Having a credit card is almost essential in today's economy, but having more than one card isn't nearly as important. In considering how many cards you should have, you'll want to consider a range of factors, including your ability to pay off your debt, manage your card accounts, build up a strong credit history, and ensure that your FICO score and other credit score metrics are healthy. If you're good at managing credit, a utilitarian approach is best: Get the number of credit cards that will do you the most good, and then stop.

How many cards does the typical American have?

Credit card companies have issued billions of cards to customers, and nearly three-quarters of Americans have at least one credit card, according to recent data from the Federal Reserve. Various studies have found that the average number of cards that the typical American carries is between three and four. Yet although you might think those with high credit scores tend to have fewer cards, the opposite tends to be true: Those with better credit typically have an above-average number of credit cards in their wallet.

Set of credit cards.

Image source: Getty Images.

Three are some clear reasons why a better credit score can lead to having more cards. First, it's easier for those with good credit scores to get cards, and the cards that issuers will offer them are likely to have more attractive features. In addition, those with better credit are usually in a position to take maximum advantage of them, and they've already demonstrated an ability to maintain credit accounts and avoid big mistakes like missing payments or going over credit limits.

How many cards do you need?

At first glance, you might think that as long as your credit limit was high enough, having one card would be plenty. Certainly, you can get away with having just one card. But because different cards have different features, you can do a lot more if you're willing to have multiple cards in your wallet.

For instance, consider the following:

  • Some cards offer large percentage discounts on particular categories of spending, such as groceries, airline baggage fees, online shopping, or gas station purchases. If you spend a significant amount of money in those categories, having the right specialty card can maximize your savings there. For example, the American Express (NYSE:AXP) Blue Cash Preferred card offers up to 6% cash back on grocery purchases up to $6,000 per year, which is better than you'll get in most other places. Gas station cards offering 5% cash back are fairly common.
  • Other cards have rotating categories that offer savings in different types of purchases every three months. These won't always work in your favor, but when the category matches up with your spending, having the card can be very helpful.
  • Many credit cards offer introductory perks, such as a sign-up bonus in cash or airline miles or one-time discounts on shopping at a particular store. Those benefits can be worth signing up for a card, especially if you were going to spend any required amount that the offer specifies anyway.
  • Having an all-purpose cashback card is helpful for situations in which you buy something that isn't in one of the favored categories where you have a better option. You can typically get 1.5% to 2% in cash back with an all-purpose card.

What to be careful about

The thing to keep in mind is that even if you have all of these cards, it doesn't mean that you need to use them all, and the strategy doesn't work nearly as well if you're carrying a balance on your cards. Some months, for example, you won't do any traveling, and so you won't always need the card you have for avoiding baggage fees.

Also, if a card charges an annual fee, it's important to make sure you're getting your money's worth out of it. For example, the AmEx Blue Cash Preferred card above charges a $95 annual fee. So if you typically eat out and only spend $100 per month at the grocery store, even 6% cash back won't cover the annual cost of the card based on those grocery purchases.

Use credit cards wisely

To beat the credit card companies at their own game, you have to take maximum advantage of the features they offer while avoiding finance charges and fees. If you can do that, then it makes sense to claim whatever number of cards fits best with your spending patterns.

Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends American Express. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.