Two-player mode: Credit card strategies for couples
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with current information. It was originally published on May 30, 2014.
If you want to travel as a couple, you’ll need more points and miles to make a trip happen than when you were single. Luckily, couples have twice the opportunity to earn rewards from credit cards. In this guide, let’s consider several strategies you and your partner can use to leverage your credit (and your relationship).
How credit cards work for couples
Credit card issuers don’t care whether you’re married. Individual adults can always apply for their own credit card accounts, regardless of whether their spouse or partner has the same card. Each individual has his or her own credit score and will be approved or denied independent of a partner’s credit score.
Related reading: How to check your credit score for absolutely free
However, you can include all household income that you have a reasonable expectation of access to when applying for a new card. So, if you and your spouse manage your finances jointly, you may be able to include your spouse’s income on your credit card application.
Primary account holders can make their partner (or anyone else) an authorized cardholder on any account. Authorized cardholders can make purchases on the account, but they’re generally unable to manage the account, make changes or redeem rewards. There are some exceptions, as some banks allow joint accounts and grant power of attorney, but these are rare.
If one person in a couple has a lower credit score than the other, the person with the lower credit score may be able to boost his or her credit score by becoming an authorized cardholder. So, if your partner has a lower credit score but can be trusted to use a card responsibly, you may want to apply for most cards in your name and add them as an authorized user — at least until their credit score increases enough to allow them to start getting their own cards. Note that authorized cardholders are not responsible for repayment; only the primary account holder is.
Related reading: Talking to your reluctant spouse about miles and points
Best credit card strategies for couples to maximize rewards
Maximizing rewards will look different for each couple, since travel goals, credit scores and financial management strategies will vary. In this section, let’s consider some common questions asked by couples when it comes to maximizing credit card rewards.
Should we each sign up for the same card?
There are a few aspects to consider when deciding whether you and your partner only need one of a particular card between the two of you, or whether you should each sign up for the card independently.
- Do you manage your finances jointly or separately? Couples who manage their finances separately will want to have separate accounts, although they may want to have one or two shared accounts that are used for shared expenses. Even if you generally manage your finances jointly, you and your partner may each want to have one card that isn’t managed jointly if you enjoy making surprise purchases for each other.
- Is the welcome bonus exceptional? Some offers remain consistent for years on end, while others are limited-time offers that could be gone once you leave the page. For example, if you and your partner each were targeted for a 100,000-point offer on The Platinum Card® from American Express through the CardMatch Tool, you may both want to apply if you can each reach the minimum spending requirements to obtain the bonus. After all, 100,000 points is much better than the Amex Platinum’s standard welcome bonus (60,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 in purchases in the first three months of account opening.) Terms apply.
- Can the cardholder benefits be shared? Some cards offer valuable benefits and perks. If you’re getting a card for these benefits, it’s important to consider whether you can both share these benefits or whether their use is only provided to the primary cardholder (and in some cases, those who are traveling with the primary cardholder).
- Are you mainly interested in the bonus categories? If so, you may want to add your partner as an authorized user or simply load their card in your mobile wallet and tap to pay at an increasing number of merchants.
- Is it better to add an authorized user or apply for a second card? Some cards allow you to add authorized users for free, while others charge a fee. Some cards extend most of the primary cardholder’s benefits to authorized users, while others don’t offer many benefits to authorized users.
If you are only applying for one card, who should apply?
If only one person in the couple is going to open a new account, it makes sense to consider who is more likely to use the card’s benefits exclusively. For example, if you travel without your partner more than they travel without you, you’ll want to be the one that opens most of the cobranded hotel and airline cards. This way, you can use the benefits when you travel solo. Likewise, if you are loyal to different airlines or hotels than your partner, this will dictate which cards you each open.
You may also want to balance out your new applications so that neither of you has a greater credit history or is more likely to be declined for a new card due to too many recent applications. You should also consider whether either of you is close to or over Chase’s 5/24 rule when planning out a new application.
How can we mix cards to maximize our earnings?
When signing up for a new card, you’ll want to consider three main things:
- How will we use this card’s welcome bonus?
- How will this card improve our earning rate?
- Does this card have any notable benefits that will improve how we travel?
If you consider these aspects when applying for new cards, you can create a solid mix of cards between you and your partner. This is true even if you’re not jointly managing your finances, although you may miss out on maximizing some earnings if your partner holds the card with the best earnings for a particular purchase that you want to make.
In couples where one person travels more than the other, it may make sense for the traveler to focus on travel rewards cards and the less frequent traveler to focus on cash-back cards. If one person in the couple doesn’t want to deal with remembering the best card to use for each purchase, it might be best for that person to carry a card that has strong earnings on everyday spending.
Related reading: Maximizing credit cards to become points-rich without spending a ton
Best joint credit cards for couples
Some banks will offer joint credit card accounts, which are accounts for which you both apply together and are jointly responsible. But, joint accounts are relatively rare and joint credit cards may not be the best idea.
So, let’s consider the more common situation in which one person opens an account and then adds their partner as an authorized user. There’s no absolute best card for adding authorized users, since “best” will depend on your specific situation. But here are three of my favorites:
- The Platinum Card from American Express: Best for elite-like benefits for authorized users ($550 annual fee; see rates and fees + $175 annual fee for up to three authorized users; see rates and fees)
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: Best for travel protections, Priority Pass membership and 3x earning on travel and dining ($550 annual fee + $75 annual fee for each authorized user)
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Best for travel protections and 2x earning on travel and dining for a sub-$100 annual fee ($95 annual fee, but no additional fee for authorized users)
Of course, depending on your situation and preferences, adding your partner as an authorized user on a different card may be better. And, applying for a joint account may be preferable for some couples.
Related reading: Credit cards with the greatest value for authorized users
Frequently asked questions
You may have additional questions about credit card strategies for couples. Here are a few of the most commonly asked questions.
How to determine the right accounts for your relationship?
If you’re in a committed relationship, you may be starting to co-mingle finances. As you decide what new card or cards to add to your wallets and whether to add each other as authorized users on some of your cards, be sure to consider the points discussed above to create a good mix of cards that ensure you’re (1) maximizing your earnings on most purchases and (2) working toward obtaining the right points, miles or other rewards to reach your goals.
How to use joint accounts responsibly?
As mentioned above, many banks don’t offer joint credit card accounts and joint credit cards may be a bad idea. You should weigh the pros and cons of having a joint account versus simply adding each other as authorized users on select accounts.
But, if you’re set on having a joint account, be sure that your partner is on the same page financially. This is important since you’ll both be fully responsible for any charges made on the account and you’ll both always have access to the full credit line. Monitor the account closely and consider closing the account if your partner is irresponsible or if a separation occurs.
Related reading: Ten commandments for travel rewards credit cards
When should couples add each other as authorized users?
If you trust your partner to make financially responsible decisions, then you may want to add him or her as an authorized user on at least some of your cards that don’t charge any additional fees for authorized users. Even if you manage your finances separately, it can be useful to have one or two accounts that you use for shared expenses. However, remember that you’ll be responsible for whatever charges that person puts on your account.
This question becomes more difficult for cards that charge an annual fee for authorized users. I’m currently an authorized user on my husband’s Amex Platinum, as we find that the fee of $175 for up to three authorized users (see rates and fees) is well justified by the elite-like benefits including Centurion Lounge access and hotel elite status provided to authorized users.
Is it better to have individual accounts?
If you manage your finances separately or have different financial priorities than your partner, you may prefer to maintain individual accounts. Even if you manage your accounts together, you may prefer to have your own account on some cards if the current welcome offer is particularly impressive or when you can get solid value from perks on the card that are only available to the primary cardholder.
Related reading: The best credit cards for young professionals
Tips for managing cards as a couple
Here are some final tips for managing cards successfully as a couple.
Managing your partner’s account
If one person in the couple is managing accounts for both individuals in the couple, this person may face some trouble, since only the primary account holder can make changes to an account. You can use the secure messaging feature for most simple inquiries and requests, but your partner may need to call the bank in some situations, such as in the case of a fraudulent transaction, to inquire about retention offers or to report a lost card.
Related reading: Reader mistake story — Forgetting to manage your family’s accounts
Keeping things simple
Even if you have cards for every possible use, you likely won’t carry all of your cards daily. For example, at home you may want to carry one card for groceries, one for restaurants, one for gas and another for miscellaneous expenses. And, you may want to assess your wallet before taking a trip to remove cards with foreign transaction fees (when traveling overseas) and add travel-related cards that you might need. For example, the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express is a great card to carry if you’re going to stay at a Hilton property and/or use the card’s annual resort credit.
Related reading: The one credit card TPG staffers can’t live without
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.
If you or your partner commonly forget which card to use for particular expenses, sticky notes on each card may reduce confusion. You may also find it useful to use a tool for tracking spending; my husband and I use Quicken, but there are many other popular options for keeping track of all your accounts, including Personal Capital.
Related reading: How many credit cards should I have?
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- Ultimate guide to points pooling and sharing
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- The best cash-back credit cards
For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum Card, please click here.
Additional reporting by Jason Steele.
Featured image by georgeclerk/Getty Images.