The rules that credit-card companies have to live by changed dramatically with the enactment of new regulations last month. Now, some of the rules for consumers striving to maintain good credit are changing, too.
For the most part, card holders would still do well to pay on time, keep their balances low and refrain from applying for too many credit cards at once. But some of the old tenets may not always hold up, as credit-card companies continue to adapt to the new environment and look for ways to run their for-profit businesses.
Case in point: Many issuers introduced annual or inactivity fees in the weeks leading to or immediately after the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act went into effect. “Now folks have to decide — do they want this card badly enough to pay the fee, or do they close it,” says Barry Paperno, the consumer operations manager at FICO (FICO). It’s a question of more than just losing a credit line. Closing a credit card can have a big impact on one’s credit score. That is, unless you do some groundwork in advance.
With the help of some easy — if often counterintuitive — steps, you can improve and retain a healthy credit score even in today’s fast-changing credit environment. Here are five:
Open More Credit Cards
For years, credit experts warned that opening new credit cards will hurt your credit score — not to mention enable you to run up huge debts. That’s still true: The length of your credit history and new credit make up 15% and 10% of the FICO score, respectively. But with credit issuers lowering credit limits left and right these days, having too few credit cards puts a much more important credit-score component at risk: credit utilization, or how much of your available credit you’re using. Credit utilization makes up 30% of your score. “More cards mean more available credit and more options if an issuer decides they don’t like you,” says John Ulzheimer, president for educational services at Credit.com. Generally, having four or five credit cards is better than having just one or two, he says.
Expanding your credit-card portfolio isn’t something you should do tomorrow — it’s a strategy to be executed over time. If you have just two cards, now is the time to open a third. But wait at least six months or a year until you apply for a fourth.
Max Out (Some of) Your Credit Cards
A quirk of credit score math actually makes it advantageous to max out certain cards. How? It’s a matter of what the issuer tells the credit bureaus.
Some types of payment cards don’t report credit limits to the credit bureaus. They include all charge cards from American Express (AXP) and may include some high-end credit cards that are marketed as having no preset spending limit, such as Visa (V) Signature and MasterCard (MA) World. (These cards have a credit limit, but card holders can exceed it and must pay off the excess in full on their next bill.)
When the FICO scoring system comes across such an account, it will either bypass it for the purpose of calculating credit utilization, or substitute the credit limit value with that of the highest balance on record for the account. The most current FICO scores from TransUnion and Equifax (EFX) bypass charge cards, according to Paperno. So as far as those two bureaus are concerned, your charge card spending will not affect your utilization.
But in cases where the FICO formulas substitute the credit limit value with that of the highest balance, consumers who spend roughly the same amount each month could end up with lower scores than they deserve. The solution: run up a balance that’s much higher than usual, and your utilization ratio will improve in the following months, Ulzheimer says, and so will your score. (Just pay off that balance in full the next month to avoid interest charges.) Your score will drop during the month for which your card appears maxed out, so don’t execute this strategy if you’re shopping for a mortgage or another large loan.
To find out if you have cards that don’t report a credit limit, check your credit report. You can order one free report a year from each of the three credit bureaus on AnnualCreditReport.com. Charge cards are typically reported as “open,” while other credit-card accounts are reported as “revolving,” Paperno says.
Don’t Ask for a Lower APR
In the old days, consumers were encouraged to call their credit-card companies and ask for lower interest rates. “There really wasn’t a downside to doing that,” says Gerri Detweiler, an adviser with Credit.com. “These days, if you call you may trigger an account review.” Should that happen — and if the credit issuer doesn’t like what they see — they may cut your credit limit or actually hike your interest rate. This is where having multiple credit cards may come in handy, Detweiler says. “Don’t make that call unless you have a back-up card where you could transfer that balance.”
Closed a Card? Don’t Pay It Off
Under the old rules, interest-rate hikes applied to your existing balance and future purchases. However, since the enactment of the CARD Act, lenders can apply rate increases only to balances going forward. That said, if you closed an account before the CARD Act to opt out of a rate hike, you may not want to rush paying off every last penny of that balance. In a little-known quirk, FICO counts the credit limits of closed accounts towards utilization ratios only as long as there’s a balance on that account. “You may have a $100 balance on a card with a $10,000 limit, and it’s doing wonderful things for utilization,” Paperno says. “Once you pay that down, that utilization no longer counts toward your credit score.” That means your credit score could take a dip because you paid off that balance.
Mix Business and Personal
Before the passage of the CARD Act, credit experts routinely advised business owners to keep business and personal expenses separate: use a business credit card for the business, a consumer credit one for their own expenses. Not any more. The CARD Act doesn’t apply to business credit cards, so using a personal card for your business expenses is safer, says Detweiler. On the flip side, that may easily hurt your credit, especially if your business expenses are high. Even if you pay those high balances in full each month, they will be listed on your credit report and you could appear overextended. (Of course, there’s no guarantee that this isn’t happening to you even if you’re still keeping things separate. Some issuers now report business credit card accounts to the consumer credit bureaus.) “There’s no easy answer here,” Detweiler says.