Should You Cancel Your Unused Credit Cards or Not?

On a fairly regular basis, I suggest to my readers that they cancel unused credit cards except for their oldest one. In fact, I often suggest that you reduce your credit cards to one or two that you use for regular purchases and your oldest one – cancel the rest. This advice is often criticized, so I thought it’d be fair to dig into the issue in some detail.

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The “Facts”?

Many people who disagree with this advice point out that one of the elements of a person’s credit score is the debt-to-credit ratio. In other words, the more cards you have, the higher your total credit limit is, and thus your debt-to-credit ratio is better.

From that perspective alone, then it is a bad idea to cancel your cards. But that pulls just one fact out of a big handful of facts. Let’s look at some more.

No one knows for sure how FICO (or other credit scores) work. As I stated in an earlier writeup about credit reports, FICO’s exact formula is a trade secret. They reveal “tips” on how to improve your score and have offered this as general guidance on what makes up your score:

35%,- punctuality of payment in the past (only includes payments later than 30 days past due)
30% – the amount of debt, expressed as the ratio of current revolving debt (credit card balances, etc.) to total available revolving credit (credit limits)
15% – length of credit history
10% – types of credit used (installment, revolving, consumer finance)
10% – recent search for credit and/or amount of credit obtained recently

What do each of those mean? It’s not clear – the best we can do is try to interpret them.

The types of credit used is a factor. If you have a lot of credit cards, you have a lot of sources of revolving credit, the worst kind. That hurts the portion of your score that evaluates the types of credit you’re holding.

Anecdotally, manual underwriters for home loans do not like to see lots of credit cards. When I applied for my home loan, I had two open credit cards – my oldest one and a general use one. The manual underwriter flat-out told me that such a status was a good thing because it showed consumer willpower and less risk that I’d be opening a lot of lines of credit. We ended up getting a very good rate on our home loan.

The more open credit cards you have, the greater the chance of identity theft. Identity theft is a serious concern, and the more open credit card numbers you have floating around at banks, the more likely you are to get bitten by an accident at a bank or unethical use of business records. While this is a small risk, if it does happen, it can be devastating.

A lot of available credit is a psychological temptation. It becomes much easier to just push the plastic and buy something if you have $15,000 in available credit on your cards. If you find it very easy to put purchases on your credit card and worry about the bills later, this is a real concern.

What Does This All Mean?

In a nutshell, it means that there is no definitive and clear answer about what to do. Since the exact formula for credit scores isn’t known, we have to make some guesses about what to do to maximize our credit scores while, at the same time, balancing our other risks.

If your primary goal is to raise your credit score by a few points, you’re probably better off leaving your cards alone for the time being. It keeps your debt-to-credit ratio in a good place, for starters.

However, if you’re a compulsive spender or you’re looking at getting a manually underwritten home loan soon, you should get rid of the extra cards, as other aspects present a greater risk to you.

By default, the best thing you can do is to only have a few cards to begin with and, most importantly, don’t put a lot of money on the cards. That way, your credit-to-debt ratio is good and you don’t have a lot of sources of revolving credit and you don’t have a lot of credit numbers sitting out there, either. Because of that, when people begin paying off their cards and getting into good financial shape, I believe it makes sense to gradually cancel your unused cards.

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.