“No man’s credit is as good as his money.”
E.W. Howe, novelist
What is credit? Credit is defined as the ability to borrow money or something of value now with the understanding you will repay the lender later with interest. Managing credit well is one of the essential disciplines in your financial life. Developing good credit habits can enhance your financial health.
Unfortunately, there are many ways to make common mistakes that can be costly by lowering your credit score. A reduced credit score can make it difficult for you to borrow at a more affordable interest rate, fall behind in paying debt, or turn off landlords from renting to you.
You are not born with good credit, but you can earn it by handling your debt reasonably well. Understanding your FICO credit score may help you to raise it a few points to a better level. By doing so, you may get lower interest rates when you take out loans, shaving your interest costs meaningfully.
Determining What’s Important To Your Credit Score
Calculating the FICO Scores formula involves five different criteria:
Payment History: 35%
Payment history carries the most significant weight in your score. Payment history picks up on patterns of making consistent payments on time for the length of your credit. Having a more extended credit history is a better gauge than someone who has just received their first loan. Having a good track record of not missing payments and being on time works in your favor.
For example, making a late credit card payment, that is, a payment past the due date will hurt your score.
Those who are new to getting credit have to build up a practice of paying what they owe on time. Any occurrences of past-due accounts or delinquencies, especially for current amounts, are red flags. This component looks at different account types such as credit cards, retail or store accounts, installment loans, mortgages, and finance company accounts.
Credit Utilization: 30%
As a significant influence on your credit score, credit utilization is the ratio of your total outstanding revolving credit balances divided by full available credit. Revolving credit refers to your credit cards and credit lines you may have but does not include your car loan (unless on your credit card) or your mortgage.
The utilization ratio is also known as the balance of debt to available credit or debt-to-credit ratio. It measures how much credit you have used for the total amount available to you. You don’t want to “max out” your cards. You should not be above a 30% ratio as it will impact your score. Stay in the mid-20s range to be assured of not hitting the 30% level. Think twice before closing a credit card as it will have a negative impact on this factor.
Credit History: 15%
Lenders look at your credit history and your experience with credit matters. The length of time of your oldest credit account and the average age of all of your accounts determine your credit history. The longer you have an account, the better your credit score. If you are new to obtaining credit, it will take time to benefit from showing up in your score. Don’t close your old credit cards because they count positively in your credit history.
Credit Mix: 10%
Lenders favor some variety of borrowing in your mix of credit. A borrower handling different kinds of debt products may reflect less risk to lenders. A person without a credit card tends to be seen as a higher risk. That said, don’t go out and get different kinds of loans for the sake of improving your mix.
New Credit: 10%
Your inquiry will be reflected on your credit report for up to two years when you apply for credit. That is called a hard inquiry. As such, it can negatively impact your credit score, particularly if you are making multiple inquiries. However, don’t let it stop you from doing comparison shopping for the same type of loan.
A soft inquiry occurs when you are checking your credit score or report. Someone other than yourself may make a soft inquiry by accessing your credit background for something different than a loan such as an employer. Soft inquiries do not generate negative hits.
11 Common Credit Mistakes To Avoid
Avoid making common credit mistakes. Becoming informed and determined to avoid these mistakes may yield great returns for you and your family. I will refer to the score criteria when relevant to a specific mistake you may be making.
1. Not Paying Your Credit Card On Time
You are required to pay the minimum amount by the due date on your bill as a credit cardholder. If your household is like ours, you probably lead busy lives. You probably are responsible for many monthly bills, not just your credit card bills. If you are late paying a card bill, you will likely incur $25 the first time you are late, but the amount will rise the next time.
Depending on the terms of your credit card agreement, you may face a hike in your APR on any balance you carry along with future charges. Lateness is pretty consequential to your credit score as payment history at 35% of the FICO score calculation is the largest component.
To avoid being late in paying the required minimum, you should automate payments of all your bills, including your credit cards, through your bank account. When it comes to paying your card bills, automate and don’t procrastinate. The penalty charges are punitive for a reason.
2. Carrying A Large Balance On Your Credit Card
Paying the minimum on your credit card bill on time is an easy fix and makes the card issuers happy. They stand to make a tidy sum on interest income at the high APR rate they charge their average customer. Roughly 58% of cardholders carry an average balance of $6,354 per person at the current average APR of 16.03%.
Of course, card issuers are happy because it is highly profitable. The problem for cardholders is those carrying balances result in paying extra costs on their purchases. Instead, pay your credit card balances in full. Otherwise, it takes years to pay off your current payments while piling on more debt as you continue to use your cards.
Let’s say you have a current balance of $4,000, and your APR is 16%. Typically, your minimum payment as a percentage of your balance, around 2.5%, or $96 that you owe. If you pay the minimum rate going forward, it will take you 18 years and four months, costing you $4,148.86 in extra interest charges to pay that balance. And, that assumes you never make additional purchases with that card in the future.
Carrying high balances is dangerous for your pocket, and it also has implications for your credit score. After payment history, amounts owed (accounting for 30% of your FICO score) is your credit utilization rate. If you are using too much of your available credit on your card, it may signal to the banks that you are overextended or a potential risk.
Stay Well Below The 30% Credit Utilization Rate
Using more than 30% of your credit utilization can negatively impact your credit score and future borrowing ability. Stay well below that 30% threshold. It is essential to tackle your high balances by making a plan to pay off your card debt, usually the most expensive debt you hold at the double-digit APR. Become disciplined about your spending wisely. Credit cards are convenient, too convenient if you tend to overspend. Cut your spending drastically if you want to have a chance to reduce a large balance.
How To Raise Your Score By Lowering Your Utilization Rate
Most of us don’t pay a lot of attention to our credit card bill, but we should. Your due date is when the payment is due on your statement and reflects the previous billing cycle charges. The last day of the billing cycle is your statement’s closing date. The due date is the grace period, typically 21-25 days, and falls between the closing date and payment. The credit card companies are required to give you this period, not because they are friendly folks.
You are required to pay by the due date to avoid penalties. However, you can benefit by paying your bill on or before the statement closing date, the last day of the billing cycle. By doing so, you can improve your credit utilization rate and, therefore, your credit score. For example, if you have a $3,000 credit limit, spend $2,500 but pay off $1,900 before the closing date, it will appear as if you spent only $600, or 20% of your credit available on that card.
Related Post: 6 Ways To Raise Your Credit Scores
3. Don’t Close Any Credit Cards
Even if you don’t use certain credit cards, don’t close these accounts. Often we have several credit cards that were once appealing because of certain features or through a favorite store. However, over time, you have lost interest and decide to close the account to worry about theft or temptation to use it.
Don’t do this—the length of your credit history matters for 15% of your credit score. The longer you hold open cards, the better, even if you aren’t actively using them.
I made this mistake with a Saks Fifth Avenue card I applied for and got 10% off a large purchase I happened to make for a special occasion. While I liked to browse their stores, I realized I didn’t want to have their card. So, I closed the card. Perusing my credit report months later, I got a ding on my report, which translated into a lower score. To avoid this mistake, simply throw unused cards in a drawer and say goodbye.
4. Not Reviewing Your Credit Report Periodically
According to an FTC study, one out of five people has found errors on their credit report. The sooner you find the mistakes, the easier it is to fix them.
Current and future creditors use your credit report and review its potential impact on your credit score. Others that may want or need access to your credit report are landlords, utility companies, insurance companies, prospective employers. Also, legitimate access to your credit report may be required by collection agencies and if you are a party of court orders.
Fixing Errors On A Credit Report
Fixing errors on a credit report is not difficult, but you don’t want to delay doing so. Delaying a review of your credit report may result in you having to pay a higher interest rate than you should when you apply for credit. Don’t wait for those needs to arise. The best way to fix errors, disputes, or possible fraud is to follow these instructions.
Besides looking for errors, you may be dismayed at some notations on your credit report. Your report may shine a light on poor judgment or reflection of your impulse spending habits. Additionally, it may help you to pinpoint potential fraud when someone has made unauthorized inquiries or purchases.
Fear of fraud may motivate you to make essential changes to get the information in good shape before shopping for a home or a car. We once found a tax lien for a small amount that was burdensome in applying for a car loan. Be timely when you encounter these issues. It is easy to forget when something is a small amount but remains a nuisance to do.
5. Not Reading The Fine Print On Your Credit Agreements
Fewer than 1 in 1,000 people take the time to read the fine print online, spelling out the terms and conditions in financial contracts like credit cards, insurance policies, car, or mortgage loans. Not doing so may have long-term financial implications for you and your family.
Credit card agreements have incredibly complex terms and conditions. You should understand the particulars of the APR, penalty structure, the benefits from cashback, rewards, discounts, and other perks they are providing.
Terms of Your Mortgage
When you are buying a home, it is typically, for most people, your largest asset. True, your attorney plays a significant role in helping you through the home-buying process. However, you should understand the key elements of the mortgage loan and its interest rate, fixed or variable, prepayment penalties, and length of the term. How owed mortgage interest compounds (semi-annually or monthly) can make a difference in the total cost of your home.
To avoid problems later, become familiar with the typical terms and conditions for the respective agreements you are shopping for. Certain laws have been passed in recent years to protect consumers from providers. These laws, like the Credit CARD Act of 2009, recognize the imbalance that often exists between parties. However, you are responsible for understanding what you are signing. Yes, these documents can be boring and hard to understand, so ask questions.
6. Paying A Loan Off Early Can Hurt Your Credit
If you suddenly received an incredible amount like a bonus or an inheritance, you may want to pay off your loan. Be aware that there may be negative consequences. Some loans, if paid ahead of time, incur pre-payment penalties. These are usually relatively small and worth getting rid of the debt burden. While there may be a temporary hit to your credit score, it is probably beneficial in the long term.
You would want to weigh the value of saving interest over the time remaining on the loan. Usually, there is a relatively small ding to your credit score. Unless you seek a bigger loan and need the best rate possible, paying off a loan should not be a big deal.
How It May Hurt Your Score
When you do not have much payment history (35% of score) may not be a good idea to pay off a car loan. An installment loan is a type of contract involving a loan to be repaid through scheduled payments like for cars and homes. As long as they are paid on a responsible basis, these loans are reflected positively on credit score according to Experian. A good credit mix means there are different types of credit being used. Credit mix accounts for 10% of your credit score, so paying off a car loan may negatively impact your score.
7. Don’t Make Excessive Hard Inquiries For A Loan
Creditors get worried about people making too many “hard inquiries” that occur when applied to a lender of some sort. Lenders see this as a sign of risk that you may be overextending your debt. As we mentioned earlier, hard inquiries may hurt your credit score.
On the other hand, “soft inquiries” occur when someone is accessing your credit report for reasons having nothing to do with a loan. Instead, it is someone such as a landlord considering whether to rent their house to you. That inquiry is for reasons better to understand your creditworthiness as a reflection of your character.
Hard inquiries to your debt burden is often a big problem. These kinds of consequential inquiries come from those who apply for loans or have too many credit cards that they max out. If you have too much debt, applying for debt will worsen your situation. Instead, you should consider working with a financial debt counselor that can provide strategies to reduce what you owe.
8. Avoid Cards With Annual Fees Unless They Have Important Features You Will Use
Generally, there are so many credit cards to choose from without an annual fee that paying one seems like a waste of money. That, at least, is the conventional thinking. Some yearly payments of $550 or over are outrageous but appeal to those who enjoy the card less for the numerous benefits than the status symbol they provide.
If you have the time and desire, you likely can find credit cards with annual fees below $100. There is enough competition in the industry for you to find appealing rewards and money-saving perks that pay for the yearly fee. Just make sure that you will use these benefits. For most people, finding a competitive card with good perks and avoiding the annual fee is the better way to go.
9. Overspending For Rewards
Studies show that credit cardholders spend more when they use their card as compared to paying with cash. As such, this has been referred to as “the credit card premium.” Rewards offered by issuers are designed to encourage more spending in order to get more points or some other perk. Ever sit next to another table where the diners are actively comparing the points and rewards they have earned? I have, and often wish I could get a dollar for every time I did!
According to a recent survey from Coupon Chief, one in five consumers say the rewards are the best perk, ahead of 16% who responded that building credit was the most valuable benefit. More concerning, 52% of Americans don’t actively track their credit card points. Holders are attracted to getting something for free; however, they may be more costly to those shoppers who are tempted to impulse buys.
10. Fear Of Getting A Credit Card
You don’t have to get a credit card. A third of Americans don’t have one for a variety of reasons. They could be fearful of temptation to overspend, poor credit, or prefer an alternative to a credit card. I didn’t have a credit card for many years, and then I used it sparingly when I did. My parents never had a credit card and never accepted cards in their retail store.
Credit cards have many benefits, but ONLY if you use it responsibly as we discuss here. Don’t fear getting a credit card. Instead, learn how to pay balances in full and on time. Building credit is important as a means of borrowing money for buying a car or a house.
11. Don’t Get A Retail Store Card
The temptation of getting a store card often comes right at the point of purchase when the store clerk waves an application at you. “If you sign up today, you will get 10% off today’s purchase, Ma’am?” And, you say, “Sure, why not?”
Okay, let’s rewind that conversation so that you understand that retail store cards may be a mistake. A store card has limited use because you can only use it at that specific store or enterprise. That’s great for the specific merchant because they collect a lot of information to market daily offers to you.
Other merchants do not accept retail credit cards. On average, store cards charge higher APRs than credit cards, which are already high enough. The average APR for store-only credit cards was 24.06% in 2Q 2020 versus 16.03% for traditional credit cards, according to WalletHub.
They usually provide low credit limits, so you won’t get a big bang in credit availability to improve your utilization rate to hike your credit score. At the end of the day, retail credit cards have fewer benefits than traditional cards.
Creditworthiness is a valuable trait when you need to borrow money, or someone wants a good read of your character. Take steps to avoid common credit mistakes that will put you in good standing and help you raise your score. To be in good financial health, managing credit well is an important discipline. Develop and maintain good credit habits and keep your debt levels from overwhelming your life.
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With a passion for investing and personal finance, I began The Cents of Money to help and teach others. My experience as an equity analyst, professor, and mom provide me with unique insights about money and wealth creation and a desire to share with you.