Studies show the average American owns 3.7 credit cards, though true plastic people may tote many more than that. Making the most of a fistful of cards requires keeping track of a blizzard of data--including which card rewards you the most in which categories; when each renews, and at what cost; and if any have current promotions with low APRs. Here are three ways to manage your cards without losing your patience.
1. Use Stickers or Apps to Help Choose Cards By Transaction
Many cards today are specialized, offering outstanding rewards in one or two categories and middling benefits on other purchases. Keeping track of those details requires either a prodigious memory or helpful tools.
If your preference is for analog assistance, consider placing small stickers onto your cards to help jog your memory as to which card is best for particular purchases. For example, a blue sticker could stand for ‘cash back at restaurants and grocery stores’, while a green one could signify that this card is better used on ‘gas station and travel purchases’. Have trouble remembering the color coding? Add a word or letter code as well; ‘Food’ written on the blue sticker and ‘G’ for gas on the green card may be enough.
More sophisticated, if slightly more labor-intensive, options are available via your smartphone. There’s no shortage of apps for both Apple and Android phones to help you know which card to use and when. While we haven’t verified how dependably they do so, apps such as Wallaby, Smorecard and Reward Summit say they recommend the best card in your wallet for each purchase.
2. Use a Spreadsheet or Calendar App to Remember Important Card Dates
The challenge of keeping track of annual fees, bonuses and promotional APR dates also has both old-school and app solutions. If you’re the meticulous type, you could create and maintain a spreadsheet where each row tracks these important details for one credit card. Its data could include such things as when you opened the card, when the annual fee (if any) is scheduled to hit, the dates by which you need to qualify for particular bonuses, and when rewards categories change each quarter (if applicable).
If you’re not up to creating your own spreadsheet, do a quick Google search for ‘credit card tracking spreadsheet’. You will find no shortage of free download options created by credit card aficionados.
Using a spreadsheet can be particularly useful for remembering things over a long period of time. For example, many banks will only allow you to get one card’s bonus every 24 months. With a spreadsheet, you can track how long it’s been since you had a particular account open, and whether you can once again qualify for that same bonus.
Even if you maintain such a sheet, we recommend also adding its dates to a calendar app on your phone and other devices, alongside the many other milestones in your life. For example, you could enter into the app all due dates for annual fees, and ask to be reminded about each a few weeks before the annual fee is likely to be applied. That allows you time, before that date arrives, to weigh whether you want to keep the card or cancel it, based on the value it’s provided you, and is likely to provide in the year to come.
3. Be Realistic About The Number of Cards You Can Manage
This tracking activity is, of course, work to do--and that, too, has the benefit of encouraging you to reflect on the financial return on your time. Make sure you build into your process periodic consideration of the limits on your time, your ability to manage multiple credit cards, and whether that effort is worthwhile.
Compare your cards’ benefits and costs, and assess whether you need the fistful you may have accumulated. Given the effort, and the risk of picking the wrong card for certain transactions, you may conclude that using a few cards that deliver decent returns trumps carrying, say, five that offer optimal rewards.