Take a look at your wallet. If you’re like most Americans, you have a credit card or two (or three) to your name—shiny pieces of plastic that can have a tremendous impact on your financial well-being.
In fact, about three out of four U.S. adults have at least one credit card, according to a 2016 Gallup report. Still, Americans, overall, do a fairly poor job of managing their credit usage: Case in point, the average U.S. household has $15,310 in credit card debt, according to a 2015 NerdWallet survey.
Carrying this kind of debt can, of course, negatively affect a person’s credit score—the all-powerful, three-digit figure that impacts someone’s ability to qualify for a mortgage, rent an apartment, get an auto loan or even purchase a cell phone plan.
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The most common is the FICO score, which can range from 300 (paltry) to 850 (perfect) depending on five factors: payment history, debt-to-credit utilization, length of credit history, credit mix and new credit; how many credit cards you have could significantly impact this number.
The tricky thing is, there’s no magic number for how many credit cards a person should have, says Bill Hardekopf, CEO at LowCards.com. Some financial pros say one card is enough, whereas others advocate for using multiple credit cards. Here’s a breakdown of these two schools of thought to help you determine how many cards you should have in your wallet.
The Case for Having More Credit Cards
If you’re a responsible credit card user—meaning you pay off your balances in full and on time each month—having multiple cards can be a good strategy for a few different reasons.
You could reap more rewards. Once you’ve established a good credit history using a basic, no-frills credit card, opening a rewards card can help you get some extra bang for your buck. But to get the most out of these cards, you'll likely want to get rewarded for the types of purchases you make most often.
“There are rewards for every type of purchase,” says Hardekopf, including airline cards, gas cards, retail cards, hotel or travel cards and cash-back cards. He recommends pulling bank statements from the past three to six months to get a better picture of where your money is going, then choose the cards that reward you in those spending categories and offer your desired perks.
A couple caveats to keep in mind: Rewards credit cards are usually more difficult to qualify for, so you’ll need strong credit to get approved. Rewards cards also typically have higher interest rates; the average rate on a cash-back credit card, for instance, is currently 20.9%, according to data by financial research firm ValuePenguin. However, if you pay off your balances each month, the interest rate may be less of a concern for you.
You could boost your credit score. Using multiple credit cards could positively impact your FICO score by helping improve your debt-to-credit utilization ratio—or how much debt you've accumulated on your credit cards divided by the credit limit on the sum of your accounts. The often-recommended guideline is to keep this ratio below 30%, although in general, the lower the better. Because you're increasing your available credit each time you open a new credit card, having multiple cards can potentially improve your credit score.
However, it’s up to you to use that credit responsibly—having additional lines of credit doesn't give you license to charge more—and to keep track of the credit history on your new cards. You’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—every 12 months at AnnualCreditReport.com. You’d be wise to check your reports throughout the year, as one in four Americans have spotted errors on their reports, according to a 2013 Federal Trade Commission survey. Your report doesn’t include your FICO score (only your credit history), but you can get a free estimate at myFICO.com.
More credit cards could mean easier bookkeeping. If you’re self-employed, you may want to keep your business expenses separate from your personal spending, says Robert Reed, CFP®, a financial planner at Partnership Financial in Columbus, Ohio. “It’s impossible to know how your business is doing if you put your purchases all on one [personal] card,” he says, adding that it’s more difficult to keep tax records when your business and personal expenses are commingled on one card.
One solution is to get a business credit card. These cards typically have expense-tracking tools that you can use to keep tabs on your company’s finances. They’re also a fairly popular financing option for small businesses, with nearly one third of small business owners using credit cards to cover some of their costs, according to a 2015 report by the National Small Business Association.
It helps to have a backup credit card if you’re in a pinch. While chip cards have made it more difficult for hackers to steal credit card information, they don't provide a foolproof guarantee against identity theft: One Gallup poll found that 22% of Americans stated they or a household member had credit card information stolen in 2015.
If your credit card information gets compromised, your issuer will typically have you trash the card and mail you a new one. Because it can take several days to receive the new card, Reed recommends having a second one on hand as a backup.
The Case for Having Fewer Cards
Despite the potential benefits of having multiple credit cards, there are drawbacks. And the stakes are high: If you destroy your credit score by, for instance, consistently missing payments on multiple cards, it could take years to rebuild that number. Plus, carrying a greater number of cards means the potential for racking up a greater amount of debt overall.
"Credit card debt is the black hole of personal finance," Reed says. "It's miserable to try to get out of; you want to avoid it at all costs."
Consider these upsides for having fewer credit cards before you adopt a “more is better” mentality.
It'll be easier to manage your payments. Having only one or two credit cards means fewer bills to sift through each month. The more credit cards you have, the greater number of billing cycles you'll likely have to keep track of. This can make it harder to stay on top of your credit card payments, Reed says.
Although you can create calendar reminders or email alerts to let you know when different bills are coming due, as Hardekopf recommends, you'll still have to keep an eagle eye on your bank account. That's because you'll have to make sure you have enough money left in your account to make those payments, and having multiple due dates scattered throughout the month can make this all the more difficult to track.
You may be more mindful of your spending. If you have trouble sticking to a budget, having access to more credit through multiple cards can make it tempting to spend beyond your means.
“For some people, if they have a credit card in their hands, they feel like they have to spend money,” Hardekopf says. In fact, research shows that people tend to spend more when they shop with a credit card instead of cash, in part because cards feel less tangible—and therefore less like you're parting with "real money." Thus, by reducing the number of credit cards you have available to you, you could effectively help limit your ability to overspend.
You help keep your debt in check. It's just logical: Having fewer credit cards and a lower available credit limit means less opportunity to dig yourself into credit card debt, because you have only so much credit to max out. (Although we're not advocating you max out your card, either, since that increases your debt-to-credit utilization ratio.)
And in the event you do carry a balance, it’s at least all on one credit card, which helps you see how much credit card debt you have—and have left to pay off—at any given time.
It can help protect your score from hard inquiries. As we mentioned earlier, having multiple credit cards has the potential to improve your credit score by increasing your total credit available. But that strategy can backfire if you’re not careful, because when you apply for a credit card, it triggers a “hard inquiry” on your credit report.
A hard inquiry happens whenever a potential lender is checking your creditworthiness, and it dings your credit score by up to five points. (This is in contrast to a "soft inquiry," like when you check your own credit score.) Five points doesn’t sound like a lot, but they can add up over time and prevent you from qualifying for the best interest rates on various types of loans or lines of credit.
Reed also advises keeping in mind that every time you open a new credit card you’re reducing the average age of your credit accounts; this impacts the length of your credit history, which comprises 15% of your FICO score.
There’s no golden rule for how many credit cards you should have. The "right" number depends on your spending behaviors, financial goals and how responsibly you manage your credit. The more cards you have, the more diligent you'll have to be in tracking your credit activity. Hardekopf’s final word on the matter: “Don’t open more credit cards than you can manage.”
Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, CFP® (with plaque design) and CFP® (with flame design) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.