How you choose to manage your credit cards has a considerable influence over your credit scores. When credit cards are managed properly they have a very positive credit score impact. However, when credit cards are abused they can cause damage to your score. One of the myths that can potentially trip up a consumer is whether carrying credit card balances helps or hurts credit scores.
How Credit Card Balances Impact Credit Scores
Credit card debt has the ability to negatively impact credit scores even if the monthly payment is made on time, all the time. But an antiquated credit reporting system only allows credit card issuers to send updates to the credit bureaus once a month. That update is sent shortly after your monthly statement is generated. So, the balance on your credit reports is always you prior month’s balance.
Credit scoring models, like FICO and VantageScore, pay close attention to the balances on your credit card. In FICO’s scoring systems the category that considers debt related metrics is worth some 30% of the points in your score. In VantageScore’s scoring system the same category is considered “highly influential.”
Credit scoring models are built to reward consumers who maintain lower levels of debt and, conversely, penalize those who do not. While all debt has the ability to lower credit scores to some degree, credit card debt is by far the most problematic. Credit card debt is unsecured meaning there is no asset to act as collateral protection the lender. As such, credit card debt is a riskier type of credit to extend.
Revolving utilization or the debt-to-limit ratio is the metric used by credit scoring systems to measure your reliance on credit cards. The ratio is calculated by dividing the balances on your credit cards by the credit limits on all of your open credit card accounts. While your debt-to-limit ratio alone is not worth the entire 30% of your FICO score points from the debt related category, it is certainly its most important factor. Here how it works…
If Joe Consumer has a credit card with a limit of $2,000 and a balance of $1,000 then the revolving utilization ratio on the card would be 50% ($1,000 divided by $2,000). If Joe were to pay that same credit card balance down to $500 then the new revolving utilization ratio would be 25% ($500 divided by $2,000). The lower his balance relative to his limit, the lower the ratio and the better it is for his scores.
Reducing the revolving utilization ratio is the most actionable way for a consumer to improve his or her credit scores in a relatively short period of time. If you are able to pay off (or pay down) your credit card debt and keep your balances lower rather than higher you’ll improve your credit scores in less than one month. Even if you can’t pay off your credit card debt that quickly you can still improve your scores over time by working hard to pay down the balance as much as possible.
You don’t earn more score points by carrying a balance. That’s not only a myth but also a ridiculous myth at that. TransUnion published a study in 2013 that said consumers who do not pay off their credit cards in full each month are 3 to 5 times riskier than those who do. And while their study was very well done, we didn’t really need a formal study to know that carrying credit card debt is problematic.