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Nearly 170 million Americans have at least one credit card.
But how many cards should you have?
Most experts say a small number of credit cards can help you build credit and earn financial rewards—if managed properly. But others are more cautious. One person we talked to said she would never recommend getting a credit card.
One thing they all seem to agree on: How you use a credit card is more important than how many you have.
First of all, using credit cards to make purchases you can’t afford will hurt you in the long run, no matter how many you have. The average credit card has an annual percentage rate (APR) of about 16%. That means a $1,000 purchase could end up costing you over $2,000 if you only paid the minimum amount due each month.
Responsible credit card use, however, can be an excellent way to establish your credit history. When you pay your credit card bill on time each month, that’s a positive mark on your credit report, which pushes your credit score higher. Plus, if you’re paying your card off in full you won’t ever pay interest. Many cards also offer rewards that can make credit cards even more helpful, so long as you aren’t carrying over balances from month to month.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, how many credit cards should you really have? How many cards is too many? For that, we turned to the experts:
Marc Russell: 1-2
“It’s hard for me to understand how someone would need to have more than two credit cards,” says Marc Russell, founder of the personal finance Instagram account Betterwallet. “For me personally, I just have one,” he says. But at the end of the day he believes how many credit cards you should have depends on your reason for having a credit card.
A lot of people use credit cards to fund their lifestyle, but fail to realize they’re paying an APR close to 20% on balances that aren’t paid off each month, Russell says. That can really hurt them long term because they’ll pay so much interest, he says.
For someone who is completely out of debt, Russell recommends using a credit card strategically. “Use it for the cash rewards, for the travel benefits that come along with some of the credit cards, just make sure you have a goal in mind,” he says. And he says you should make sure you’re paying off your credit card bill every month to avoid interest charges.
Tai & Talaat McNeely: 0-2
Tai and Talaat McNeely are the co-founders of His and Her Money, a personal finance site dedicated to helping couples and families get better at managing their money. The McNeelys manage their finances with three credit cards: two personal cards, and one for their business.
Closing a credit card can hurt your credit score. Instead, if you have a card you don’t want or need anymore, just stop using it. Leave it open and make a small purchase with it every few months.
They use one personal card for all their bills, and keep the other one open because it helps their credit score. (Keeping established lines of credit open — and using them occasionally — is one way to keep a good credit score.) “At the time we opened up our first credit card over 20 years ago, the rewards weren’t as attractive as they are now, so we transitioned to a different rewards card,” Tai says.
But they also say credit cards aren’t necessarily a good idea for everyone. “Personal finance is personal before it’s financial, so you have to look at yourself and your situation to figure out what’s the best route for you to take,” Talaat says. “If you know you don’t have the discipline to pay your credit cards off, you can end yourself up in a mess.” His recommendation for anyone in that situation is to consider not having any credit cards until you can improve your financial habits.
Allison Baggerly: 0-3
According to Allison Baggerly, founder of the budgeting site Inspired Budget, how many credit cards you should have depends on your goals.
For people who struggle with impulse spending or making minimum payments, “I would say zero to one,” Baggerly says. “It’s just not worth having the temptation there.”
However, if you’ve developed healthy money habits, and you want to work on building your credit, she recommends 2-3 cards. By spreading your purchases across several cards, it can be easier to keep your credit utilization ratio down. That ratio, which compares your overall credit limit to how much of it you’re using, determines 30% of your credit score. In this scenario, Baggerly says you should be paying your cards off in full and on time.
Kara Stevens: 1-2
If you know you’re not good with living within your means and staying on budget, then the fewer the credit cards the better, says Kara Stevens, founder of The Frugal Feminista, a personal finance site dedicated to helping Black women improve their financial wellbeing. One would be a good number for those who tend to overspend, she says.
“Credit cards, in general, should be used for building up credit,” she says. But more than one or two doesn’t really serve anyone. She sees too many people open up credit cards simply because they’re looking to purchase what they can’t afford to pay for with cash. “They resort to finding new lines of credit,” she says, instead of reassessing their financial position and spending habits. She says credit cards should only be used to make purchases you could pay for with cash.
Stevens points out that having two credit cards can lower your credit utilization ratio and has the potential to improve your credit score. But she stresses the importance of paying off your credit card on time and in full each month. “It’s not to finance or subsidize your living,” she says.
Andrea Woroch: 1-2
Everybody’s situation is a little bit different, says money-saving expert Andrea Woroch. If you have trouble managing your money and you typically carry a balance, it’s probably better to limit yourself to just one credit card, she says. For someone in that circumstance, the first goal should be to learn how to manage your credit card spending and pay down your debt.
If you’re going to have a credit card, make sure it’s one with a rewards program, Woroch says. She says you want to pay attention to your card’s bonus categories. “A lot of cards will provide extra cash back or extra travel rewards when you spend at a certain retailer or within a category.”
“Having two cards I feel like is kind of a good number for most people,” Woroch says. “The reason I like two cards is because you can really maximize the rewards that are being offered these days.” If you spend a lot on groceries, for example, the Amex Blue Cash Preferred card is great because it offers 6% cash back on groceries. But if you also love to travel you could also get a credit card that earns airline miles or hotel points, she says.
Rachel Cruze: Zero
Rachel Cruze, part of Dave Ramsey’s network of personal finance experts and host of “The Rachel Cruze Show,” is a strong proponent of living a debt-free life, and doesn’t believe you need a credit card at all. The Ramsey network is well known for its aversion to debt in any and all forms, including credit cards: “Debt steals your income and steals your sleep at night,” Cruze says.
When you use a credit card, “it’s not your money and you don’t feel the attachment to it, so it’s easier to swipe or to add on purchases,” she says. She recommends using a debit card or cash instead of a credit card. If you use cash you end up spending less money than with any other form of payment, Cruze believes, but a debit card is a more convenient way to live a debt-free life, she says.
There is no definitive number of credit cards the typical person should have.
All of the experts we talked to were adamant about the importance of not carrying a balance on your credit card to avoid paying interest. So if that’s something you struggle with, then zero might be the best number for you.
However, credit cards can be an effective way to build and maintain your credit score. And if you’re not paying interest, the credit card rewards you can earn can add to your savings or vacation fund.