Does carrying a credit card balance help your credit score?

By Adam Jusko,,

You do NOT need to carry a credit card balance from month to month to help your credit score. This is a myth that has led to many people paying high interest on card purchases that should have been fully paid off.

If you are trying to build a good credit history, you may hear that carrying a balance is helpful because it shows you use your credit cards but also shows you don’t use them too much. While there is a certain truth there, the reality is that credit card companies will know that you are using your credit cards even when you pay your bill in full.

Credit Utilization: Why It Matters (And How It’s Often Misunderstood)

Credit utilization can be an important factor in raising your credit score. Credit utilization — sometimes called debt-to-credit ratio — is the percentage of the credit limit on your credit cards that you are actually using. For example, if you have a $10,000 credit limit on a credit card (or cards) and you have a total balance of $1000, your credit utilization ratio is 10%.

While we advise keeping that ratio low — under 30% at least, but under 10% or even 5% if you want to be aggressive in building your score — some people worry that fully paying off their credit cards will put their utilization at 0% and not show up as a positive on their credit reports. This worry leads to the idea that you should carry a balance from month to month to show that you are using credit wisely.

But it’s wrong. (Or, at the very least, it’s unnecessary.)

Pay Your Cards Off In Full!

So, let’s be clear: carrying a small balance on your credit cards from month to month does NOT help your credit score any more than paying your cards off in full. It is NOT necessary to pay interest in order to build your credit score. Pay off your credit cards completely each month. If you carry a balance, you are paying good money for no extra benefit.

Why There May Be Confusion

Now that you know to never leave a balance on your credit card from month to month, let’s look at where this myth comes from. While you will not be rewarded for carrying a balance on your credit cards from month to month, you WILL be rewarded for actually using your credit cards and keeping a small balance DURING the month.

How can credit card companies know if you can handle credit if you never use the cards you have? They can’t. Having a credit card that you never use may give you 0% credit utilization and a $0 balance, but it doesn’t demonstrate that you can handle credit, because you’re not actually using that credit. So if you want to improve your credit history, you do need to use your cards at least a little bit. This shows you can use the cards without overdoing it. However, when you get your bill, you still want to pay off the complete balance.

Credit Utilization Is Reported BEFORE Your Due Date, So No Need To Worry

In general, your credit usage is reported to the major credit bureaus at the end of a billing cycle, BEFORE you’ve even been billed. It may also be reported during the billing cycle, depending on the card lender. So you don’t need to carry a balance from month to month to show you’re using your card — the credit bureaus already know, they’ve already been told!

This makes sense, right? Even if you pay off your balance in full each month, lenders would want to know if you usually use just a little of your credit or almost all of it. If you have a $5000 credit limit and you spend $4500 with the card each month, then pay it off completely, you’ve still used 90% of your available credit. Lenders could look at that utilization and think you are just one mistake away from being unable to pay your bills.

On the other hand, if you have a $5000 limit and never use more than $500 of it, you appear to be less of a risk. That’s why credit utilization is reported in the way it is — to get a clearer picture of how credit is being used, even when the full bill is being paid off every month.

How To Keep Credit Utilization Low When Trying To Build Credit

Now that you know carrying a credit card balance and paying interest makes no sense, what should you do to make sure your credit utilization ratio is always low when it gets reported? Well, as mentioned already, you can charge fewer purchases in relation to your available credit, keeping that percentage below 10% or even 5%. However, if you have very low available credit and it’s difficult to keep utilization low, you also have the option to make multiple payments on your credit card each month, to guarantee that the reported balance will always make you look good and responsible.

For example, say you have a $1000 credit limit and a $300 balance. You could make a mid-month payment of $250 to get your balance back down to $50. That way, you still show a small balance and good utilization ratio when the balance is reported. Then — and we can’t be more clear about this — pay off the FULL balance when your card payment becomes officially due later in the month.

I hope you can now see that paying credit card interest is never necessary to build good credit.

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