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With plenty of great rewards programs and credit card offers out there, a consumer is likely to ask, “How many credit cards should I have?”

It’s an important question with different answers, depending on who you ask and how you plan to use the card.

One school of thought is that having no credit cards is the best way — in order to avoid debt and the temptation to spend irresponsibly. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some enthusiasts dedicate a great deal of time to maximizing the rewards from dozens of cards.

An average consumer falls somewhere between those extremes. The first thing to ask yourself before deciding how much plastic you should possess is, “How do I — or how will I — use a credit card?”

Those in debt should minimize their use of credit cards. Anyone who carries a balance should aim to use a low-interest card with a plan to pay it off as soon as possible. Rewards cards shouldn’t be on the radar of someone dealing with credit card debt.

Keep It Simple

For most consumers, two is a good number, said Credit.com’s Director of Consumer Education Gerri Detweiler. One for regular use and one as a backup, in case you encounter a change in cardholder terms, credit limit or financial emergency.

“One would be a low interest rate card you use for times you need to borrow,” she said. “The other would ideally be a rewards card that you would use for everyday purchases and pay off in full.”

For consumers who pay their balances, having several cards won’t hurt. As long as payments are made on time, the number of cards won’t have a negative impact on a credit report or score. More accounts means more chances to miss something, but if you can keep track of everything, multiple credit cards could lead to great rewards. On top of that, having more available credit allows a consumer to keep his or her credit utilization low, which strengthens your credit profile.

“I think for people who are new to credit cards, you know I would start off with just one, maybe two, that are attached to their bank,” said Jason Steele, a Credit.com contributor who covers credit cards. He said getting into rewards is a great strategy and can be a good long-term goal for consumers to reach after they’ve freed themselves from debt. “For those who are struggling, the fewer credit cards the better.”

Organization Makes the Difference

Steele has at least a dozen cards, he said, though he acknowledges he’s not a typical consumer. He also keeps only a few in his wallet, for anyone wondering how one carries that much plastic. Each serves a different purpose, he said, and online payments make management simple.

When it comes down to it, the number of cards matters much less than how one manages them. Applying for a credit card has a minimal effect on your credit score, which may be largely improved by adding responsible behavior to your credit history.

Before taking that step, consumers should get familiar with their credit. That means looking at your free credit reports on a regular basis to look for errors, or work on areas that need help. Monitoring one’s credit score is equally important, which can be done for free using a tool like Credit.com’s Credit Report Card, which can also match you with credit cards you are most likely to qualify for. With knowledge of your credit profile, you can be prepared to find a credit card that best matches your needs based on your credit and your financial situation.

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