Spending

How a Points Guy expert with 21 credit cards keeps his credit score above 820

"I like to joke that it's like my extreme couponing."

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Nick Ewen has 21 credit cards. Collectively, his annual fees on those cards amount to $3,800, but he's not concerned: "I get that money back multiple times over," says Ewen, who's a senior editor at the credit-card blog The Points Guy. "I would estimate that with the credit cards that I have, solely based on the benefits and perks of these cards, I'm easily getting over $10,000" a year.

Many experts say you only need two to three credit cards, and Ewen agrees: Having more is "definitely a time commitment." And if you're not diligent about managing your accounts or spending within your means, numerous credit card accounts can put you in debt.

But Ewen's methods for staying on top of his 21 accounts are working: He currently has a FICO credit score of 822 out of 850, which is categorized as "exceptional," according to Experian.

"I like to joke that it's like my extreme couponing, but instead of getting a bunch of cans of cat food when we don't have a cat, and a lifetime supply of paper towels, we get points, and miles, and benefits that help us travel for free and do things that we would have never been able to do otherwise," says Ewen.

He focuses on what affects credit scores most

"There are a lot of misconceptions out there about having a bunch of credit cards," says Ewen. "Whenever I tell someone I have 21 credit cards they're always like, 'Oh my gosh, doesn't that just kill your credit score?' And I always have to do a little bit of education."

The factors that most directly impact your credit score are your payment history and your credit card utilization rate. To calculate your credit card utilization, divide the credit you're using by your credit limit.

"Ideally, your credit utilization ratio will be below 30%, and most people with the highest credit scores keep it below 10%," Ted Rossman, industry analyst at Bankrate told Grow earlier this month.

Managing multiple credit cards can actually help build up your credit score as long as you follow a few guidelines, Ewen says. First, "start slow." Ewen didn't just wake up one day with a plethora of credit cards. He's opened accounts gradually over the last 16 years. That's because "each time you open a new account, it's considered a hard inquiry on your credit, which can ding your score," but only for a few weeks.

In order to maintain his "exceptional" credit score, Ewen has autopay set up to pay his full statement balance on time each month, especially since each of his 21 credit cards has a different due date.

Whenever I tell someone I have 21 credit cards they're always like, 'Oh my gosh, doesn't that just kill your credit score?'
Nick Ewen
Senior editor for The Points Guy

He stays organized with a spreadsheet

In addition to autopay, Ewen uses a spreadsheet. "I keep a running ledger which is a combination of managing my cards, and then also budgeting where I project out basically three to four months in the future, putting in my paycheck, and putting in any of my automatic transfers to savings that I had built in."

He includes a line based on what he typically spends on each card per month: "That way I can look ahead and say: 'I know that I have all of these expenses coming up,' and I can make sure I'm not spending beyond my means."

Ewen logs into his accounts on a regular basis. He has two "main cards" and he checks those online accounts daily. He checks his remaining 19 accounts weekly.

He sets calendar reminders to redeem rewards

Many of Ewen's cards have annual fees, so his spreadsheet also helps him make sure he's earning the value of those fees back.

Aside from airline travel credits and free nights at a hotel, on a monthly basis, many cards give you a statement credit back on a specific purchase. For example, one of Ewen's cards offers him $15 per month to use towards his cellphone bill. Other rewards include money towards Uber, or restaurants, he says.

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To take advantage of those deals, Ewen sets up calendar reminders. "They help me make sure that that I'm not losing some of those 'use it or lose it' benefits, and I'm actually taking advantage of them each month."

At the beginning of each year, Ewen's American Express card releases additional offers: "For example at Home Depot if you spend $50 or more you would get $50 back," he says. "There was one for Instacart where if you spent $150 you would get $50 back."

But "all of these rewards are targeted," Ewen says. "So one cardholder can have a completely different offer than another." And while rewards are great deals, "avoid buying things you wouldn't normally buy, just because it's discounted."

At the end of the year when your card's annual fee comes due, Ewen suggests reviewing your rewards to make sure your earning back the value of that fee. "I'm getting some really exceptional value over the course of every single year."

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