miles can be used to redeem for travel statement credit. People who want to earn travel rewards without any annual fee.
Discover it® for Students Earn 5% cash back on certain categories that change every quarter. Students who want to earn high amounts of cash back on various spending categories.
Discover it Chrome for Students Earn bonus cash back at gas stations and restaurants. Students who are driving and eating out often.
Discover it® Secured Secured credit card that can help rebuild credit with no annual fee. People with bad credit who want to repair their credit profile while also earning cash back on spending

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