Q: How many credit cards are too many? — Jen, California
A: There’s no single answer that’s right for everyone, but you can definitely cross that threshold if you’re not careful.
On average, Americans tend to have a slightly higher number of credit cards (2.24) than they do children (between 1.5 and 2) — although of course some people eschew credit altogether, while others accumulate reams of plastic. The Guinness World Record holder, Walter Cavanagh of Santa Clara, Calif., has 1,497 credit cards — 38 pounds’ worth — and says he maintains a “nearly perfect” credit score. So if someone can have nearly 1,500 credit cards and keep a pristine credit score, clearly someone cannot have too many cards.
But if you can’t control your spending, it’s quite possible to have too many credit cards for your own good. The average indebted household carries almost $16,000 in credit card debt, according to NerdWallet. Unless you are financing that debt with 0% interest — and have a plan to exit it before a higher rate kicks in — you shouldn’t have a balance. No rewards will be worth the financing charges.
Rather than a specific number, think like Goldilocks: you want the number of cards to be just right for your goals and spending habits. “There is no magic number,” says CreditCardForum’s Ben Woolsey.
Unless you are committed to an cash-only lifestyle, you probably need at least one credit card. It will vastly simplify any online shopping or travel booking that you do, and most credit cards offer better consumer protection than debit cards. You can use that card to get rewards (cash back or travel points) or, if you’re a frequent overseas traveler, to avoid foreign transaction fees. A responsibly used credit card can also help you build up your credit score.
A second card in your wallet gives you extra security and convenience, Woolsey says. “I think it’s good to have more than one as a backup in case your primary card gets lost or compromised,” he says. Think in terms of broader acceptance, too. “It can also be good to have a Visa or MasterCard if your primary card is a Discover or American Express, as those don’t have the global acceptance levels of Visa or MasterCard,” Woolsey says.
Beyond that, there’s your credit score to consider. Almost a third of your FICO score is determined by your credit utilization ratio — the amount of credit you use, relative to your limit — and experts recommend that you spend no more than 20% to 30% of your available credit. So you’ll want to make sure that you have enough cards to give you a credit limit that’s about four to five times your monthly spending — but few enough that you’ll use them regularly. Issuers can cancel your card if you consistently don’t spend on it, and they don’t have to give you advance warning.
Finally, keep annual fees to a minimum. Even if you’ve got a rewards card, it’s often best to limit yourself to just one card with an annual fee.