What is the ideal number of credit cards to have?
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There’s never been a time in the history of credit cards where consumers are presented with as many options as they have today. From six-figure welcome offers to bonus points on everyday purchases, issuers are competing for your attention — and your application.
Over time, you might find yourself in a swirling maelstrom credit cards. We’re no stranger to this — Brian Kelly, The Points Guy himself, has 20-plus cards. In fact, the average number of cards on TPG’s editorial staff hovers around 11.
With that said, what is the ideal number of credit cards to have? The answer will obviously depend on various factors. To start, the ability to open a credit card is based on your credit score, income and employment status. From there, your average spend, rewards goals and travel habits will determine the rest of the story. In addition to these considerations, I’ll base my query about the ideal number of credit cards to have on the general TPG reader who has at least an inkling of an interest in credit cards and points and miles.
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Maximize your top spend categories
One of the main advantages of using a credit card is the ability to earn rewards. Even if you’re just earning 1 point per dollar on your purchases, that’s a better return than using a debit card that doesn’t have a rewards rate at all. Just remember, any rewards that you earn will be negated if you miss a payment and owe interest to your credit card issuer, so be sure to spend responsibly.
If you are good at paying your bills on time and in full, credit cards shouldn’t be a scary concept. However, it’s crucial to skim over your day-to-day spending habits and determine your top five to seven spend categories. By homing in on these purchase categories, it will feel less overwhelming to figure out the right number of cards for you.
I’ll walk you through my situation as an example. As a New Yorker in my early 20s, I allocate most of my budget to rent, groceries, dining, local transit, gym membership, cellphone bill and online shopping.
Although startup Bilt Rewards is changing the game by offering a way for eligible renters to earn points (fee-free) on rent, I live in a pre-war building owned by one family. Since my landlord only accepts cashier’s checks, earning points on rent is out of the question at this time. Still, there are plenty of ways to earn bonus points on the rest of my expenses.
Some cards knock out two or three purchase categories at a time. For someone like me, the American Express® Gold Card is a great choice as it offers 4 points per dollar on dining and on up to $25,000 in purchases at U.S. supermarkets per year (then 1 point per dollar). Since TPG values Membership Rewards points at 2 cents each, that’s an 8% return on groceries and dining that take up a considerable portion of my monthly budget.
I’ll need to spend a minimum of $3,150 combined on dining and grocery purchases each year to make up for the Amex Gold’s $250 annual fee (see rates and fees). Throw in the other benefits of the card, such as an up to a $120 annual Uber Cash credit and up to a $120 annual dining statement credit on eligible restaurants, and this card is the ultimate choice for foodies. Enrollment is required for these benefits.
While I could get a card that earns bonus points on my monthly Verizon cell phone bill, I actually use the JetBlue Plus Card for the complimentary cell phone protection it confers when paying your bill with the card. It only earns 1 point per dollar on non-bonus purchases, but this benefit is much more important to me than earning bonus points on this category. AppleCare for my iPhone can run more than $200 annually, so this complimentary benefit is another great way to ensure peace of mind without paying up more.
The information for the JetBlue Plus card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Next, as a Hyatt fan, I could pick up the World of Hyatt Credit Card as it earns 2 points per dollar on local transit and commuting as well as on gym memberships. With a reasonable $95 annual fee, there are plenty of other benefits of owning the card, such as automatic Discoverist elite status and a free night certificate for Category 1-4 properties on your cardmember anniversary.
When it comes to online shopping and other miscellaneous purchases that don’t fit under these other categories, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is ideal to sweep up those remaining rewards. This card earns 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, no matter the category. Whenever I just want one card to bring with me, the Venture is my go-to since I know I’ll always snag a great return. There’s a $95 annual fee, but I also got my Global Entry application reimbursed with this card — a $100 value alone, and one that I can take advantage of once every four years.
Keep in mind that this is just one scenario of how you could pick up multiple cards to help maximize your everyday purchases. There’s an infinite combination of cards you can open that will also offer optimal results.
Review the types of rewards credit cards you want
It’s easiest to wrap your head around the credit card world if you compartmentalize each type of card. In terms of rewards credit cards, you have:
- Travel credit cards
- Airline credit cards
- Hotel credit cards
- Cash-back credit cards
- Business credit cards
Of course, it’s not necessary to carry all five types of credit cards.
“I would say the average person could cover their bases with one airline card, one transferable points card, one cash-back card with different bonus categories for everyday expenses and one hotel card if they stay with a chain more than a couple times a year,” said Eric Rosen, TPG’s director content. “Then, just consider the annual fees you’re paying to make sure you’re pulling more value from each card’s benefits than it costs to carry each year, and voilà.”
When you stick to one to two cards per category, it makes your life much simpler. When you start to have a dozen (or more) credit cards, it starts to spread out your rewards thin rather than focusing on a handful of powerhouse cards that earn points and miles. Even when there’s an enticing welcome bonus, think wisely about if the card fits into your strategy before applying.
“I used to jump all over every offer like that 6-7 years ago,” said Juan Ruiz, credit cards editor at TPG. “Now, I stick to my main strategy of spending on the biggest bonus categories and not diverting to limited time promos unless it’s just too darn easy.”
The ideal number of cards for the typical traveler
To answer the overarching question, the TPG credit cards team seem to be in unison that the ideal number of credit cards ranges somewhere between three to ten cards.
While ten credit cards can seem like a lot, many cards pair well together. For example, if you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, it only makes sense to add the no-annual-fee Chase Freedom Unlimited and the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card to your wallet to round out the so-called “Chase Trifecta,” maximizing the opportunities to earn and redeem your Ultimate Rewards points. Since all three cards earn the same rewards currency, you can pool your points together and maximize them.
Don’t stress over missed opportunities
Once you get comfortable with your credit cards and remember all of the rewards rates that come on your cards, you’ll quickly become an expert in your field. You’ll come to understand which card to use for groceries and which card to use for booking flights. But if you accidentally use the “wrong” card for a purchase and miss the opportunity to earn bonus points, don’t fret.
“I think maximizing everything single little category and promo takes the fun out of the cards game,” said Chris Dong, cards reporter at TPG. “There’s an opportunity cost when it comes just burdensome. So I personally want to maximize as much as possible but I don’t stress if I miss a few points here or there.”
This is an important guiding principle as you add multiple cards to your wallet. While it’s important to stay organized, if you forget and use a card that doesn’t earn any bonus points on gas, it’s not the end of the world if you miss out on 40 extra points. Ultimately, you still earned points rather than putting it on a debit card or paying cash and earning no rewards at all.
Ultimately, the cards you own will come down to preference: Do you mind having credit cards from different issuers, or would you rather have your cards streamlined with one bank? Do you have a favorite travel brand and want to earn points and miles in that respective loyalty program, no matter if you’re “maximizing” every dollar you’re spending? Would you rather have a cash-back card for simplicity?
These are all of the questions to think about on top of the rewards you’ll earn from your cards.
Tips for keeping up with multiple credit cards
It takes time to add cards in your wallet, so don’t worry if you don’t worry if you haven’t reached the “ideal” number of cards in your wallet yet. Once you do, though, here are some tips for keeping up with your multiple credit cards.
Create a mobile wallet
Whether it’s Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay or another form of a mobile wallet, you can load multiple cards on your phone to lighten up the load on your wallet. With issuers creating more metal credit cards than ever before, it’s nice to leave the cards at home (though they may look nice). While I still carry three physical cards with me at all times in case a store doesn’t accept contactless payment, my digital wallet allows me to rotate and use cards that don’t get as much love.
Download the TPG app when it’s live
While not available to the general public yet, you can sign up for the waitlist here for our all-new TPG app that is a game changer for the world of points, miles and credit cards. That’s because you can load all your cards to preview your spending and rewards rates, as well as see the various points and miles you own from all of your favorite travel loyalty brands. Among other features include the Award Explorer to search award travel pricing and a curated home feed to load articles related to your preference and travel style.
Downgrade or cancel your cards
If you incrementally add cards over the years and find yourself stressed at the number of cards you have in your rotation — or you are taken aback by the number of annual fees you pay each year — consider downgrading or canceling your cards. You’re never obligated to one card, so know that you can always switch up your style at any point.
The ideal number of credit cards for your grandma versus someone who’s remotely interested in accruing points and miles for travel will vary drastically. Even though my friends and family always gawk when I tell them I have eight credit cards, they all play strategically in my award travel strategy and long-term goals.
For rates and fees of the Amex Gold, click here.
Featured photo by Wyatt Smith for The Points Guy.
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