Juggling multiple cards not for you? Here’s how to use a single credit card wisely
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What if you had only one credit card – for everything?
No juggling due dates. No figuring out which card to pull out for which occasion. A thinner wallet!
On the other hand, you might be missing out on the opportunity to maximize cash back and rewards by using different cards for different purchases.
Having just one card also means saying au revoir to those generous sign-up bonuses that might come with a new rewards card.
Read on to learn the pros and cons of this strategy, tips to make it work for you, and even a few single-card options to consider.
Pros of having just one credit card
- You’re more likely to pay your bill on time.
“You’ve got one provider to think about, one piece of plastic to keep your eyes on, one bill to pay each month,” said Natasha Rachel Smith, personal finance and consumer expert for TopCashback.com, a cash back and rebates website.
Making on-time payments is the most important factor in credit scoring, accounting for 35 percent of your score.
- You’re less likely to fall into debt.
With one card, “you’re going to be more aware of what you’re spending on that one account,” said Andrea Woroch, a consumer savings expert.
“If you have multiple credit cards, that’s when you can get into a trickier situation,” she said, “because you’re not necessarily aware of the balance you have on different cards, and you also have more available credit to use as well.”
- You have fewer hard inquiries impacting your credit score.
Every time you apply for a credit card, the bank takes a look at your credit history. Those views add up and can even drive your score down – while only temporary, depending on your score, the consequences can range from minimal to significant.
That can make a difference if you’re trying to buy a house or get any kind of loan, Woroch said.
- You may be more able to maximize rewards.
One card, one laser focus on racking up points or amassing cash back. This way, you know all your points are in the same system, which can be a problem if you have different cards from different banks.
- You have better chances to prevent fraud.
“You’re more likely to check your account for fraud regularly,” Woroch said, “when you only have one account to check.”
Cons of having just one credit card
- You have less flexibility in your cash flow.
If you need to make a big purchase on, say, the 10th of the month, and the billing cycle of your single card closes on the 11th, you’re going to get stuck paying that bill pretty soon.
However, if you have other cards with cycles that close later in the month or in the first few days of the next month – or if you have an extra card with a 0-percent promotional period – you’ve just bought yourself some time to save or raise that extra cash.
- You may be missing out on reward opportunities.
“You are losing out big-time on everything that’s available to you,” said Smith of TopCashBack.com.
Sure, your card may give you cash back, but then it’s also not giving you points toward airline travel and vice versa. “There is no one, well-rounded, super credit card that is going to give you all the benefits,” she said.
- You can’t maximize your spending.
Some cards give more points at restaurants, others at gas stations. By having more than one card, “you can really take advantage of some of the benefits of the system,” said Matthew Goldman, founder of Wallaby Financial, which helps consumers maximize credit card rewards.
- You have to keep an eagle eye on your credit utilization ratio.
Credit utilization ratio is the percentage you are using of the total credit available to you. Ideally, you want to keep it below 30 percent. As close to zero as you can get is even better.
For example, if you have one credit card with a $5,000 credit limit, you don’t want to ever owe more than $1,500. But if you have a second card with, say, a $3,000 credit limit, you can owe another $900 in the same month and still stay within that 30 percent ratio.
Having more than one credit card can boost your credit utilization ratio with multiple credit lines. In fact, it’s the second most important factor in credit scoring, after making on-time payments.
- You have to make that one card fit all uses and occasions.
If you own a business or a rental property, it’s nice to have a credit card devoted solely to those expenses, Woroch said. It’s easier to track those expenses and to figure out deductions when tax time comes around.
- Your one card might not be accepted everywhere.
While Visa and Mastercard are more universally accepted, and American Express signs are increasingly common in store windows across the globe, you will inevitably wind up in a place that doesn’t accept the type of credit card you have with you.
Also, if you’re planning to use your one card abroad, you should make sure it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees – usually 3 percent of each purchase.
One single-card holder’s strategy
What if, after considering all the pros and cons, you’ve decided to go with one card? You’ve got plenty of company.
The one-card strategy has worked well for Tracie Fobes, who blogs at Penny Pinchin’ Mom.
Following a personal bankruptcy, she dealt solely in cash for years before she and her husband decided to get one credit card – the Discover it Cashback Match card.
This is why and how one card works for her:
- She gets her bill and there’s her spending, in one place. “It’s all in black and white for me,” she said.
- She makes sure her credit utilization ratio stays on the low end by not letting a balance balloon, even within the monthly billing cycle.
- She doesn’t carry a balance or overspend. “We don’t use the card to go crazy,” she said. “If we have to buy something [expensive], a day later we turn around and pay it off from our bank account.”
- She can use the card freely while abroad, as the Discover it card doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.
One card for everything: Card options to consider
Ready to winnow that wallet down to just one card? Here are a few options to investigate:
- Barclays Arrival Premier World Elite Mastercard is a new rewards card that can offer major rewards in the long run if you use it as your go-to card. It gives 2 miles per dollar spent on all purchases, elite card benefits such as concierge services and Global Entry/TSA Precheck credit, and doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.
While it doesn’t offer a sign-up bonus, Barclay Arrival Premier cardholder can earn 75,000 miles a year if you charge approximately $2,000 on the card each month. The card comes with a $150 annual fee.
- Both Chase Sapphire cards are a good pick for someone who likes to travel and/or eat out often. Chase Sapphire Reserve ($450 annual fee) offers 3 points per dollar spent on all travel and dining purchases in addition to a slew of benefits. With the Chase Sapphire Preferred ($95 annual fee, waived the first year), you earn 2 points per dollar spent on travel and restaurants.
Both cards give you access to the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, where you can maximize your points at various merchants and redeem points for airline flights, hotel rooms and curated experiences. Both cards come with a 50,000-point sign-up bonus and don’t charge foreign transaction fees.
- Costco members should consider the Costco Anywhere Visa card by Citi. Cardholders get 4 percent cash back on gas (up to $7,000 annually, 1 percent thereafter), 3 percent on dining and travel, 2 percent on Costco purchases, and 1 percent on all other purchases.
The card also charges no foreign transaction fees and no annual fee, but you have to be a Costco member to have the card ($60 per year). Also, the rewards are only redeemable once a year, at the end of the February billing cycle.
- Capital One has two straightforward cards to consider, depending on the type of rewards you want to earn. The Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards card gives 1.5 percent cash back on all purchases (no annual fee), and the Capital One Venture Rewards card gives users 2 miles per dollar spent ($95 annual fee, waived the first year).
Both cards make redemption easy, offer generous sign-up bonuses and come with no foreign transaction fees.
Picking the right one card for you
Regardless of the card you pick, make sure the rewards structure matches your lifestyle and the credit limit is large enough so it allows you to handle your credit utilization comfortably.
In the end, the number of cards in your wallet is not as important as your ability to manage them successfully.
With one card, Penny Pinchin’ Mom’s Fobes said, “I feel like I’m more in control.”
See related: A second credit card: When it’s wise to get one, when it’s not, How many cards should you have?
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