Why Was My Credit Limit Lowered?

Jennifer writes in:

Yesterday, I received a notice from [my credit card company] that my credit limit had been lowered from $10,000 to $4,000 on my primary credit card. I was immediately worried that my credit had been damaged by identity theft, so I checked it on annualcreditreport.com and there was nothing there at all. I’ve always paid all of my bills on time and my life has been pretty much normal and unchanged for a long time. Why would they make this change? I’m not concerned about reaching my credit limit, but that reduction in my limit does alter my debt-to-credit ratio, which could negatively impact my credit rating.

Jennifer describes a pretty typical scenario today. A credit card company sends a letter out of nowhere, for no obvious reason, announcing a significant drop in one’s credit limit.

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One big effect that such a drop has is that it alters your debt-to-credit ratio, as Jennifer mentions. Simply put, your debt-to-credit ratio tells what percentage of your credit limit across all of your credit cards you’re actually using. So, let’s say Jennifer had a $3,000 balance on her $10,000 card – that’s a 30% debt-to-credit ratio. When the company drops her credit limit, she then had a $3,000 balance on a $4,000 card – that’s a 75% debt-to-credit ratio. The higher your debt-to-credit ratio, the more negative impact it has on your credit score.

This type of behavior seems alien, particularly after a decade where credit card issuers would commonly raise credit limits without you even asking. What gives?

The reality of the credit card industry has changed. For one, the economic downturn has seen a large spike in the number of people who have simply defaulted on their credit card bills, not bothering to pay them. For another, the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Right Act recently became the law of the land, restricting some of the business practices of the credit card companies.

Credit limits are not a right. Another issue is that many people, particularly after the last decade of rampant growth in credit limits, view their limits as something of a right and when credit card companies reduce those limits, their rights are somehow being infringed. In truth, that’s not the case at all – your cardholder agreement makes it very clear that your credit limit and your interest rate can be changed at any time.

So how do they decide when to lower your limit?

They watch what you buy via data mining. Every time you make a credit card purchase, the credit card issuer’s computers store a record of that purchase (you’ll see such information on your bill). Obviously, this is a wealth of information, one that they can use to figure out all sorts of things, such as where you live (so that if you suddenly make a rash of purchases elsewhere, they can throw a block on the card).

They draw conclusions based on what you buy. Another thing that they do is watch what you buy. They look at the places you normally shop and draw conclusions based on that.

Let’s say Jennifer normally shops for clothing at, say, Banana Republic (I don’t know this, I’m just creating a hypothetical example). Based on this, the credit card company would conclude that she fits the profile of an average Banana Republic customer, meaning she has a fair amount of discretionary income.

Now, let’s say Jennifer is suddenly a bit worried about the economy. She and her husband decide to curb their spending and she starts doing things like buying soap at the dollar store with her credit card.

When the credit card company analyzes the data, looking for spending changes that might affect credit limits, they’ll observe from their data that Jennifer is spending a lot less at the Banana Republic and a lot more at the dollar store. That means she’s got a different spending profile – one that signifies the potential for financial trouble.

They act in accordance to those conclusions. Given their recent problems with people defaulting on credit card debt, they take pre-emptive action and reduce her credit limit.

To Jennifer, this seems sudden and unfair – and for good reason. She’s likely not in any true financial trouble at all and is simply choosing to be a bit thrifty in these uncertain times.

What can you do to protect yourself? The truth is that Jennifer should avoid being in any kind of position where such a credit limit change has any impact at all on her. In other words, don’t be reliant on that piece of plastic. Use it as a tool instead of as something you need to have. There are, however, a few things you can do when your credit limit is unexpectedly lowered.

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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.