How to protect your credit score when churning rewards cards

Brady Porche
Staff Reporter
Focusing on credit scores and what consumers can do to improve them

How to protect your credit score when churning rewards cards

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Card churning can help you hoard rewards, but be careful not to drown your credit score while stockpiling those points.

A “card churner” is someone who signs up for multiple new rewards credit cards, only to cancel or toss them aside as soon as they earn and redeem their introductory bonuses.

Churning is popular among points-savvy card users who have high credit scores and the cash to meet minimum spending thresholds. Most elite rewards cards offer a boatload of bonus points if you charge up thousands of dollars within a few months, but they also require excellent credit to qualify.

When done properly, card churning can be a great strategy for maximizing your haul of perks to fund dream vacations or earn cash back.

“I am absolutely a card churner,” said Maggie Germano, a financial coach from Washington, D.C., who recently scored a 25,000-point bonus with her Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express. “I love the idea of getting free flights, hotel stays and cash just for doing my everyday spending.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with churning, but some issuers have placed limits on their cards and sign-up bonuses designed to discourage it. After all, banks can’t earn revenue from customers who never carry balances and cancel cards before paying year-two annual fees – common practices among savvy churners.

Aside from the obstacles, churners face another risk. Applying for multiple new cards can hurt your credit score if you don’t have a plan in place for paying off balances or if you unknowingly undermine your credit score. Here’s how card churning can affect your credit rating, and how you can avoid score damage while racking up rewards.

Your credit utilization may fluctuate while you churn

Each time a new card account shows up on your credit report, your available credit increases. This can help your score under one of the most important factors in FICO’s traditional scoring model – credit utilization – by lowering your overall debt-to-limit ratio.

Credit utilization matters for each card and across all cards. For example, if you have a $500 balance on one card with a $1,000 credit limit, your credit utilization is 50 percent. However, if you have another card with a $1,000 credit limit with no balance, your credit utilization across both cards is now 25 percent. The lower the utilization, the better for your credit score.

When you sign up for a card with a handsome sign-up bonus, you will likely be required to spend several thousands of dollars within a few months to bank those rewards. For example, Chase’s Sapphire Reserve and Preferred cards require you to spend $4,000 in three months to earn their 50,000-point bonuses.

Increased utilization may cancel out or reverse the credit score benefit you would receive if the new card were to appear on your credit report with a zero balance. You may also lose credit score points when you “churn out” the new rewards card. Canceling it will return your overall available credit to its prior level, potentially increasing your credit utilization if you are carrying balances on other cards.

What to do: You can keep your credit utilization to a minimum by paying off your balances in full each week or each time you spend with your card. You could even go one step further by finding out when your card issuers report your balances to the credit bureaus and pay any charges off before those dates.

How credit bureau reporting dates affects credit utilization

Even if you pay your card’s balance in full before the due date, your credit report could reflect high utilization – and potentially lower your credit score – depending on when your issuer reports the account information to the credit bureaus. This hypothetical example involves a card with a credit limit of $10,000 and a $4,000 balance.

Payment due date: The 25th of the month

Date issuer reports account information to credit bureaus: The 20th of the month

Credit limit: $10,000

Balance as of the 19th: $4,000

Reported utilization if paid in full on the 19th: 0 percent

Reported utilization if paid in full on the. 21st: 40 percent

John Polomny, an investment blogger who considers racking up rewards a “hobby,” recommends creating a spreadsheet to track your cards’ annual fees, spending thresholds and payment due dates.

Additionally, you may want to keep your old rewards credit cards instead of canceling them – just avoid racking up more debt on the old cards while you spend with newer cards. Many rewards cards have high annual fees, but there are other options besides canceling them if you don’t want to shell out extra money each year for a card you rarely if ever use.

“Most of the time you can call up the credit card company and downsize to the next level card down that does not have an annual fee or get the fee waived,” Polomny said. 

Churning cards whittles down your average age of accounts

Length of credit history accounts for 15 percent of your credit score under FICO’s formula. This scoring factor considers the average age of your accounts as well as the ages of your oldest and newest trade lines.

Adding a bunch of new accounts to your credit history while churning will lower your average account age with the addition of each new account. But you don’t have to be an “ageless wonder” of credit to earn or maintain a good score, and you can churn without hurting your score even if you’re a credit newbie.

Chad Janis, an investment banker who owns the Wall Street Minimalist travel hacking website, has an average account age of one year and three months and a credit score of 780. Last summer, he and his wife Hannah were in the midst of relocating from Utah to New York, and the couple was confident they could meet minimum spends on many different rewards cards by charging moving expenses.

Janis said his score barely changed during a three-month period in 2017 in which he opened six new accounts and closed seven. (In addition to his “churn” cards, he closed an older one he used to buy his wife’s wedding ring at 0 percent interest.)

What to do: If you’re relatively new to credit, hold on to one or two cards for a while before you start chasing new reward offers. This will help you establish a credit history long enough to avoid too much damage from signing up for multiple cards. However, you don’t have to wait several years to start scooping up signing bonuses.

“My rule is keep your age of credit above one and a half years,” Janis said. “I’ve found that anything under that kind of dings you a little bit, but I’ve never seen any impact to having an excellent credit score if it’s above a year and a half.”

"My rule is keep your age of credit above one and a half years. I've found that anything under that kind of dings you a little bit."

Inquiries pile up when you apply for many new cards

When you apply for a new credit account, the lender checks your credit report to evaluate you as a borrower – a process known as a hard inquiry.

A hard inquiry typically dings your credit score by five points or fewer, but a flurry of them over a short period can lead to a significant score drop, as it indicates that your financial situation may be in flux.

Germano said her credit score tumbled as a result of churning for the first time this past year. She discovered it after she had applied for several different rewards cards and a home loan while in the process of buying a house and planning her wedding.

“Once I officially received my mortgage, I applied for three rewards credit cards,” Germano said. “I was approved for one and denied for two. I had never in my life been denied a credit card. It’s not that my credit wasn’t good enough for the cards, it was that the credit companies noticed that I had many cards that I wasn’t using regularly.”

 

Video: Credit card reward hacks

Although her unused cards were cited as a reason for denial, Germano believes the primary factor was her flurry of hard credit pulls. She discovered her score had dropped 30 points after all the inquiries from her home loan and the new rewards credit card applications. She decided to take a break from new credit, and her score recovered after a month or two.

What to do: Instead of applying for every card that offers a big rewards bonus, focus on the ones that best suit any upcoming travel plans or specific spending needs you have. If you find yourself relentlessly riding a wave of rewards cards, take a breather every now and then.

“It shouldn’t be a constant churn,” said Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian. “It’s an occasional opportunity to take advantage of rewards that suit your needs.”

Don’t drown in debt while surfing for rewards

Card churning can be a great way to travel for free or get free cash or statement credit. But it can also be a debt trap and a credit score killer if you don’t have a plan to pay off all the charges you incur while chasing points. 

Overspending can cause your credit utilization to spike, and it can increase your chances of missing a payment – the most important factor in FICO’s scoring model. If you sign up for a card you plan to churn, resist the temptation to spend more than you need to earn its rewards bonus or to buy unnecessary items to add points to your rewards cache.

By paying off your balances in full and on time, you can keep your credit score high and be well positioned to surf reward offers the next time you’re ready to churn cards.

See related: Card issuers impose limits on rewards card churning, 5 ways to maximize card rewards earning potential



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Updated: 04-26-2018