Stack of credit cards
Maica/Getty Images

The precise and indisputably correct number of credit cards has puzzled mankind since the invention of the plastic cards. That is, until this very article.

Maybe that big, fat sign-up bonus is calling your name. Or perhaps it’s a tantalizing zero percent offer that makes big-ticket items seem a little more within reach. You already have a couple of credit cards, should you sign up for more?

It depends.

If you’re like the average American — who owns between one and three credit cards, according to a 2016 report from credit reporting agency Experian — you may find yourself considering whether or not to add another piece of plastic to your wallet.

Unless you pay off your bills in full and on time every month, even one card can be too much if you fall behind. If you’re considering applying for a new credit card, first determine your budget and how you’d like to get the most out of owning a new card.

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to how many cards you should have. It really depends on the type of spender you are, and how much work you want to put into maximizing your credit card rewards.

First, why have more than one card?

If you have great credit and a good handle on your finances, owning a cash back credit card can save you money. Using a card that pays a percentage back on all of your purchases is like getting a discount every time you shop. Some of the best cash back cards offer 1.5 percent to 2 percent cash back. However, if you carry a balance on a cash back card, the amount you pay in interest charges will likely outweigh the value of any earnings.

Pairing a cash back card with a rewards credit card can amp up the savings. For example, some households may find the greatest value in a card that offers a high rewards rate on grocery and gas purchases. These cards will often have a spending cap on the highest-rate rewards categories, but by pairing them with a flat-rate, cash-back card, you can maximize your savings. A household with members clocking miles with busy travel schedules may benefit from using a flat-rate cash back credit card for general purchases and pairing that with a high-value travel rewards card.

How many cards should I have? It depends on what type of spender you are:

For the economizer.

The scenic route never looked all that pretty to you, anyway. And why do one thing at a time when you could do seven? Efficiency is what rolls you out of bed.

Two cards should be plenty. You’d be surprised at the punch you can pack into a single credit card, with select issuers bundling perks like travel rewards, rental car insurance, wholesale club membership and juicy cash back bonuses all into one magnetic strip. The Capital One Venture Rewards card makes a pretty strong case for itself, bundling miles, hotel stays, cash back and low fees.

For the young upstart.

Things are looking up. Your credit history is just now in the making. Some day in the distance, you’ll be weighing travel perks against cash back rewards, poring through any number of terms and conditions. But until then…

One credit card alone will work wonders, and a starter card can get you on your feet. The Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards card is a nice place to cut your teeth, as are any of our no credit history recommendations. Start building your credit by making regular payments, applying for a secured card or becoming an authorized user on a parent or guardian’s account.

For the accumulator.

You’ve taken a few trips to the well for real estate, education, business loans or any of the other places you’ll find some healthy debt. You’ve got financial obligations for all the right reasons, but keeping too many plates in the air could have you up to your neck in bills, or at the very least, paperwork.

In this case, the fewer cards the better. Two credit cards max could help you curtail your spending and conquer the temptation to test your credit limits. You’re likely in the market for a 0% APR or balance transfer credit card. These cards are often marketed to guide you out of debt and used judiciously, they could help you do just that.

For the point hound.

Where others see legalese and percent signs, you see opportunity. There’s no better feeling than the one just before you hover your mouse over the word redeem, is there?

Go nuts (within reason, of course). Opening and closing a number of cards (or churning as it’s called in the biz) can drown your credit score, but wielding four to five cards responsibly can put you in a whole different class. The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a reader favorite, and our list of the industry’s best rewards cards covers the rest.

For the steady Eddie.

A little financial prudence can go a long way. In some circles, it’s what they call wisdom. It’s what got you to this point, and what will get you to the next one.

The average American holds two to three credit cards. And, though you’re anything but average two to three cards with moderate annual fees and low interest are all you need to stay the course. Perhaps a good flat-rate cash back card paired with a high-returns travel rewards card to use for your trips and vacations would work for you.

Using multiple cards can maximize your rewards

The bottom line is that whatever category you fit in — or maybe you fit into more than one — using more than one credit card can be very rewarding. For those who travel at least a few times a year, it can make sense to add at least one travel rewards card to the roster. These cards often come with valuable extras like sign-up bonuses, boosted reward categories, and a host of perks like lounge access, free baggage checks or room upgrades.

Points and miles maximizers will often hold several different types of travel rewards cards and spread out their spend on each one strategically, depending on their goals.

And, it can save you money

If your spending has gotten ahead of your income, you may want to consider a balance transfer card to help you save money on interest payments. If you owe $10,000 on a credit card with a variable interest rate of 18%, over the course of the year you’ll pay $1,800 in finance charges on top of what you already owe.

There are two reasons why a balance transfer card may not be a good idea. First, many balance transfer cards charge a transfer fee ranging from 3 percent to 5 percent. If the balance transfer fee is more than what you’d save on interest by making the transfers, don’t get the new card. Or, if you don’t think you’ll be able to pay down most of that balance before the zero percent interest rate period is up, there’s no benefit in owning the new card.

Can I have too many credit cards?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It depends on your goals and how you are using your cards. Keep in mind that the more credit cards you have, the more organized and diligent about finances you need to be. Also, every time you apply for a new credit card, your credit score will take a hit from the card issuer’s credit report inquiry. On the other hand, if you have several credit cards and use them responsibly, you can give your overall FICO score a big boost.

The amount of debt you’re carrying is the number one factor affecting your credit score. A good rule of thumb is to have a credit-card utilization ratio of 30 percent or less. This ratio describes the percentage of the available credit on all the cards you have actually used. Keeping your utilization ratio low is paramount to having a good score, which in turn will help you qualify for better rates on everything from a mortgage to an auto loan, and even other credit cards.

For example, if you have a total available credit of $10,000, the goal should be to never carry a balance greater than $3,000. If you have more than one credit card, and the total balance is spread out over different cards, it could be even better for your overall credit score than having the balance on just one card. This is because credit scoring is also a function of how close you are to your credit limits.

In practice, spreading out debt isn’t likely to be simple and the more cards you have, the more tempted you might be to just charge something else.

What if I have a low credit score?

If you have less-than-stellar credit, it’s a smart move to limit the number of credit cards you own so you’re not tempted to start carrying a lot of high-interest debt.

If you have a thin credit file, or you’re trying to rebuild your credit, start small. Apply for a credit card designed for someone with limited credit history or poor credit. These typically come with lower credit lines and may have higher interest rates than other cards on the market, but if your credit score isn’t great, you may not qualify for a low-interest rate card.

By charging a small amount each month, and paying it off every time the bill comes, you can improve your credit score over time. Check your score periodically to make sure there aren’t any errors that could affect your rating.

The bottom line

It all depends on your spending habits, your goals and your ability to juggle multiple cards. If you can pay your bills in full and on time every month, and you can keep careful track of your spending, you can benefit from owning multiple cards and using them strategically. Otherwise, it might be best to just keep things simple.