Surprising Things That Can Kill Your Credit
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When it comes to credit scores, we're all very familiar with the damage a late payment can do to your credit "worthiness." We also know that having too much debt is bad as is having no credit references at all.
But surely that can't be all that affects your credit score, right?
The truth is, there are several things that can tank your credit, some of which just might surprise you. (See also: 6 Credit Card Services You Don't (Usually) Need)
When you apply for a new credit card, you expect an inquiry to show up on your report. This is known as a "hard" inquiry, and too many of these within a 12 month period will lower your score.
But filling out that Visa application isn't the only way to generate a hard inquiry. If you use a debit card when you rent a car for example, many rental agencies will check your credit before approving the transaction, and since few of us read all the fine print, you may not realize it's happened until it's too late.
Likewise, opening a new checking account will also typically generate a hard inquiry (even though you're not applying for credit) as will applying for new phone service and — surprise! — requesting an increase on an existing account. Unfortunately, many consumers assume that credit card companies simply look at their own payment history to determine approval for increases, but the fact is that your existing creditors are monitoring your credit score on a regular basis.
Now, only the hard inquiries generated by a request for an increase will ding your score — those periodic "checkups" are considered soft inquiries and don't cause a penalty. But that doesn't mean that they can't still hurt your credit, bringing us to the next item on this list...
Changing Your Ratio
When a creditor approves an application for credit, they will continue to monitor your score to ensure that your credit worthiness doesn't change. And again, these soft inquiries don't count against you. But should the creditor decide that you no longer meet their requirements, they can lower your credit limit or worse, close your account. By the time you realize it, the damage has already been done.
Your credit score depends greatly on the ratio between how much credit you've used and how much you have available. So, if you have an account with a $2,000 balance for example, and you've charged $400, then you've used 20% of your available credit, and anything up to 30% is considered to be responsible credit management.
But let's say that the credit card company decides that you no longer meet their standards and as a result, they lower your limit to $250 (yes, they can do that — I speak from experience). Now, instead of having a credit ratio of 20%, you're suddenly maxed out as far as your credit report is concerned, and your score will drop considerably as a result.
If they decide to close the account instead (yes, they can do that too), you not only suffer the ding for a high credit utilization ratio, but you also lose the benefit of that available credit once you've paid the balance off. Remember, your utilization ratio is based upon your total credit available, so when an account is closed, it reduces the amount of credit you have access to. And the less available credit you have, the higher your utilization ratio will be.
This is also the reason that financial experts discourage balance transfers. Debt-conscious consumers will often transfer their credit card balances to a new card with a lower rate, thinking that they're making a smart move, but this can actually have an adverse effect on your credit.
Not only do you suffer the ding for a hard inquiry to secure that new, lower-rate account, but you'll also skew your utilization ratio if — like many consumers do — you close those higher-rate accounts after the balance transfer is complete.
Let's say for example, that you have two cards, each with a $1,500 limit and a $200 balance. That gives you a utilization ratio of about 13% ($400 used / $3,000 total available). Then let's say that you get a new, lower-rate credit card with an additional $1,000 limit, and you shift your $400 outstanding balance to that new card. You now have a credit utilization ratio of just 10% ($400 used / $4,000 total available), but the minute you close those two older accounts with the higher interest rates, your ratio goes down the tubes.
Instead of having $4,000 in available credit, you now only have $1,000. Your ratio goes from an impressive 10% to a whopping 40%, and that's bad, bad, bad.
Applying for the Wrong Type of Credit
Many consumers think that any kind of credit is good, and for those trying to rebuild their credit scores, getting approval on in-house financing plans might seem like a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, that's not the case.
These "local" finance plans — like those you see advertised by furniture stores and car dealerships — are considered to be "second class" credit...that is, credit for those who can't get it anywhere else, and this makes you look like a high risk to potential creditors.
In addition, because these in-house programs don't issue you a revolving limit, your available credit is typically the amount of your purchase. So, when you finance $1,000, it appears as a maxed-out account on your credit report and affects that all-important utilization ratio we were talking about before.
When it comes to late payments, it's not just your credit cards that you have to worry about. Those old library fines, parking tickets, and unpaid balances on your book club can also hurt you if the company decides to use a collection agency to resolve the account.
And once the collection hits your credit report, you and your score are stuck with it for seven years.
Swearing Off Credit
After having a few bouts of credit card debt in my early twenties, I swore I would only pay cash for my stuff and never use a credit card again. But knowing the importance of having credit, I kept a few accounts open and just locked the cards away. I thought I was being smart... I thought wrong.
When you don't use your credit — as in, ever — there's no payment history for potential creditors to evaluate and after an extended period of time, your creditors may close your account because of inactivity, both of which can make it harder for you to secure credit when you need it.
In addition, if you do ever decide to use one of those cards, you may find that your purchase is declined because it's outside of your "usual" spending habits. Of course, this can be resolved, but not without some embarrassment as you step out of the checkout line to call your credit card company.
The Moral of This Story?
Managing and protecting your credit score is most certainly a pain, but it's a necessary one. Use your credit, but use it wisely, and always ask about credit checks before securing new services...even (and especially) when those services seemingly would have nothing to do with your credit.
But most importantly, monitor your score. The only way to know what's being reported is to check it yourself and then dispute any information that's incorrect.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.