5/24/2012 7:36 PM ET|
4 habits that harm your credit score
You could inadvertently put your score at risk while trying to put your financial house in order. Here are moves that can lower your number.
If you are like most consumers, you don't spend a lot of time thinking about your credit history. You may think that as long as you pay your bills on time, your credit history and related credit scores should be shiny and clean. However, many common money habits can be detrimental to your credit score without you even knowing it. Keeping these money mistakes to a minimum will help keep your score high.
1. Credit consolidation
A popular financial planning tool used by banks and personal advisers is to take some or all of your old debt and roll it into a new consolidation loan. The main goals of this strategy are to refinance debt to a lower interest rate and to lower the total monthly minimum payment.
While both of these results can help your overall financial picture, getting rid of older debt can hurt your credit score. A portion of the score is determined by the length of your credit history, and open accounts that have a track record of on-time payments will boost your score. Closing all of them and rolling them into a new loan can drop your score significantly, especially if it reduces your overall available credit.
If reducing the interest rate you pay on loans and credit cards is the goal, try to negotiate a lower rate with your existing lenders before choosing consolidation.
2. Shopping for credit
Everyone wants to get the lowest rate possible on mortgages, car loans and credit cards. However, financial institutions considering lending you money almost always run a credit check to ensure that you are a good risk. Multiple requests on your credit file in a short period of time can lower your score.
In the eyes of the credit score developers, this activity can suggest that you are scrambling to obtain new credit. Since 2009, the score has been adjusted to take this type of activity into account, but it can still have an effect. To minimize these so-called hard hits on your credit report, have preliminary discussions with lenders without consenting to a credit inquiry. That way, you can make a final decision with a single lender, which will run a single credit inquiry, before finalizing the loan. Request your own credit score (which doesn't result in a hard hit) and provide it to lenders so that they can make an informed preliminary decision based on your credit history.
3. Refusing to pay
At some point, you are likely to enter into a dispute with a vendor or creditor. It may be that blender you bought online that broke soon after it was delivered or outstanding finance charges that you don't think you owe. Unfortunately, most vendors have a big stick when it comes to coercing you to pay. They can threaten to submit the outstanding amount as a collection item on your credit report, thereby dropping your score. There are processes in place with all three major credit bureaus to handle such disputes, but the collection will stay on your report in the interim. If the bureau receives enough proof from the vendor that you do owe the money, it will remain on your report for a full seven years.
Try to work out payment disputes in a timely manner to avoid this situation. It may take repeated letters or phone calls to senior people in the vendor's organization, but it is worth the time and trouble.
4. Closing credit cards
It may seem that the best way to sensibly manage your financial situation is to close out credit cards that you're not using. A portion of your credit score, however, is determined by the amount of revolving debt you have (such as credit cards and lines of credit) versus the total amount available to you. The lower the ratio, the more positive the impact on your score. It shows that you have access to credit and aren't using it indiscriminately.
If you close down some of that available room, the ratio goes up and your score goes down. This is especially true if you close a credit card that has a balance. The balance will remain on your report, while the available room disappears. Spread your credit card usage among all of your cards, and be sure to make payments on time to keep your score high.
The bottom line
Your financial habits can have a significant effect on your credit score, and you should consider the impact before making big changes to your debt structure. Get a copy of your credit report at least annually so you can analyze the effect of your money moves on your score.
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