Why I have 21 credit cards, and how I decide which ones to keep
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I’ve opened more than 60 credit card accounts over the past decade, including the 21 accounts currently active in my name. I have these cards for a variety of reasons: some for their high rewards earning rates, some for their lucrative benefits, and some due to mere financial inertia.
Each year, I review my portfolio to assess whether the cards I have are meeting my needs, and to get rid of the ones that aren’t.
Join me as I evaluated my open accounts, and decide whether to keep or toss each one.
We’re focused here on the rewards and perks that come with each card. These cards won’t be worth it if you’re paying interest or late fees. When using a credit card, it’s important to pay your balance in full each month, make payments on time, and only spend what you can afford to pay.
These cards are almost always in my wallet; I use them for a large percentage of my charged transactions, and make regular use of their benefits. Barring significant changes to the cards or my personal finances, they’re not going anywhere.
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
As a devotee of the Ultimate Rewards program, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® is an excellent fit for me. I have no trouble using the $300 annual travel credit (especially since Chase expanded the list of eligible purchases to include gas and groceries through June 30, 2021), so my $550 annual fee is effectively reduced to $250. I recoup that amount each year by taking advantage of the 50% bonus for redeeming through the Chase Travel Portal and the new Pay Yourself Back feature.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve® also gets me 3 points per dollar on travel (after the $300 credit) and dining purchases, primary rental car coverage, a Priority Pass membership that includes restaurant locations, and transferability to airline and hotel partners like Southwest, United, and Hyatt. If I could only have one credit card, it would be this one.
Having two premium credit cards with $550 annual fees (See Rates) might seem extravagant, but despite having some overlap, they serve distinct purposes. Whereas my Chase Sapphire Reserve® card is primarily an asset for earning and spending rewards, I keep The Platinum Card® from American Express for its cornucopia of benefits.
The up to $200 annual airline fee credit and up to $200 in Uber Cash credits cover most of the annual fee normally, and Amex has added other temporary perks during the pandemic to make the card a net gain for me out of the gates.
I use the Platinum Card to earn 5 points per dollar on airfare booked directly with airlines, but I often use it even when I’m only earning 1 point per dollar to take advantage of its purchase protection, return protection, and extended warranty benefits. Other cards in my portfolio offer similar benefits, but I’ve found greater success and less hassle working with Amex customer service.
I enjoy having access to Amex Centurion Lounges, and I get occasional value out of up to $100 in annual Saks credits, as well as Gold elite status with Hilton and Marriott. Finally, I appreciate the option to add up to three authorized users for an extra $175 annually (See Rates), so I can share many of these benefits with close friends and family.
The role players
These cards are in my regular rotation for their high earning rates on select purchases. They don’t get as much usage as the first two cards, but since none of them charge an annual fee, they’re all sure keepers for me.
Keeping no-annual-fee credit cards open for the long term can help build your credit and potentially improve your credit score by increasing your average length of credit history.
Ink Business Cash® Credit Card
I use the Ink Business Cash® Credit Card card to earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar (on up to $25,000 in combined purchases per year, then 1x) on internet and phone bills (and the occasional office supply purchase), which nets me around 20,000 points annually.
Paired with my Sapphire Reserve card, that’s worth $300 toward travel booked through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal, or potentially more when I transfer to airline and hotel partners.
The Chase Freedom® card (no longer available to new applicants) offers rotating bonus categories that earn 5 points per dollar on up to $1,500 in combined purchases each quarter (then 1x) after activation.
I almost never use this card when I’m only earning 1 point per dollar, but I’ll usually max out the bonus when the 5x categories fit with my spending patterns. I should call and switch to a Chase Freedom Flex℠ account, since that card offers superior bonus categories.
Discover it® Cash Back
Like the Chase Freedom®, the Discover it® Cash Back offers rotating 5% bonus categories on up to $1,500 spent in combined purchases each quarter when you activate (then 1%). The return isn’t as good as the more valuable 5x Ultimate Rewards points offered by the Freedom card, but 5% cash back is still commonly my best option.
Find out more about what credit card rewards are worth by reading Insider’s 2021 points and miles valuations.
The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express
As a no-annual-fee card (See Rates)that earns 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar on up to $50,000 in eligible purchases each year (then 1x), The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express is vastly underrated.
I use this card for everyday purchases that don’t fit into a more rewarding bonus category, and I regularly save money by using the Amex Offers that show up in my account.
Chase Freedom Unlimited®
The Chase Freedom Unlimited® is another great everyday earner, offering 5x points on travel purchased through Chase, 3x points on dining and drugstores, and 1.5 points per dollar on everything else, with no annual fee.
Although 1.5x on non-bonus purchases is less than what I get from The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express, my travel patterns align more with Chase’s roster of transfer partners, so I often lean toward the Chase Freedom Unlimited® despite the lower earning rate.
JetBlue Plus Card
I just got the JetBlue Plus Card, so I’m working to meet the spending requirement for the welcome bonus. With that in mind, I’m using it whenever I wouldn’t otherwise be earning more than 2 points per dollar.
Once I earn the bonus, however, this card will fall out of my regular rotation, since its earning rates are mediocre apart from JetBlue purchases.
These cards get used sparingly and only in specific circumstances. Most of them offer a benefit that justifies paying the annual fee even if they don’t get used at all, while a few of them I keep around to maintain my rewards balances and credit history.
IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card
IHG overhauled its co-branded cards in 2018, so the IHG Rewards Club Select card is no longer publicly available, but I’d rather hold onto it than upgrade to the IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card. My version still offers me an annual free night certificate at properties costing 40,000 points or less for an annual fee of just $49. That’s hard to argue with.
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
I got the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card just before the pandemic hit, so I haven’t been able to make use of its benefits yet, but I will once I begin traveling again.
I fly Southwest a lot, so the annual 7,500-point bonus, up to $75 Southwest travel credit, and four upgraded boardings per year easily offset the $149 annual fee for me.
PenFed Pathfinder Rewards Card
I opened a PenFed Pathfinder Rewards account in 2012 as a different PenFed product with a superior rewards structure, but I stopped using it as the program declined in value.
Last year I converted to the Pathfinder card, which comes with a $100 annual airline fee credit. Since I’m currently grandfathered into paying no annual fee, keeping this card is an easy win.
Frontier Airlines Mastercard
The FRONTIER Airlines World Mastercard® was my first credit card ever. I applied during a layover in Denver in 2006, when a rep working a kiosk near my gate told me I could get two round-trip flights out of the welcome bonus. I was en route from Michigan to see my then-girlfriend-now-wife in Seattle, and was eager for affordable opportunities to visit, so I didn’t need much convincing.
I haven’t flown Frontier in ages, but I keep this no-fee card to preserve its lengthy credit history and maintain my stellar credit score. Some part of me also views this card sentimentally for the story behind it. It’s a keeper even if I only use it once a year to keep the account active.
Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card
I upgraded from the no-annual-fee (See Rates) Hilton Honors American Express Card in 2019, and while Hilton Honors is the hotel loyalty program I use most, the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Cardisn’t a great fit for me.
I already get Gold elite status and most of the same Amex Offers from my Platinum card, and the earning rates alone aren’t enough to justify the $95 annual fee (See Rates). I’ve had this account since 2010, so I’d like to keep it open and preserve the credit history, but I should either upgrade further to the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card or revert to the no-fee version.
Radisson Rewards Business Visa
I got the Radisson Rewards Business Visa (no longer available to new applicants) with plans to book a hotel stay in Chile that didn’t pan out, but the 40,000-point annual bonus justifies paying the $60 annual fee. The automatic Gold elite status will come in handy when I eventually redeem my points.
Citi ThankYou Preferred
I’ve had a falling out with the ThankYou Rewards program, but I still have a cache of points left over from years past. I keep the Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card (no longer available to new applicants) around to maintain my balance and take advantage of the occasional spending bonus.
Alaska Airlines Visa Business Card
Living in Seattle, Alaska Airlines is one of my preferred carriers, and I used to check bags often enough for the free checked bag benefit on the Alaska Airlines Visa® Business credit card to break even with the $75 annual fee.
That hasn’t been the case this past year, however, and even before the pandemic I started traveling lighter, so I plan to dump this card when the annual fee comes due again.
AAdvantage Aviator Business Mastercard
I got the AAdvantage® Aviator® Business Mastercard® card to augment my stash of American Airlines AAdvantage miles and gain access to reduced mileage awards.
The pandemic nixed my plans, but what weighs this card down most for me is that I can’t access it through my normal Barclaycard account online — I have to use a unique website and login. It’s a minor detail, but it’s enough to make me never want to use the card. When the annual fee comes due, I’m out.
The practice squad
These cards served a purpose at some point, but now they’re dead weight. I should look for opportunities to change to a more useful product or get rid of them.
Merrill+ Visa Signature Card
The MERRILL+® Visa Signature® Card had an uncommon award structure and a strong welcome bonus, so I gave it a shot. The bonus panned out, but the card was dull otherwise. I think the only reason I still have it now is that I like the design of the bull on the front.
Ink Business Unlimited® Credit Card
I applied for the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card when it came out, but it didn’t do much for me, since I already have the Ink Business Cash® Credit Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve®.
When the annual fee came due for my second year, I downgraded to the Ink Business Unlimited® Credit Card while I weighed my options, thinking I might use it as a backup card when I travel. However, the 3% foreign transaction fee scrapped that idea. This card’s days are numbered.
Bank of America Business Advantage Cash Rewards Card and U.S. Bank Business Cash Rewards Card
I got each of these for their welcome bonuses and 0% APR offers. Since those benefits have been exhausted, they serve no further purpose. If I can’t convert them to something more useful, I might as well close the accounts.
Four of my credit cards can be closed right away, and two more can be closed when their annual fees come due. Thanks to my plethora of other accounts, those closures shouldn’t impact my credit utilization ratio, so there’s little downside other than losing some airline benefits.
Every time I review my portfolio, I’m reminded that credit cards are products, not lifelong commitments. If you’re not happy with a credit card, you don’t have to keep using it. Taking stock of your cards periodically will help you identify which ones are pulling their weight, and which ones can be cleared out to make room for something better.
Peter Rothbart is a credit card connoisseur and award travel guru based in Seattle, Washington. A former aerospace engineer and long-time touring musician, he now covers a wide range of topics from business and personal finance to art, sports, and human interest stories.
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