How many credit cards should I have?
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One of the questions we are most frequently asked is, “How many credit cards should I have at one time?” It’s actually many questions in one:
Will applying for a new card hurt my credit?
How do I maximize my rewards earnings (and those big welcome bonus offers)?
Is having 19 open credit cards really a good idea for my personal finances?
There are no simple answers.
You could follow the lead of those with the best credit scores. Ethan Dornheim, FICO’s vice president of scores and predictive analysis, told CNBC that FICO’s research suggests that consumers with credit scores above 800 have an average of three open cards.
Or you could try to follow in the The Points Guy’s footsteps. Brian Kelly often has around 20 open credit cards, ranging from the Chase Freedom (no annual fee) to the American Express Business Centurion Card (a $2,500 annual fee). He manages to have an excellent credit score while earning and using lots of points and perks from a wallet full of cards. You could try to etch your name in the record books and outdo Walter Cavanagh’s Guinness World Record of having 1,497 credit cards. (I strongly advise against attempting to set that record.)
The truth is that the answer to how many credit cards you should have depends on your spending habits, your lifestyle and your goals.
Related: How a FICO score works
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The right number of credit cards for excellent credit
There’s a myth that having too many credit cards will hurt your credit. But in fact, each credit card you have — and manage responsibly — will add positive information to your credit history over time. This can help to improve your credit score. However, this more-is-more effect is limited and your credit won’t continue to rise forever with each new credit card account you have.
Related reading: Yes, I have 19 credit cards; here’s why
To explain this phenomenon, I like to ask this question: Would you rather loan money to someone who once paid back one loan or to someone who has consistently paid back many loans? Of course, someone with a longer track record of timely loan repayments will be the preferred borrower. So someone with multiple credit card accounts, a perfect payment record and very little debt is going to be the ideal customer for a credit card.
For more concrete proof of the advantage of having multiple, responsibly managed credit card accounts, you can take a look at the free Credit Score Estimator that FICO offers. The first question it asks is how many credit cards you have. And if you play around with it, you’ll find that you’ll receive a higher estimate when you have five or more credit cards than when you select two to four, or one. On average, I found about a five-point difference between each of these, with five or more being the best.
So if your sole concern is maximizing your FICO credit score, then you should have at least five credit cards. However, there’s no advantage to your credit score by having any more than five cards, and the difference between having two to four or five cards isn’t very large.
I have 18 active accounts for which I’m the primary account holder, and my FICO 8 credit score at the time of this writing is 846 (based on my Experian credit report).
Why do I have so many credit cards? For me, it’s all about maximizing rewards.
The right number of credit cards for maximizing rewards
A big consideration in choosing the number of credit cards that you should have is how much you want to maximize rewards. There’s clearly one advantage to having a larger number of reward credit cards, since each can offer rewards-earning opportunities not found on other cards. For example, I use my American Express® Gold Card for my dining and U.S. supermarket purchases, where I earn 4x Membership Rewards points per dollar spent on up to $25,000 per year. Earning 8% in rewards on my dining out expenses and grocery shopping is strong.
I use The Platinum Card® from American Express to pay for airline charges; it offers 5x points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel (and flight protections). I use my Chase Sapphire Reserve for other travel purchases where I can earn 3x points after earning the $300 annual travel credit, except at Hyatt hotels where I use my Chase The World of Hyatt credit card that gives me 4x points. I also use my World of Hyatt credit card for my gym membership, as it offers double points there. And finally, I use my Chase Freedom Unlimited everywhere else since it awards 1.5% cash back (1.5 points per dollar), which turns out to be a 3% return since I also have a premium Ultimate Rewards credit card. I also hold cards that I use for my small businesses and for other rewards-earning opportunities.
I know people who use even more credit cards and collect points and miles from a greater assortment of airline, hotel and credit card reward programs. Some also supplement their rewards with cash-back credit cards, as their needs dictate.
If I looked at it strictly from the standpoint of maximizing rewards, the right number of credit cards can be a very large number. That’s how those who are really those serious about miles and points can end up with 15-20 (or more) open card accounts.
Related: Best rewards credit cards of 2020
The right number of credit cards for responsibly managing your personal finances
As much as I love to use credit cards to earn rewards, I always tell people that responsibly managing your personal finances is far more important. It’s an absolute rule: You should never have more credit cards than you can manage responsibly. This means keeping up with them, paying your bills on time, doing the math on the annual fees and carrying very little, if any, debt. It also means controlling your spending and monitoring your accounts for fraudulent transactions.
If you need to keep things simple with just one — or at most, two — credit cards, that’s OK. Do that even if it means you are leaving some rewards on the table.
If you’re unable to manage a single credit card responsibly, then the right number of credit cards for you is zero. Credit cards are powerful financial instruments and it’s better to use another form of payment, such as a debit card, if you’re unable to manage a credit card responsibly.
Related reading: Ten commandments for travel rewards credit cards
Those who miss credit card payments and incur debt because of interest or penalties won’t come out ahead no matter how many miles per dollar they earn. Missing payments and incurring debt will also do far more damage to your credit score than any minor advantage you may gain by having multiple credit cards.
Fixing on the right number of credit cards begins with determining the number of accounts that you can responsibly manage each month — and not having a single credit card more. But if you’re able to skillfully manage multiple card accounts, you shouldn’t be afraid to add an additional one that offers you a new way to maximize your rewards, as it won’t hurt your credit score in the long run.
Featured photo by Orli Friedman / The Points Guy.
Additional reporting by David McMillin
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