With a dejected sigh, you slouch down at the kitchen table with your laptop and a stack of freshly opened mail. It’s yet another pair of credit card statements. You’ve got a pile as thick as a twenty-year-old cell phone. Well, might as well get the chore over with – wait a minute, what’s this? An annual fee? But you weren’t planning to keep that card. You just got it for the big signup bonus eight months ago. Or was it ten months ago? Or fifteen? Regardless, you haven’t used it in over a year, and now you’re out $89. Wait a second – how many American Express statements are there here? Didn’t you apply for the Personal Gold Rewards card or was it the Business Gold Rewards card? Hey – why didn’t the extra 20,000 bonus points get awarded on your Signature Elite Platinum Ultra Visa? You know for an absolute fact that you hit the minimum spend of $1,000 over three weeks ago when you bought those snow tires …. Oh. Um, it looks like that minimum spend was actually $2,000. And the deadline passed five days ago. Dangit, which one of these cards was the Ultra Visa again?!?!
If you’ve been applying for credit cards for any length of time, you’ve experienced something like this. Once you get past a handful of cards, it becomes nearly impossible to keep track of all the important dates and limits and bonuses without some kind of system. In fact, if you’re applying for cards at all, you need a system – not just to keep track of the cards you’ve got, but also to plan out your future applications. Whether you decide to go with a spreadsheet, or good old fashioned pencil and paper, your Card Management System should track the following things:
Card Owner – No, I’m not being a smarty pants. Husband/wife teams may find they want to track their cards together, so you need some way to tell them apart.
Card Name / Type / Last 4 Digits – Obviously, to identify the card. Keeping track of the last four digits lets you keep your cards straight.
Card Issuer – To keep track of the number of cards you have from each issuer. Some banks have a “soft maximum” of cards they feel comfortable letting you have; others tend to concern themselves with your total credit limit. Also, this lets you plan your “app-o-rama”; along with the Inquiry Bureau information, spreading your card applications out between multiple banks and multiple credit bureaus can increase the chance of getting wall-to-wall approvals.
Application Date / Approval Date – Sometimes the same day, sometimes not. Usually, the approval date is the starting point, used to calculate minimum spending deadlines, and anniversary dates.
First Year Fee / Annual Fee – Often, cards waive the fee for the first year. Some cards are worth keeping because you’re given a reward (bonus miles, free hotel night) that’s worth more than the annual fee.
Inquiry Bureau – Credit bureau used by the bank to check your credit report – either Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion. If possible, you want to spread out your credit pulls among all three, as much as you can.
Credit Limit – So you can see at a glance how much total credit you have, and how much you have per bank. When you’re calling a bank’s reconsideration line and they don’t want to extend any additional credit to you, this lets you identify cards with credit limits you can “split off” for negotiating advantage (“Okay, instead of additional credit, why don’t we just take $5,000 from my Priority Club Visa?”) This very often makes the bank happy and leads to approval.
Card Status – Active or Inactive. Yes, you don’t just delete the information for your old cards; you keep track of your historical data forever. For example, Citibank only approves certain types of American AAdvantage cards once every eighteen months.
Closure Date – The date you discontinue using a card.
Initial Bonus – The initial sign-up bonus for the card. You may also want to add an Additional or Recurring Bonus field for certain types of cards; for example, if you’re trying to spend $30,000 dollars in a year on the British Airways Visa to get the free companion ticket.
Minimum Spend / Spend Deadline – The amount of money you’ve got to spend to trigger the signup bonus, and the date you’ve got to spend it by. Some people may add an additional column called Amount Spent, to keep track of how much of the minimum spend you’ve already met. This can be more important for some of the larger, long-term spending targets, like $30,000 for the American Express Business Gold Rewards card annual bonus.
Bonus Points and Categories – There’s an amazingly complex set of category bonuses out there; 2x on dining, 3x on airfare, 6x on groceries, revolving bonus categories. Keep track of them here.
Notes – No matter how many things you track in a spreadsheet or on a 3×5 card, you’re going to need a way to jot down a free-form note; for example, “Don’t complete spend until after Dec 31”, for a Southwest Visa Card, to make sure the bonus points post to your account early in the calendar year (important if you’re gunning for a Companion Pass).
It seems like a lot to keep track of , but you’ll find all of this information to be essential as you apply for more credit cards. Not only will a system help prevent you from being blindsided with an unexpected annual fee, and help you with your approval percentage – it’ll help you sleep better at night, knowing that your madhouse menagerie of cards is fully under control.