Debt Management

Will Too Many Credit Cards Mean A Bad Credit Score?

With the holidays recently passed, it’s a fair guess that you were overrun with offers to sign up for credit cards, whether you’re at the cash register or checking your mail at home. Let’s take a look at two offers that always seem to make an appearance on a regular basis.

  • Clerk: “Hi, Would you like to open a credit card with Best Buy to save 15% today?”
  • Commercial Mail Offer: “Get 30,000 American Airlines Miles by signing up for the Citi AAdvantage Credit Card!”

We’re going to discuss how to make sense of choices like those above. What effect does opening a new credit card have on your credit rating? And what does it mean for your wallet when your credit score sags?

It might come as a shock, but to our mind the most important variable for the next year is your own readiness to take on loans. Below, we’ll go into why.

What is calculated in a FICO score calculation?

FICO uses a credit scoring system, which operates on a spectrum between 300 and 850 points. The exact calculation is not available for public knowledge, but there has been some information made available. This is the set of weighted factors that determine your FICO score:

Factor Weighting
Past Payment History 35%
Credit Utilization 30%
Length of Credit History 15%
Type of Credit Used 10%
Recent Credit Inquiries 10%

FICO focuses more on the recent past than the distant past

While the table above provides the basic picture of what goes into your FICO score, it’s also important to consider that your score is weighted towards your recent history overall, rather than the more distant past. If you’ve been making on-time payments on your credit cards for the last year or so, this can help minimize damage caused by past delinquencies. In the same vein, a pile of credit card payment notices that are a year old or more will do less harm today, but just a couple in recent months can be a big problem.

What is the impact of a new credit card on your credit?

A new credit card benefits your credit utilization since it lowers your total debt in proportion to available credit lines. On the other hand, it can decrease the duration of your credit history and increase your number of new credit inquiries. While it’s not fully clear how much each aspect of this choice will impact your score, its our opinion that this generally points to a small negative effect in the short term, while its long term effects have strong positive potential. In sum, opening a new credit card won’t have too much of an effect at all if you’ve got a score of 800 or more, but if you have a more limited credit history, this could push your score from the mid-range into “poor” and make it harder to obtain credit in the future.

What are the benefits of opening a card account?

Exercise careful judgment in how you use your credit card applications. Each airline mile is typically worth about a penny, so getting 30,000 of them by signing up for a new credit card means about $300 in real dollars. At the same time, the Best Buy 15% discount requires some very distinct math because the 15% savings probably won’t come out to be more than $300 unless you’re spending well over a thousand dollars on electronics.

Turn down all rewards credit cards that don’t offer some kind of immediate reward. The market is flooded with cards, like the Chase Freedom, that pay $100 or more for signing up, so unless you’re going to be getting some kind of incentive it’s not worth applying.

And how about the drawbacks of a lower credit score?

While most conversations about credit center around APRs and interest rates, the loan rate that a good FICO score can make available isn’t the most important thing to consider when thinking about the benefits of good credit. Even more important is how much money you plan on borrowing in the next year or so.

That is to say, if you’re going to be seeking a $45,000 home equity loan in the near future, having a good FICO score will be a much more significant factor than if you’re going to be looking for a $5,000 loan for your car. That’s because getting stuck with a higher interest rate on a smaller loan translates to a difference in interest payments that’s small enough to be negligible.

Input 1: Your FICO score and your interest rate

When seeking out a loan, your loan officer will base your interest rate off of a combination of criteria. A shorter loan duration and putting up collateral, as with a mortgage, can lower your rate. But the factor most within your control is your FICO score.

For instance, take a look at the table below, based on information from LendingClub’s average rates for a 36-month “debt consolidation” loan (note: these are not LendingClub’s actual rates, but our own estimates for illustration purposes only).

Credit Score Fico Score Interest Rate
Awesome 780+ 5.98%
Excellent 750-779 6.36%
Really Good 714-749 9.25%
Good 679-713 12.41%
Average 660-678 16.32%

Input 2: Loan Size

In terms of actual money that you’ll be paying, the most important factor is the amount you’re seeking to borrow. In the next table, you can see how a smaller loan minimizes the overall impact your FICO score has on how much your loan will cost you.

Loan Size Fico Score Interest Payment per Year FICO Score is 30 Points Higher FICO Score is 30 Points  Lower
$5,000 730 $483 Save $155/yr Pay extra $223/yr
$10,000 730 $965 Save $654/yr Pay extra $446/yr
$25,000 730 $2,413 Save $777/yr Pay extra $1,114/yr

Go for that new card if you’re not going to be seeking out any big loans in the near-to-middle future

In our opinion, opening 1-2 credit cards each year won’t have much impact on your credit score over the forthcoming year. In fact, it may raise your long-term credit score if you don’t have a very long credit history and keep the amount of credit you use at a low level.

If your future need for loans ranges from small to nonexistent, you should give some serious thought to the merits of an airline miles card. It’s likely that signing up for this type of card will net you a 30,000 mile reward, which translates to about $300 and thus ultimately cancels out much of the cost that comes from borrowing, according to our calculations. There are many rewards cards that have comparable deals.

But, if there is going to be a larger loan in your future, you should hold off on applying for a card or any other loan for around a year previous. In the context of taking out a loan over $25,000, its quite possible that whatever rewards your potential card offers to incentivize signing up will be outweighed by the increased interest rate that can come with a lower FICO score.

This post comes from the NerdWallet.com team of personal finance bloggers and experts in helping consumers find the best low APR credit cards.

Do you have too many cards?

Comments (5)

  • Personal Finance Buzz…

    Your story was featured in Personal Finance Buzz! Please visit and promote your article….

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  • Will Too Many Credit Cards Mean A Bad Credit Score?…

    It might come as a shock, but to our mind the most important variable for the next year is your own readiness to take on loans….

    Reply
  • Indeed, the more the merrier if you aren’t planning any other loans soon. If you do need another loan, though, available credit on a a credit card can “use up” the credit space you may need.

    Reply
    • that’s a great point to keep in mind

      Reply
  • Moderation is right. The store cards are not treated the same as bank credit cards, so they should be taken very carefully. Yes, it may make sense when saving 15% on that $3000 TV, but if (and only if) you have no short term plan for a larger loan.
    I have my last mortgage (5%, 7 years till over), my HELOC (2.5%, prime minus 1.5), and now treat my credit a bit like a science project. Looking see the impact of having my main card get billed with zero balance, vs high balance. If you routinely charge $2K/mo on a card with a $4K limit, it actually gains you points on your score to pay the bill in full before it’s cut. You trade the grace period for 10-15 FICO points.
    The new Vantage scoring seems more reasonable. I need to study it further.

    Reply

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