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Credit Cards – How Many Are Too Many?

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By Eve Mitchell

RISMEDIA, May 19, 2008-Most people who use credit have more than one card. But just how many cards are too many?

Some experts believe there is no set number to shoot for when it comes to how much plastic to have in your wallet. It’s not the number of cards, but how the cards are used that’s important. Others say how cards are used is indeed important, but so is just having a few cards as part of a strategy to help achieve or maintain a good credit score.

In the United States, the average cardholder has seven credit cards and two debit cards, according to www.cardtrak.com, which provides consumer information about credit cards.

As far as Jane Viator of Walnut Creek is concerned, that’s too many cards. She and her husband, Robert, each have a major credit card and a store card in their individual names. They also share a major credit card that has a rewards feature and gets the most use.

“I don’t see the advantage of having multiple cards,” said Jane Viator.

In addition to having only a few credit cards, the Viators pay down their monthly balance.

“A credit card is not a supplemental source of income. … If you don’t grasp that you ought to stick to debit,” said Jane Viator, who doesn’t use credit cards for small purchases, a practice that helps keep spending down.

“That I have cash for. Spending cash makes you aware that was $100 you took out from the ATM and it’s gone.

“If you put it on a credit card it adds up with astounding speed,” she said.

That is all the more reason to have no more than a few credit cards, said Bill Hardekopf, chief executive officer of www.lowcards.com, a website that helps consumers compare credit cards.

“There is the temptation of using them and charging more and more,” said Hardekopf. “Why tempt yourself with that situation?”

Consumer experts also point out that having too many credit cards could make a creditor view you as a poor credit risk. That’s because having all that plastic at your disposal means that you have the potential to run up large balances in the future.

While the number of cards does matter, so too does something called credit utilization. Credit utilization measures how much you are spending of your available credit limit from all cards combined. The lower the balance, the more favorably you are viewed by lenders and credit rating bureaus.

Emily Davidson, a credit expert at the personal finance website, www.credit.com, puts more emphasis on credit utilization than the specific number of cards held by a consumer.

“It’s one of those topics people always want an easy answer for-like six-but unfortunately that’s not the way it works. It’s actually a myth that you can hurt your credit score by having too many credit cards. That is not true … It’s not about the number of cards. It’s really about how you are using the cards,” said Davidson.

Some consumer experts advise consumers to keep their spending balance to no more than 50% of their available credit limit. Others recommend no more than 30%. Davidson is stricter.

“You never want to spend more than 10 percent of your available credit limit,” she said.

Say someone had five credit cards, each with a $5,000 spending limit, or a combined spending limit of $25,000 among all five cards. Under the 10% rule, that person’s credit utilization level should not exceed $2,500. Under the 50% rule, the utilization level should not exceed $12,500 while under the 30% rule it shouldn’t go over $7,500.

If your spending is exceeding a credit utilization goal, you might consider getting another credit card, advised Davidson. Another option would be to seek a higher spending limit from a credit card company, other experts advise.

In some cases people should have only one credit card, said Hardekopf.

“It depends on the type of consumer you are. If you carry a balance from month-to-month you need one credit card and that is the one with the lowest possible interest rate you can find,” he said. “If you do not carry a balance, I think you need one or two rewards cards and that depends on the specific rewards you might be after. You might be able to get a great gas rebate on one. I do not believe you need a whole bunch of credit cards. Carrying too many credit cards can affect your credit score negatively, which can affect your interest rates.”

Hardekopf recommends consumers stay away from store credit cards because they tend to have higher interest rates than bank-based credit cards.

Still, using store credit cards can provide discounts when making purchases, said Jane Viator.

And if you pay off the balances every month, you won’t be impacted by the interest rates, she said.

Many consumers with credit cards that aren’t being used may think about canceling them. After all, that plastic isn’t being used and having it around could be a temptation.

That’s not a good idea, said Davidson. Doing so could lower your credit score since the score is partly based on how many years back your credit history goes. If you end up canceling that first credit card, you are eliminating your earliest credit history, she said.

For example, say you typically have a $10,000 balance on a $20,000 credit limit among four cards that each have a $5,000 limit. That works out to a 50% credit utilization. Canceling one of those cards while having a $10,000 balance would reduce your credit limit to $15,000 while increasing your credit utilization to 67%.

“Keep those old cards open,” Davidson said, adding that if you are not using those old cards, periodically check your credit reports to make sure someone else is not using them illegally.

Control Your Credit

Most people find they can get along with fewer cards than they now carry. Decide which cards you actually need by asking yourself the following questions:

- Can you use the card where you ordinarily shop?
Because many places today accept bankcards, you may not need a card that can only be used at one store, for example a department store, or a specific gas card. Learn which cards are accepted where you usually shop.

- What interest rate are they charging?
Look at the interest rate of each of your cards. Cards with higher interest rates will cost you more money if you do not pay off your balance each month. You will want to keep the cards with a lower interest rate and cancel the ones with higher rates.

- What is the credit limit?
Try to match your credit limit with your credit needs. If the limit is too low, you may not be able to use the card as much as you would like. Is the limit too high? Ask to have it lowered.

- Are you paying an annual fee?
If you are paying an annual fee, are you receiving enough benefits from the card to justify it? If not, you may want to call the issuer and ask to have the fee waived. If they say no, you may want to cancel the card.

Source: Utah State University Extension

© 2008, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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