5 credit card strategies to help couples maximize rewards and minimize hassle
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Don’t funnel all spending through a single primary cardholder; instead, take a two-player approach.
Build a shared portfolio of cards and rewards that complements (rather than copies) one another.
Decide in advance how you’re going to share the rewards; don’t wait until it’s time to redeem!
When you start sharing finances with someone else, your approach to credit cards may need adjustment. Here are five strategies that can help you and your partner take advantage of more credit card opportunities while avoiding some common mistakes.
Unite, don’t unify
Among the couples I know who have merged their financial lives, most of them put one person in charge of managing money. That person handles everyday pecuniary tasks like budgeting and paying bills, and serves as the primary user for credit card and bank accounts. This may be practical as a division of labor, but funneling your credit cards through just one primary cardholder surrenders all the potential of having a second.
To maximize credit card rewards and benefits, I recommend partners think of themselves as separate financial entities with mutual goals rather than as one. Specifically, let each of you serve as the primary cardholder on some accounts, and add each other as authorized users when it’s beneficial. This approach merges your finances in a way that promotes synergy rather than just efficiency, and it has numerous advantages.
To start with, adding a second player increases the number of cards, benefits, and rewards available to you. Credit card issuers may limit the number of accounts and the total amount of credit they’ll extend to any individual, but two individuals can have more accounts and more total credit than one. Working as a team effectively raises those limits, which translates to more opportunities collectively.
Lastly, when you have more than one potential credit card applicant, you can boost your collective earnings for each application through referral bonuses. These bonuses are generally awarded when the account is approved and come with no spending requirement, so you can claim them with only a few extra clicks. Just make sure the sign-up bonus offered through your referral is comparable to the best one available elsewhere.
If you prefer to put a single person in charge of your shared finances, having more than one card applicant shouldn’t be an obstacle. You can pay bills and resolve many basic questions or concerns even if an account isn’t in your name, or get established as an authorized user for greater access.
Coordinate, don’t duplicate
It might seem natural to get the same credit cards as your partner, figuring a card that’s good for one of you should be good for both of you, but your approaches to earning rewards don’t need to match. Instead, aim to build a portfolio of cards between you with rewards and benefits that complement each other.
For one thing, you and your partner may have different individual credit card needs, like if one of you travels for work that involves a lot of hotel stays. That would warrant getting a card that offers hotel elite status, but such a card might not be useful in duplicate, since you would get minimal added benefit from both of you having status.
More generally, you shouldn’t always target the same rewards even when you plan to use them together. Just like diversifying your retirement portfolio, diversifying your rewards reduces your exposure to risk and volatility (namely, loyalty program devaluations). It also gives you more ways to redeem, including options for booking award travel, as any single hotel or airline program is unlikely to meet your needs in every destination.
Similarly, you shouldn’t always target the same credit card benefits. Instead, look to add new benefits to your shared portfolio or stack complementary ones (like free hotel night certificates), and avoid duplicating redundant benefits (like airport lounge access if you always travel together). There’s no sense in paying an annual fee for a card that only offers what you already have.
My advice for couples broadly is to focus on earning rewards in two of the major transferable points programs — for example, one of you might earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points while the other earns Amex Membership Rewards points. Then target airline and hotel programs as needed based on your travel patterns and upcoming plans.
Share rewards equitably, not equally
If you’re going to earn credit card rewards and benefits together, then you should agree on how you’ll spend them. One simple solution is to use all your points and miles jointly, whether you’re putting cash-back rewards toward shared expenses or redeeming airline miles and hotel points for a vacation together. An even split is straightforward and engenders a sense of cooperation, but it’s not always practical or fair.
Ultimately, the best way to share your rewards is the way that works for you as a couple. That could mean you each use the rewards you earn independently however you see fit, or that you use points and miles valuations to make sure you’re each contributing rewards of roughly comparable value, or that you don’t pay attention at all to how you split rewards because neither of you cares. There is no single right answer here.
Whatever accounting method you use, however, I urge you to sort it out in advance. Otherwise, debating whose rewards you’ll use in the heat of the moment may spoil the fun of redeeming them.
Pool rewards, but don’t pay for the privilege
Many loyalty programs allow you to transfer rewards to other members, which can help you reach a redemption threshold more quickly. An increasing number of programs offer these transfers at no cost, but many still charge a fee (especially airline programs), and those that don’t may impose other restrictions, like limiting transfers to people who share an address, or capping the amount you can transfer annually.
When you’re earning rewards in concert with someone else, don’t underestimate the value of these transfer and pooling options. A favorable transfer policy by itself isn’t a reason to choose one program over another, but when all else is equal, the difference can be decisive. If you’ve ignored transfer and pooling options previously, get familiar with what’s offered by the programs you use most often.
Have a system
If your finances aren’t completely merged, you’ll need to track who buys what so your shared expenses are distributed fairly. Writing from nearly 15 years of experience and experimentation with this, I strongly recommend you devise a system for tracking such expenses as they arise rather than trying to piece them together later.
We also keep a spreadsheet of transactions that don’t involve a credit card (like cash purchases or bills paid by check). When it’s time to settle up, we simply tally what we’ve spent on our respective cards rather than combing through all our accounts or logging each joint purchase separately.
If our system doesn’t suit your needs, take the time to develop one that does.
Peter Rothbart is a credit card connoisseur and award travel guru based in Seattle, Washington. A former aerospace engineer and long-time touring musician, he now covers a wide range of topics from business and personal finance to art, sports, and human interest stories.