New role for credit card payments in credit scores

Up until now, it's not been hard for those with credit cards to understand how to avoid their plastic having a negative effect on their credit scores. All they had to remember was:
  1. Make every payment (at least the minimum due) every month on time.
  2. Keep balances below 30 percent of the cards' credit limits. The lower that percentage the better, but the difference 10 and 20 percent make to your score compared with 30 percent is minimal.
  3. Apply for new credit cards only when you need them. Having lots of recently opened accounts of any sort may be harmful.

Observe those three rules, and you'd have every reason to expect your cards to help rather than hinder your achievement of a good or great credit score.

Credit cards and scores: New factor

But now a new factor might soon affect your score, according to a recent report from The New York Times. It suggested that at least one of the Big Three credit bureaus was already using the amount by which you pay down your cards each month to help calculate your score. Other bureaus and scoring companies may well follow suit.

The purpose of this is to differentiate between "transactors," who pay down their balances in full each month, and "revolvers," who routinely carry forward ("revolve") balances from one month to the next. The theory is that transactors are likely to be more creditworthy, and so deserving of higher scores, though a FICO spokesperson told the Times that it was still studying the data, and was yet to change its systems. FICO is the company whose credit-scoring technologies are used in over 90 percent of lending decisions in this country.

If FICO and others in the credit-reference industry do in future begin to differentiate between transactors and revolvers, it could see the latter's scores being downgraded even if they always make minimum or higher credit card payments on time every month. And that could see a significant change in how people view their plastic.

Credit card companies likely want status quo

This could be bad news for credit card companies, because it could result in fewer revolvers. After all, would you use your credit cards to borrow if you knew that was likely to make your home, auto and other loans more expensive?

And the interest those who roll forward balances pay represents an important revenue stream for these purveyors of plastic. Indeed, within the card industry, transactors are known, unflattering, as "deadbeats," because those who never borrow generate little profit.

Credit scores like ketchup and ice cream

People talk about "your credit score," but in fact pretty much everyone who has one has many. There may not be quite as many varieties of these as Heinz has, nor flavors as Baskin-Robbins, but it's perfectly normal for an individual to have a couple dozen.