Should you stay loyal to one card or play the field?

Having just one card is simpler, but make sure it's serving your needs

Allie Johnson
Personal Finance Writer
Award-winning writer covering consumer and small-business credit cards.

Should you stay loyal to one card or play the field?

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Credit card companies strive to make their card “top of wallet” – the one you reach for every time. But while loyalty to one card is great for issuers, it might not be so great for you.

There are three big reasons issuers want to gain your loyalty, says Ezra Becker, senior vice president, financial services research and consulting for TransUnion.

First, the issuer of your go-to card collects interchange fees from merchants on all of your purchases and earns interest if you ever carry a balance. Second, that lender now has a better shot at selling you another product, such as a checking account, car loan or mortgage. Third, a devoted customer is less likely to let an account get delinquent.

“If you have a favorite card and you’re running low on money, you’re probably going to do everything you can to pay that bill,” Becker says.

It’s not just card issuers pushing us toward using one primary card. Technology also is pushing us toward using the same card over and over again. For example, one-click payments, set to become even more common now that Amazon’s patent has expired, make it a snap to use your default card without even thinking about it every time you buy.

But many consumers resist the pressure to commit to one go-to rewards card. In fact, the J.D. Power 2017 Credit Card Satisfaction Study found that 71 percent of consumers reported using two or more cards in the previous month. These cardholders spent an average of $1,028 on their main card, $452 on their second card and very little on additional cards, says Jim Miller, vice president of banking and credit card practice for J.D. Power.

“There are a lot of people juggling cards,” Miller says.

Stick with one card for simplicity

In the past it didn’t make much sense to carry and use multiple cards because most cards had annual fees and didn’t offer the array of rich benefits they do today, Miller points out.

However, some cardholders are still fiercely loyal one-card users.

For David Barnett, a business appraiser and adviser from New Brunswick, Canada, his preference for using his American Express Gold card determines where he shops. “I simply don’t go to places that won’t accept AmEx, and I tell them so,” Barnett says.

"It's not just card issuers pushing us toward using one primary card. Technology also is pushing us toward using the same card over and over again."

He’ll call ahead to ask, and has even found a workaround for merchants that don’t accept the card, but do take Apple Pay. He simply uses Apple Pay, which is linked to his trusty AmEx.

There are several benefits of using one card for almost all of your purchases, and they center around simplicity:

  • You never have to think about which card to use.

    With one main card, you don’t have to use apps or sticky notes to remember which card gives you triple points on restaurants or gas. Ease of use is the main priority for Mark Aselstine, an El Cerrito, California, resident and founder of Uncorked Ventures, an online wine and gift club. Having two small kids plus a business to run makes dealing with more than one card “too darn complicated,” he says.
  • You can accumulate a bigger pool of points faster.

    If you like to watch one big pot of points grow, using a single card can be gratifying. “Some people like to see a bigger number,” says Natasha Rachel Smith, personal finance and credit card expert at TopCashBack.com.

    For example, Bob Gordon, a real estate agent and blogger from Boulder, Colorado, says the miles “seem to pile up quickly” on his United Mileage Plus Explorer card, and he now has over 300,000 in his account. And when it comes time to redeem those rewards, you only have to know the ins and outs of one card program.
  • It’s easier to stay on top of statements and payments.

    Sticking with one card also means you only have to keep track of one bill and one due date, so you might be less likely to accidentally miss a payment. You also don’t have to worry about paying multiple annual fees or remembering to cancel a card, or ask for a waiver, when an annual fee is about to kick in.

However, some cardholders mistakenly believe that staying loyal to one card automatically gets you put on a pedestal for better service. That’s not true, Becker says. “Lenders try to provide good service to all customers,” he says. “They know that even if you’re not a big user today, you might be tomorrow.”

Also, issuers might even take you for granted, or at least not work hard to woo you. For “loyalists” who do 100 percent of their spending on a card, an issuer might look for “creative and cost-effective” ways to retain your business, Becker and a colleague wrote in an article on redefining the top-of-wallet customer on BAI.org. An example: thank-you notes.

"I miss out on some great deals I hear friends and family talk about."

And, of course, if you don’t shop around, you’re not taking advantage of offers that are readily available in the marketplace. “I miss out on some great deals I hear friends and family talk about,” Gordon says.

Mix up card use and reap big rewards

There’s no doubt that if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, using multiple cards offers an array of advantages. The biggest plus of using multiple cards is the chance to earn and save more, Smith says.

Here are four benefits of mixing up your card use:

  1. Maximum ability to rack up rewards

    You can boost rewards earnings by opening new cards for fat sign-up bonuses and otherwise reaching for whatever card offers the most points or miles for a given purchase, says Brayden McCarthy, vice president of new markets for the small-business lending marketplace Fundera, who currently carries nine cards in his wallet. For example, he books travel on his American Express Platinum, which gives him five times the points on flights and hotels.

    Another cardholder, Alexander Bekhterev, a digital marketer from Indianapolis, went from using one card to juggling five when he learned how much he could earn and save. He uses his Uber Visa Card when dining out to get 4 percent cash back in restaurants, and he pulls out his Target credit card when shopping at that retailer to score 5 percent cash back.

    Using several cards strategically has allowed McCarthy to go on three big vacations a year, compared with the one he’d be able to afford out of pocket, he says. Recently, he’s gone skiing in Canada and touring in Italy, and he’s now gearing up for a trip to Japan.
  2. Big savings by paying attention to perks

    Savvy card shufflers also earn big by reaching for the card with the best perk for that purchase.

    One example: Bekhterev books travel with his TravElite card from First National Bank of Omaha, which offers a $100 statement credit for incidental airline expenses. He pays his cellphone bill with his Uber card, which offers cellphone insurance for theft and damage worth up to $600.

    For gifts and other consumer goods purchases, he uses the Citi Double Cash card, which offers “Citi Price Rewind,” a feature that automatically tracks online prices for items you buy with the card. If it finds a lower price on that item within 60 days of purchase, it automatically refunds you the difference.

    Recently, Citi has found lower prices for Bekhterev on auto parts, kitchen appliances and mountaineering gear. “I was able to get over $300 back in the past three months,” he says.
  3. A chance at a better credit score.

    Having multiple cards that you use responsibly, without racking up debt, can help your credit score.

    The biggest plus is that having more cards will likely increase your overall credit limit, which can improve your credit utilization ratio. If you open several cards in a short time, your score might dip slightly from the “hard pulls,” when issuers check your credit.

    “I’ve noticed it will impact my score for a month, maybe two months, but then my score bounces back up,” McCarthy says.
  4. Better offers from issuers.

    Disloyalty just might keep credit card issuers in hot pursuit of your business.

    In the BAI article, Becker wrote that customers who have a high overall spend but use a particular card for a low or medium amount of their spending might get aggressive offers from that issuer. An “aggressive” offer could cost an issuer $200 or more.

    For example, one card issuer had a promotional campaign in which low spenders received a direct mail offer for 1,000 points or an Amazon gift card for spending more on their credit card.

In the end, the question of whether to stick with one card or not comes down to deciding what you value and doing what is right for you. “The best loyalty any card user can have is to themselves,” McCarthy says.

See related: Choosing your rewards strategy: One card? Or multiple?, 6 tricks to juggle multiple credit card balances


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Updated: 06-25-2018