How many credit cards should you carry?

An AskMetafilter user wonders: How many credit cards do typical people have?

For various reasons I have four credit cards. I always thought of this as too many, but haven’t cancelled mine since the crappiest one is also the oldest, and has no fee, and I want to maintain the age of the card on my credit report. Most people I know have one or two cards. But reading online forums on credit, I see plenty of people with more than four. How many is normal? How many do you have?

According to How Many Credit Cards is Too Many? at MoneyCentral, “most Americans carry between five and ten credit cards”. According to Steve Bucci at

The average person carries eleven “credit vehicles.” Typically, seven are different types of cards and four are installment loans for cars, furniture, student loans or mortgages.

I heard recently that the average number of credit accounts was 12.7 per person, which is slightly higher than Bankrate’s numbers indicate. The numbers I heard are closer to the average credit statistics at

On average, today’s consumer has a total of thirteen credit obligations on record at a credit bureau. These include credit cards (such as department store charge cards, gas cards, or bank cards) and installment loans (auto loans, mortgage loans, student loans, etc.). Not included are savings and checking accounts (typically not reported to a credit bureau). Of these thirteen credit obligations, nine are likely to be credit cards and four are likely to be installment loans.

Perhaps of more interest to some readers, Nellie Mae has statistics from the year 2000 about student credit card use. Undergrads carry about three credit cards each and graduate students carry about four credit cards each. The credit trap begins early. also offers information about average debt load:

About 40% of credit card holders carry a balance of less than $1,000. About 15% are far less conservative in their use of credit cards and have total card balances in excess of $10,000. When we look at the total of all credit obligations combined (except mortgage loans), 48% of consumers carry less than $5,000 of debt. This includes all credit cards, lines of credit, and loans — everything but mortgages. Nearly 37% carry more than $10,000 of non-mortgage-related debt as reported to the credit bureaus.

Liz Pulliam Weston at MSN Money sees these numbers and concludes that the media is filled with alarmists. She recently wrote a column entitled The Truth About Credit Card Debt in which she attempts to argue that the U.S. is not filled with people struggling under the burden of too much debt. Weston says that one quarter of Americans have no credit cards. Another third of Americans do not carry a balance on their cards. She claims this is good news. And it is, but I think she’s overstating the situation.

According to her own admission, 45% of American households still carry a median of $2200 in credit card debt. She also admits that debt burdens are climbing (she notes that credit card debt has increased 10% in three years), that debt-to-income ratios are near record highs, and that bankruptcies are at record levels.

Weston’s broad point may be correct, but it minimizes the trouble that millions of Americans have: they’re in debt, and deeply so. Credit cards play a huge role in the problem.

Most experts recommend keeping between two and five low-interest credit cards, and to pay them off regularly. Certainly keep balances below 50% of the max (for credit score purposes and for debt burden purposes). Personally (and I’m no “expert”), I think a person should have zero credit cards if at all possible. If this makes you nervous because you think you need one as a safety net, or if you know (not “think”) that you’re responsible enough to pay off your balance regularly, then carry one or two cards to get free credit report for easy maintenance (preferably rewards cards that you pay off monthly). Don’t carry more. (And if they’re truly for “emergency use”, make them cards that don’t let you carry a balance.)

Too many people focus on credit cards with regards to credit history. The ideal — admittedly very difficult to obtain — is to live a life in which your credit history is irrelevant because you’re not obtaining new debt (aside from a mortgage). I haven’t carried a personal credit card in almost a decade. I don’t miss them at all.

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