If you want to improve your credit score or get rid of credit card debt then you have probably learned the things you definitely shouldn’t pay for with a credit card, like mortgage payments, tuition, and really any sum longer than three digits.
You have probably also learned that getting rid of your credit cards altogether can hurt your score because length of credit history provides valuable points.
So you have these credit cards and you want to pay them down to $0–but you don’t want to get rid of them. Should you just sit them on a shelf?
The answer is no. Keep using them.
An Inactive Account Can Damage Your Score
Don’t run up a huge balance–keep your debt to credit limit below 30%–but do use all of your credit cards monthly for two reasons: 1) if you didn’t use your card that month, some credit card companies will consider you inactive and not report your hard-won $0 balance, and 2) if you go long enough at a $0 balance without using the card many credit card companies will close your account. Both of these instances hurt your score.
Small Charges Represent Responsibility
Those who want to know your credit score want to know that you responsibly use credit. If your account is inactive or closed it indicates irresponsible use of credit or no credit at all. Instead, carry a small balance and pay it off monthly. This proves you won’t make unwise purchases and will always pay on time.
Small charges paid off each month indicate you are less of a risk to future lenders.
Charges You Should Make to Your Credit Card
When choosing what to charge to your credit card and what to pay for with a debit card or cash, look to your budget. It is important that you are able to pay off the balance and/or always keep it below 30% of your limit. For example, instead of budgeting $300 for your car payment, label that $300 item “credit card payment” and charge your car payment to your credit card, then pay it off immediately.
Many credit cards provide incentives for purchasing certain items like gas or groceries. My bank offers one cent in cash back points for every dollar spent, so after I spend $2,000 I get $20 which I can apply to my payment or convert into gift cards. Research your credit cards to see if you can utilize similar perks.If your card offers perks for a particular item and you can pay off that item each month, charge it to your credit card.
If you are unable to pay off the balance each month, don’t charge anything carrying an interest rate to your card. This would add that interest charge to your credit card’s and end up costing you a good deal more than if you keep your card active with small purchases.
Consistent, responsible use of your credit card improves your score. Paying off that huge balance is only half the battle toward 850.
Jaren Nichols is Chief Operating Officer at ZipBooks, a Quickbooks alternative for Mac. Jaren was previously a Product Manager at Google and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.