Q&A: One big trip whacked this reader’s credit score. How is that possible?

Dear Liz: I normally use about 5% of my credit card lines and pay them off every month. I just made a major trip purchase that pushed my month’s usage to 31%. My score dropped from 820 to 708 in one day. I can’t believe that the score dropped so much. I have paid my accounts in full for decades. I immediately paid the current balance instead of waiting for the due date in hopes that the score will return. Hard for me to believe this is so sensitive. Comment please.

Answer: Credit scoring formulas are incredibly sensitive to how much of your available credit you’re using. It doesn’t matter whether you pay your balances in full. What matters is the size of your balance on the day that your credit card issuer reports to the credit bureaus. The balance is often, although not always, what you owe on the statement’s closing date.

The large drop you witnessed could indicate a bigger problem, however, such as a missed payment or a collection showing up on your credit reports.

Visit AnnualCreditReport.com and request free copies of your credit reports from each of the three major credit bureaus. (Be careful here: You should type annualcreditreport.com into your browser’s address bar, because searching for AnnualCreditReport.com can turn up a bunch of look-alike sites that might try to charge you for credit monitoring or other services.)

All this assumes that you were looking at the same type of score from the same credit bureau. If you looked at a FICO 8 from Experian on Day 1 and a VantageScore 3.0 from TransUnion on Day 2, then any “movement” in the scores could be chalked up to a difference in the formulas or the underlying data at the credit bureaus.

Q&A: When a lower credit score might not be cause for alarm

Dear Liz: I sold my house, paid off my mortgage and then got a new mortgage for another home in 2021. When I applied for the new mortgage, my credit score was 830. After buying the home, my score dropped to the low 700s. It’s gone up only 2 points in seven months. I have no other debt. What’s going on?

Answer: Remember, you don’t have one credit score, you have many. When you applied for a mortgage, you typically would be shown three older-generation FICO scores — one from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). Your interest rate would have been based on the middle number. If your scores were 840, 830 and 700, for example, your rate would be based on 830. Any score over 740 typically gets the best rate and terms on a mortgage, all else being equal.

The score you’re monitoring now was probably created from a different scoring model. If the score is a FICO score, it probably was created from an updated formula such as FICO 8 or FICO 9. It’s also possible that you’re viewing a VantageScore 3.0 or 4.0. VantageScore is a FICO competitor.

If you’ve been monitoring the same score all along and it actually dropped 100 points since your application, then something else is going on. Please check your credit reports from all three bureaus and look for a skipped payment, a collection or some other serious problem.

Q&A: How to boost your credit scores in the next year

Dear Liz: I am 36 with a 535 credit score and about to move back to the U.S. from Colombia with my future wife. I’d like to increase my score by 100 or 200 points within eight to 12 months. Is it possible?

Answer: Increasing your credit scores to the mid-600s within a year or so is probably a reasonable goal.

Most consumer credit scores are on a 300-to-850 range. The higher your scores, the easier it will be to get approved for loans and credit cards, plus you’ll be offered better rates and terms.

What’s considered a good or bad score depends on the lender and the scoring formula. In general, scores below 630 or so are considered bad while scores in the mid-600s are usually considered “fair.” Good scores typically begin around 690.

Consider a credit builder loan from a credit union or online lender. The money you borrow is placed in a certificate of deposit or a savings account for you to claim after you’ve made 12 on-time payments. You’ll pay interest to the lender but be building your savings at the same time.

Secured credit cards are another way to build credit. You deposit a certain amount with the issuing bank, often $200 to $2,000, and get a credit line in the same amount. If you use the charge lightly and pay it off in full each month, you can build credit without paying interest.

Q&A: Unexpected credit upswing

Dear Liz: I know there are different factors involved, but I find a recent upsurge in my FICO score inexplicable. My score went from about 740 to 815, according to a note in my most recent credit card statement. Yet I’ve done virtually nothing in the way of major credit activity — no purchases, no change in my already-low credit card use. I transferred about $800 from one card to another, and that’s it. If such small matters can affect the FICO score, it makes that score seem ridiculous. Can you offer any possible explanations?

Answer: Credit scoring formulas are a bit of a black box, but they are sensitive to how much of your available credit you’re using.

If you transferred the balance from a card with a very low credit limit to one with a higher limit, your scores typically would improve — although perhaps not as dramatically as the increase you’re describing.

Your scores might also improve if your balances dropped on other accounts or something that was negatively impacting your credit “fell off” or stopped being reported. The simple passage of time can improve your scores, as well, increasing the age of your credit accounts and the time since your last application for credit.

It’s impossible to say exactly what combination of factors may have affected the score you saw, but at least it moved in the right direction.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 4 common winter home insurance claims and how to prevent them. Also in the news: How long it will take to pay off your MBA debt, huge Disney park changes for 2022 and tips on how to fund your trip, and why the catch with Buy Now Pay Later could be your credit.

4 Common Winter Home Insurance Claims and How to Prevent Them
Winter-induced home damage can sometimes be prevented, but sufficient insurance coverage may cover even the most bitter disaster.

How Long Will It Take to Pay Off Your MBA Debt?
Your student loan repayment strategy will determine how long it takes to pay off your MBA debt.

Huge Disney Park Changes for 2022, and How to Fund Your Trip
Disney announced a slew of new rides and shows during its Destination D23 event in November at Walt Disney World.

The Catch With Buy Now, Pay Later Could Be Your Credit
Buy now, pay later plans promise no interest or hidden fees, but they don’t typically help you build credit.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Care about your credit score? Get strategic with card limits. Also in the news: Buy now, pay later traps, and what to know about bitcoin as it approaches $70,000.

Care About Your Credit Score? Get Strategic With Card Limits
Actively managing how much of your credit limits you are using can make a big impact on your credit score.

Watch Out for These Buy Now, Pay Later Traps
Among its pitfalls, buy now, pay later can tempt you to take on too much debt, and it may not help your credit.

What to Know About Bitcoin as It Approaches $70,000
Bitcoin is trading near all-time highs and crossed a record $68,000 at the beginning of this week.

Q&A: When mortgage shopping, does checking your credit scores lower them?

Dear Liz: We’re trying to refinance a mortgage. All of the mortgage lenders claim that checking our credit scores will not affect the scores. However, that is not true. What gives? The three credit bureaus all list “too many inquiries” and penalize us. Does calling them do any good or make it even worse?

Answer:
Checking your own scores is considered a soft inquiry that has no effect on your scores. When a lender checks your scores, there can be a small ding, but credit scoring formulas also have a feature that reduces the effect when you’re shopping for a mortgage.

Essentially, all the mortgage inquiries made within a certain amount of time are grouped together and counted as one. In addition, the formulas ignore any mortgage inquiries made within the previous 30 days. The amount of time you can shop varies with the credit scoring formula, so it’s generally a good idea to concentrate your shopping into a two-week period.

What you don’t want to do when you’re in the market for a mortgage is to apply for other credit. Those inquiries are not grouped with your mortgage inquiries. The effect of these inquiries fades quickly and is usually pretty small — typically 5 points or less for FICO scores, for example. But even a small ding could cause you to pay more in interest if your scores aren’t already excellent.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How gratitude can help your financial life. Also in the news: What’s being fixed with student loan forgiveness, a new Smart Money podcast deep dive on investing strategies, and what happens when you’re too sick to pay your credit card bills.

How Gratitude Can Help Your Financial Life
Taking stock of what you have.

Student Loan Forgiveness: What’s Getting Fixed?
Public service loan forgiveness is being repaired.

Smart Money Podcast: Nerdy Deep Dives: Investing, Part 3
Exploring investment strategies.

I Was in a Coma and Couldn’t Pay My Credit Card Bills
After a medical emergency, your card issuer may be able to make accommodations to lessen the financial strain.

Q&A: Business credit card dilemma

Dear Liz: I am a sole proprietor and have two business credit cards. I used my Social Security number to apply for the cards and put $2,000 to $3,000 a month on these cards, yet all this credit card activity is not reported to Experian, thereby hurting my credit score, and I now have “stale credit” per Experian. Is my credit card activity not reported because my cards are considered business cards?

Answer: The short answer is yes. Although you used your personal credit history to apply for the cards, business cards typically don’t report activity to the consumer credit bureaus (although negative activity may be reported, such as if the account is delinquent).

You can remedy the situation by getting and using a personal credit card or two. If your credit report has become so stale that it can’t generate a credit score at all, you may need to start with a secured card or look into a credit builder loan.

Q&A: How a card switch affects your credit score

Dear Liz: I have one American Express card and two Visa cards, all of which I have held for many years. I received notice that my American Express card was being converted to a Visa card. I do not want a third Visa card but have no choice. For credit score purposes, will this conversion appear to be a closing of my old card and an application for a new one? Obviously, closing a long-held credit card and applying for a new one will affect my excellent credit score, which is 830. If I decided to apply for a new American Express card, how would that impact my score?

Answer: Conversions from one issuer to another can have a temporary negative impact on your credit scores as one account is closed and another opened. The effect should be minor as long as you have other open, active accounts.

Within a month or two, the new account should show the same history as the old one, and your scores should recover. (You have more than one credit score, by the way, and your scores change all the time. As long as they’re generally above 760 or so, you should get lenders’ best rates and terms.)

The type of card usually matters less than the benefits associated with the card. If those benefits are useful to you and are enough to offset any annual fee, consider keeping the card. Its long history and credit limit are likely helping your scores.

That doesn’t mean you have to keep a card you really don’t want. The fewer cards you have, though, the more careful you probably need to be about closing one.

You can still add an American Express or other card to your portfolio. Adding a new card typically dings your scores less than five points. The effect is temporary, and the new account could contribute positively to your scores over time.