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6 surprising things that won't hurt your credit score

By Minda Zetlin

Losing your job and emptying your bank account won't directly affect your credit score. Neither will refusing to pay your rent. In fact, you could be in prison facing murder charges, but as long as your bills were paid on time, your credit score wouldn't suffer a bit.

Of course, it's always best to pay all your bills on time (and stay out of trouble with the law). Nevertheless, there are many things that you might think would affect your credit score but don't. For example, some quick thinking can prevent a late payment from lowering your score. Here's a closer look at six items that -- perhaps surprisingly -- won't harm your credit score:

1. Changes to your income or assets. "People get concerned that if they are laid off or get part-time work, that will affect their credit score, and it doesn't, as long as they continue to pay their bills," says Becky Walzak, president of RJB Walzak Consulting, which assists financial institutions with risk management, including assessing the creditworthiness of loan applicants. Of course, losing your job can affect your ability to qualify for new credit as financial institutions review income and employment as well as credit scores. But receiving unemployment or even public assistance will not affect your credit score.

6 (surprising) things that won't hurt your credit score

2. Not paying your rent. Let's say you're withholding your rent because you're in a dispute with your landlord, or you've broken a lease. "That doesn't show up on your credit score unless your landlord takes you to court and a judgment is entered," says Kelley Long, certified public accountant and a member of the American Institute of CPAs' Financial Literacy Commission. However, since landlords typically ask for references from prospective tenants, it may affect your ability to rent another place in the future. In fact, legal trouble of any sort will not affect your credit score, as long as you continue to pay any debts you've incurred.

3. Late payment of taxes -- up to a point. "Paying your property taxes late will show up on your credit score if your county puts a lien on your home," Long says. Depending on your county's policies and practices, though, that will probably take a while. Likewise, problems with the Internal Revenue Service won't immediately show up on your credit score. "If you don't pay your taxes and then enter an agreement with the IRS, that goes on your report as another loan," she says.

4. Late payments to small vendors who don't report to the credit bureaus. In order for a debt to count toward your credit score, it needs to be reported to one of the big three credit bureaus: TransUnion, Experian or Equifax. "Small vendors typically don't report to credit bureaus, and some large companies don't either," Walzak says. Once a vendor sends your account to a collections agency, however, it typically will be reported to the credit bureaus, but since collections agencies only pay a portion of what they collect to their clients, most small vendors won't take this step in a hurry.

5. Anything your creditor agrees not to report. There's another reason creditors may not report your unpaid debt to a credit bureau: Because you asked them not to.

"Often, with mortgages, people work out modifications," Walzak says. "Then people think, 'I've got some debt relief and my car is shot,' so they go apply for a car loan and they're surprised to learn that their mortgage bank is reporting them delinquent. But it says in the mortgage agreement that if you pay anything less than the amount owed, you will be considered delinquent. So that's a question to ask when you're talking to a bank when reducing your debt or modifying your loan: 'Will you report me as delinquent?'"

People get concerned that if they are laid off or get part-time work, that will affect their credit score, and it doesn't, as long as they continue to pay their bills.

-- Becky Walzak
RJB Walzak Consulting

And, she says, you can ask a credit card company not to report you, depending on the circumstances. "If you accidentally don't send a payment, or send it late one time, you should call the credit card company, let them know, and ask them not to report it. A lot of times they won't even mark it as late. What really hurts is paying late over and over."

6. Not carrying a balance. "The question I get most often is, 'What balance do I need to carry on my credit card?'" Long says. "You don't have to carry a balance to show good credit." The confusion arises, she says, because many people understand that if they have a credit card but never use it, it won't improve their credit score. That's because a credit score is supposed to show your ability to repay debt. You can't demonstrate your ability to repay debt if you never have any to repay. But using a credit card and paying it off each month is a great way to do this. 

On the other hand, you do risk hurting your credit score if you run up high credit card balances, even if you pay them in full each month -- a strategy many people adopt in order to capture credit card rewards. Since high utilization (using most or all of your available credit) negatively affects your score, it can have a negative impact if the credit card company happens to report to the credit card bureaus on a day when your balance is high.

If you still want to chase those rewards points, though, there are strategies for avoiding this effect. "I use American Express to pay for everything and then I pay it off," Walzak says. "The closing date is the 27th of the month, and they typically report to the credit bureaus on the first of the month. So I make sure to get my payment in between the 27th and the 30th."

Remember that you don't actually have to wait till the closing date to make a payment, says Anthony Sprauve, director of communications for MyFico.com. "I use a credit card to make most purchases so as to accumulate airline miles," he says. "But I make multiple payments throughout the month."

Whatever your approach, keep in mind that a credit score is only one piece of your financial picture, and that any prospective creditor will consider many other factors, Walzak says. Someone with a less-than-perfect credit score who has extenuating circumstances may still get credit, while someone with a good credit score but a bad financial picture may not.

"I've seen so many people with good credit scores and then I look at the amount of debt they have and I think: 'These people can't manage their money,'" she says.

See related: 7 credit card myths debunked, A late payment doesn't always mean a lower credit score

Published: March 13, 2012


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