Coordinating Credit Card Strategies for Couples

by on May 30, 2014 · 15 comments

in American Express, Arrival Plus, Citi, Credit Cards, Family Travel, Southwest

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Equitability in relationships is crucial, including financial decisions like which credit cards to apply for, who does the applying, and who reaps the benefits. I asked resident TPG family man Jason Steele to share his strategies for maintaining balance and harmony in a credit sharing couple.

Couples need twice as many points and miles to travel together, but they have twice the opportunity to earn rewards from credit cards. There are several strategies you and your partner can use to leverage your credit (and your relationship).

Twice the

Traveling together means twice the rewards.

How credit cards work for married people

As far as credit card issuers are concerned, they don’t care whether or not you’re married. Individual adults can always apply for their own credit card accounts regardless of whether their spouse has the same card. Each individual has his or her own credit score, and will be approved or denied independent of their spouse’s credit score.

At the same time, new rules by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau assure that non-working spouses can report their working spouse’s income on credit card applications as part of their household income, so long as they have a reasonable expectation of access to their spouse’s income.

Account holders can make their spouse (or anyone else) an authorized cardholder on any account. Authorized cardholders can make charges to the card, but are unable to make changes, redeem rewards, or report cards lost or stolen. (exceptions include banks that allow joint accounts and granting power of attorney, which are rare.) For example, my wife and I could both apply for and receive a particular credit card, and also make each other authorized cardholders, for a total of four credit cards attached to two accounts.

In addition, authorized cardholders are not responsible for repayment; only the primary account holder is. On the other hand, someone with a low credit score can benefit by becoming the authorized cardholder of someone with a high credit score.

The Southwest Companion Pass is one of the most valuable frequent flyer benefits out there.

For some benefits, like the Southwest Companion Pass, one is usually enough.

Should couples both get the same credit card, or diversify their holdings?

I manage the credit card accounts in our household, so every time I see a great credit card with a generous sign-up bonus, I must decide if it’s worth applying for just once, or in both of our names. To decide whether to apply for a card once or twice, I use the following criteria:

  • Do you manage your finances jointly or separately? Couples who manage their finances separately will want to have separate accounts, at least for the cards that they use for everyday spending. My wife and I happen to manage our finances together, which, among other things, gives us more flexibility to choose the right cards for our needs.
  • How great is the sign-up bonus? Some offers remain consistent for years on end, while others are limited time offers that could be gone in days. The more exceptional the offer, the more likely we are to both apply for the same card. (See the post Credit Card Sign-up Bonuses: When To Wait for a Bigger Offer)
  • Can the cardholder benefits be leveraged across our family? Some cards I apply for not just to earn a sign-up bonus, but to earn rewards for spending and enjoy other cardholder benefits. In those cases it may be unnecessary for us to each have an account. For example, the primary benefit of the Barclaycard Arrival+  is double miles on all purchases, which I can enjoy as an authorized user of my wife’s account. Another example is the Citi AAdvantage Executive card, which we can both use for baggage fee waivers, priority service, and lounge access when we fly together. The same is true for the benefits of hotel credit cards so long as we’re traveling together. On the other hand, the Delta SkyClub lounge benefit offered by the Delta SkyMiles Reserve card can only be used by the primary cardholder. The American Express Platinum card offers equivalent benefits to authorized cardholders, but each additional card has a $175 annual fee.
American's Admirals Club

Some card benefits apply to authorized cardholders, like lounge access with the Amex Platinum.

If only applying for one card, who should apply?

When the signup bonus is nothing special and the benefits of a card can be conferred to both partners, who should be the one to open the new account? First, I look at who is more likely to need the benefits exclusively. For example, I travel without my wife more often than she travels without me, so I tend to open hotel and airline accounts in my name and use those benefits when I travel solo.

Furthermore, we try to balance out our new applications so that neither of us has a greater credit history or is more likely to be declined for a new card due to too many recent applications.  Therefore, we’re more likely to open an account in my wife’s name for non-travel cards, and make me an authorized cardholder.

Other tips

Time for a round of applications? Here are some great current offers.

Keep an organized spreadsheet of your joint and individual credit accounts to avoid any mix-ups.

Managing your partner’s account. Since only the primary account holder can make changes to an account, there is sometimes difficulty when attempting to manage my wife’s accounts. My favorite workaround is to use the secure messaging feature for most simple inquiries and requests. On the other hand, my wife calls the bank herself to ask about retention offers for cards in her name.

Keeping things simple. While we can have cards for every possible use, we generally carry one card at home for general spending, and perhaps two other cards that offer bonus rewards for spending in specific categories, such as gas or groceries. Before traveling, we go though our wallets and include the travel related cards we might need for a particular trip.

Organization. Maintaining a spreadsheet with all of your cards, application dates, and other important information is a good idea. Another is to place a small sticker on the back of each card with the name of the primary account holder, since telling them apart can be next to impossible otherwise.

Do you have tips for organizing and maximizing credit card use in your relationship? Please share them in the comments below!

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • BrooklynFamily

    I’ve been a grateful TPG reader for many years now, and here’s a tip that hopefully can help others. I’ve recently started using the YNAB app to track our various expenses on various cards, keeping straight business from personal, and it is wonderful! They market it as a budgeting tool but it also works great as an after-the-fact tracking tool for spending. Here is a link to a trial version:

  • dee seiffer

    I manage Hubby’s and my credit cards/points/miles/credit scores. We each have our own businesses. That means A LOT of credit card accounts. I use Quicken to manage our personal cards together, download activity every day and check the bank web sites to stay on top of renew and due dates. We have separate Quickbooks accounts for our businesses.

    Hubby relies on me to tell him when to pay his biz cc’s, which cards to use for what based on our current strategy (he puts stickers on his cards), when to cancel a card and when to apply for a new card. One of the things I do for him if he has to use multiple cards for his business is download all of his statement activity into one spreadsheet and sort it by date to make it easier to reconcile his QBooks.

    We use an email address that forwards to both of us for his credit card accounts so I get notices.

  • Jay

    In Canada, we still have Amex referral bonuses which make their cards very attractive. There are smaller bonuses with other cards, but the Amex ones are by far the best. If you carry the Plat card, you get a 15,000 MR point bonus per referral to MR cards!

    We did a whole page on this.

  • szuperdan

    We manage our finances separately but rarely have a problem with the implementation/coordination. My wife manages most of the CCs but we are both on the lookout for deals (I was the one who “found” the Companion Pass offers – with Brian’s help). Our credit histories/scores are equivalent. Given all that, we discuss what card we should be using, select the appropriate cards before traveling/making a significant purchase and book our travel with each others knowledge of what is the best airline/hotel reward to use. I use Award Wallet to manage my accounts, my wife uses a spreadsheet and we compare frequently (it’s important to let the individual use what works best for them – for my wife to enforce her methods on me or vice versa just doesn’t work). Then we sit back and reap the rewards!

  • ATLJason

    A further wrinkle comes in to play with same sex couples. I manage both my and my partner’s accounts but sometimes it can be confusing as to when we can count each other’s income on the application. The good part is that I can always call and pretend to be him. All they hear is a male voice on the other end of the phone. As long as I know the answers to all the questions (mothers maiden name, last 4 digits of SSN, etc.), we’ve never had a problem!

  • Helen McC

    One gotcha that my husband and I were caught out with once, is that if you book a trip together using airline miles from separate accounts then the airline counts you as separate bookings. This means they are likely to separate you if there is a change in the airplane type and therefore seat layout. Nowadays we focus mileage collection into one account until we have enough for both tickets, or we use Avios, as their household account gets around this issue completely.

  • yourPFpro

    Credit card companies don’t know the sex of account holders so I call in for my wife all the time and just say I’m her Haha. Never been questioned. It also helps that she has a unisex name.

  • azhoopsfan

    A neat tip that we use and recommend: The primary cardholder always uses their middle initial and authorized user cards do not use a middle initial. This way when we have the same card, it’s easy to know which account a card is tied to.

  • Holly Johnson

    I do all of the credit card signups and management for both of us. The only time my husband gets involved is when he has to call personally to cancel a card or to verify information, etc. Otherwise, he thinks it’s all too complicated!

  • KPK

    For the AMEX platinum card it is $175 additional for 3 additional cards, then $175 each thereafter! Thanks for the tips.

  • James

    Interested in finding out whether I should put combined income with spouse on the application. I’ve always asked and the card rep invariably says to only use my own.

  • JimLoomis

    Sorry, I guess I just don’t get it. I certainly understand signing up for a credit car that offers 30,000 miles to do so. But then what? Use the miles for a free trip, then cancel the card? My wife and I have one card and we charge absolutely everything to it, from $3.00 for an hour in a parking garage to a new $18,000 waterline. We probably average $6-7,000 a month, so the free trips add up pretty fast. (Obviously we pay it off in full every month, and we do have a second card as a back-up.) So why is it better/smarter to have fist full of credit cards?

  • TP

    Correction on the Delta Reserve Card: The SkyClub benefit can be used by Additional cardholders. Confirmed with a phone rep and in person multiple times this year. The Reserve card just needs to be swiped and the additional cardholder receives access.

  • DMS

    what I did was use a label maker and i put the account holder initials, and then i added the award category and % for each. Example:

    “KMS Costco True Earnings AMEX
    3% Gas, 2% Costco, Travel & Restaurants”

    “DMS Blue Cash Preferred AMEX
    6% Groceries, 3% Gas & Dept. Stores”

    “DMS Capital One Quick Silver Visa
    1.5% Monthly Bills & Everything Else”

    We my wife is the Costco account holder and I have the blue cash preferred AMEX and the Quick Silver. We each had the card companies send use a second card for the other.

  • DMS

    I recently got 2 new card and both times i used the chat feature and each company said to report my household incoming.

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