If credit was easy, then everyone would have a VantageScore or FICO score of 850. But it’s not easy, and mistakes happen. Your challenge as a consumer of credit is to be smart enough to distinguish between what’s right and what’s a mistake, so you can avoid them at all costs.
Credit Mistake No. 1: Co-Signing
No, no, no — don’t ever do it. Co-signing is one of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to protecting their credit reports and scores. When you co-sign for a credit obligation, you’re taking on responsibility for the debt just as if you were the primary borrower. Additionally, the loan or credit card for which you co-signed will almost certainly find its way onto your credit reports within a few months after the account is opened.
When you co-sign, the odds of getting burned by your generosity are disturbingly high — 40%, according to a survey performed in 2016. Point being, if you’re willing to guarantee payment on a loan or credit card for which the primary borrower couldn’t qualify on his or her own, then you better set aside funds to make the payments — because you may be called on to do so. And you can’t simply hide behind the fact that you’re “only” a co-signer, because the co-signer is just as liable as the primary borrower.
The Fix: Unfortunately, there are no easy fixes when your credit has been damaged due to co-signing gone bad. Sometimes you can ask your co-obligor to refinance or pay off the debt, but this could be a tall order unless they’re willing and able to do so.
If they can’t pay off the financial obligation or refinance the debt out of your name, then your remaining options include (a) assuming the payments yourself, (b) convincing your co-obligor to sell the asset in order to pay off the debt, or (c) in the worst circumstances, perhaps even considering bankruptcy. This is why I always advise people to just say no when it comes to co-signing.
Credit Mistake No. 2: Closing Credit Cards
Closing a credit card certainly has the potential to damage your credit scores. You will not lose credit for the age of the account once it is closed (that is a myth), but you could negatively impact what’s referred to as your “revolving utilization ratio” — basically, how much of your available credit limit you’ve used up — by closing an unused account.
Credit scoring models pay special attention to this ratio when calculating your scores. When you close an unused credit card, you can potentially cause your ratio to climb into unsavory territory, because you lose the value of the unused credit limit. The ratio itself is calculated by dividing your aggregate credit card debt by the aggregate credit limits on your open credit card accounts.
For example, let’s say you have four credit cards with a $5,000 limit on each, and your outstanding balance between all four cards is $5,000. If you close one card, your available credit limit shrinks from $20,000 to $15,000, and your utilization ratio would immediately leap from 25% to 33%.
The Fix: If your credit card account was closed due to a mistake or even your own request, you might be able to convince the credit card issuer to reopen the account. Admittedly, this solution is a long shot, but it never hurts to ask.
If your card issuer is unwilling to reopen a closed account, you could still potentially undo any credit score damage caused from a higher debt-to-limit ratio by paying off the balances on your remaining plastic. In the event that you can’t afford to simply write a big check, you may be able to mitigate your damages by asking your existing card issuers to increase the limits on your accounts.
Credit Mistake No. 3: Applying for Retail Store Credit Cards
As a rule of thumb, it’s best to apply for and open new accounts only when you really need to do so. So, when the holiday season rolls around and you agree to open a retail store credit card in order to get 15% off your transaction, that could very likely be a mistake. The mere act of applying for and opening a new retail store card could potentially drive your credit scores downward because of the new credit inquiry and the restrictive credit limits on retail cards.
Retail store credit cards are notorious for sporting high interest rates and low limits. As a result, it’s easy to over utilize a retail store card — and, as mentioned above, when your debt-to-limit ratio climbs, your credit scores generally fall.
The Fix: If you’ve already made the mistake of opening an unnecessary retail store credit card, you shouldn’t necessarily rush out to close the account — see Mistake No. 2 above. Closing the account will not undo the impact of the inquiry, and will not remove the account from your credit reports. Point being, the damage has already been done.
However, it is important to keep any retail store credit cards paid off in full each month. Revolving a balance from month to month will almost certainly damage your scores to at least some extent. Even a small $300 balance on a retail store card with a $300 limit could potentially have a significant impact (and not in a good way) on your credit scores.