Can You Combine Credit Card Accounts?

With sign-up bonuses, balance transfer deals and new offers in the mail, it pays to apply for another new card every now and then. But all those cards can be tough to manage after a while. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could roll multiple accounts into one? Turns out, you can.

The option to combine credit card accounts isn’t heavily advertised by credit card companies, but it exists among most major issuers. Combining allows you to roll one or more existing credit card accounts into another with the same issuer, adding up your total credit limits and any outstanding balances under a single account. Here’s how to do it.

[Read: Best Credit Cards with High Credit Limits.]

Why Combine Credit Cards?

Although there’s nothing inherently bad about owning several credit cards, there are a couple of reasons why you might want to roll one or more accounts into one.

Ryan Shauers, author of “Big Travel, Small Budget: How to Travel More, Spend Less, and See the World,” is a prime candidate. As a travel hacker, Shauers seeks out major airline and hotel rewards offers that typically come from new credit card sign-up bonuses. “What this means is that I apply for lots of credit cards so I can travel for free,” he says. As a result, he has plenty of experience combining credit cards.

According to Shauers, you might want to get rid of a card that has an annual fee, especially if you no longer use several cards you opened to take advantage of certain promotions. The problem is that simply closing the account can have a negative effect on your credit.

Closing a card will lower your overall credit available,” he says. This, in turn, can increase your credit utilization, the total amount of credit you’re using compared with the total amount of credit extended to you.

For example, say you own Credit Card 1, which has a $2,000 credit line and no balance. You also own Credit Card 2, which has a $1,000 credit line with a balance of $300. If you closed Credit Card 1, your credit utilization would jump from 10% to 30%. That’s because your available credit would drop from $3,000 to $1,000 but your balance of $300 would remain unchanged.

Because amounts owed make up 30% of your credit score, you should avoid any situation that could result in a higher utilization rate. Experts recommend aiming for utilization under 30%, though it’s not a concrete rule. Of course, if you don’t have any outstanding credit card debt, it doesn’t matter: A zero-dollar balance means your utilization is zero, no matter how much available credit you have.

That said, combining credit card accounts does not cause you to lose your available credit. Instead, the credit lines are combined, which wouldn’t affect your credit in any way. “If (your issuer) gives you the entire credit limit of the multiple cards, then it will be a net-neutral impact to your revolving utilization metrics because you’re not taking on any new debt and your credit limit is the same, just localized to fewer cards,” says credit expert John Ulzheimer, formerly of FICO and Equifax.

Another reason you might want to combine credit cards is for simplicity. “The pros include maintaining your capacity (buying power) but reducing the number of cards you carry,” Ulzheimer says. “And as long as the issuer does not report an entirely new account to the credit bureaus, with a new date opened, then you won’t get dinged for it possibly lowering your average age of credit.”

Plus, if you have multiple credit cards with the same issuer, you have several balances and payment due dates to keep track of. Missing just one credit card payment can also have a negative impact on your credit. In fact, the better your credit, the worse a missed payment can be. By combining cards, you only have one bill to worry about.

Does Your Issuer Allow You to Combine Cards?

Combining credit cards isn’t a well-advertised option. If you want to combine accounts, you have to contact your card issuer. “It is as simple as giving the credit card company a call and telling them that you’d like to close X account but combine the available balance with another credit card,” Shauers says. He adds that most major credit card issuers allow you to combine credit card accounts, though not all do.

Some issuers allow you to submit a request to move available credit from one card to another through their website. However, it might be easier to make the request by phone.

Or, you could request to combine credit cards into a single account. Some credit card issuers may offer this benefit on a case-by-case basis. The issuer may evaluate factors such as your credit profile, history as a customer and existing debt before making a decision. But not all issuers will consider combining accounts.

[Read: Best Low-Interest Credit Cards.]

Drawbacks of Combining Credit Cards

Generally, combining credit cards is harmless since you keep your existing available credit and utilization ratio intact. However, there are some potential drawbacks you’ll want to consider before going through with it.

For one, when you roll over accounts and close them, you lose the terms and benefits of those cards, such as the interest rate, fees and rewards. In other words, you don’t get to pick and choose the characteristics of each card you like best — you must choose an existing card to keep and close the others.

You should also consider your credit history. Contrary to popular belief, closing a credit account does not wipe it and the associated credit history from your credit report. In fact, closed accounts in good standing stay on your credit report longer than most negative items, such as collections and foreclosures — 10 years versus seven years, respectively.

However, if you have one account that’s significantly older than the rest, rolling it into a newer account and letting it eventually fall off your record could result in a credit history that suddenly appears shorter. The length of your credit history makes up 15% of your credit score, which is not as significant as payment history or amounts owed, but is still important enough to think twice about before cutting short.

“Therefore,” says Shauers, “it is much better to close a new account by combining it with an old account, rather than vice versa.” That way, you combine accounts but preserve the longer credit history.

Alternatives to Combining Credit Cards

Combining credit cards is not your only option if you want to consolidate accounts, save money or both.

Close the account. One option is to simply close the credit cards that you no longer need. As mentioned above, there are a couple important considerations in this scenario. You want to be sure that you won’t increase your credit utilization to a harmful level or eventually lose the credit history of an older card. If you don’t have any outstanding balances and the card is not significantly older than the rest, closing the account shouldn’t be a problem.

Ask for fees to be waived. “If it is a matter of a card with an annual fee, you can also call and ask (your card issuer) if they will waive the annual fee,” says Shauers. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. If you can demonstrate that you’ve been a loyal customer and always make your payments on time, your chances of getting the fee waived will be much greater. Even if you can’t persuade your card issuer to waive the fee, you might receive other perks, such as additional rewards points, instead.

[Read: Best Balance Transfer Credit Cards.]

Downgrade. Finally, if you aren’t able to get your annual fee waived or negotiate some other type of perk, Shauers suggests asking to downgrade the card. The terms surrounding downgrading vary by card, but generally, the idea is to move down to a product without an annual fee and likely give up some perks in doing so. Downgrading is a good way to protect any rewards you’ve earned on a card and keep it active on your credit report without continuing to pay for premium perks. Keep in mind that the account might need to be open for a certain length of time before the issuer will allow you to downgrade.

Combining credit cards is an easy way to simplify your accounts, cut out annual fees, and maintain your available credit and credit score. But it’s not the right choice for everyone. Before making the decision to combine accounts, evaluate all the benefits of your existing cards and decide whether they’re worth trading. If not, you might need to pursue an alternative option.

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Can You Combine Credit Card Accounts? originally appeared on usnews.com

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