A persistent myth is that carrying a credit card balance will improve your credit score. If you’re wondering: do you have to carry a balance to build credit? The answer is no.
That being said, keeping a balance on a card can impact your credit — sometimes in negative ways. For instance, having a large balance can drive up your credit utilization rate, which impacts your credit score. And if you rack up too high of a balance on your credit card, you run the risk of starting to fall behind on payments.
What to Know About Carrying a Balance on Your Credit Card
When you carry a credit card balance, that means you did not pay off your last statement balance in full. Technically, you only have to make the minimum monthly payment by the due date to avoid a late fee. However, when you carry a balance, you’ll start to accrue interest on the unpaid amount.
Interest can add up quickly. For instance, let’s say you have a credit card balance of $5,000 and your credit card’s annual percentage rate (APR) is 24%. If you were to make monthly payments of $200, it would take you about 36 months to pay off the full amount, and you’d pay a grand sum of $2,000 in interest.
What Happens to Your Credit Score When You Carry a Balance?
Carrying a balance will cause your credit utilization to go up. Credit utilization compares your balance against your total credit limit across all of your cards, and it’s expressed as a percentage. For example, let’s say you have a balance of $1,000, and your total credit limit is $10,000. Your credit utilization would be 10%.
This matters because credit utilization is a major factor considered among popular consumer credit scoring models, such as the VantageScore and FICO, where it makes up 30% of your score. Generally, it’s advised to keep your credit utilization below 30% to avoid adverse effects to your score, though the lower, the better.
Situations in Which Carrying a Balance Isn’t Worth It
Sometimes, carrying a balance can give you a bit of breathing room to pay off a large purchase. But often, it’s not worth the potential effects on your credit score.
Your Credit Utilization Is Too High
If your credit utilization is too high because you’re carrying a large balance, it can hurt your score. Aim to pay off your credit card bill as soon as possible, rather than adding to your existing balance. That way, you’ll give your credit card a chance to bounce back.
Your Interest Rate Is High
If your balance is on a credit card with a high APR, you’ll want to think twice before carrying it. In general, credit cards tend to have higher interest rates than other types of debt, which is why credit card debt is hard to pay off. Plus, credit card interest accrues on a daily basis, so it’s easy for a balance to balloon.
You Can’t Keep Up With Payments
If you’re carrying a high balance, it’s probably best to keep your credit card balance to a minimum rather than adding to it and risking falling behind. The consequences of credit card late payment can include paying late fees, having your account sent to collections, and suffering potential impacts to your credit score.
When Will You Be Charged Interest on Your Credit Card Balance?
The majority of credit cards offer a grace period. During this time, you won’t be charged any interest. This grace period usually extends from the date your billing statement is issued to the credit card payment due date, and it’s typically at least 21 days long.
Once the grace period ends, you’ll be charged interest on your balance. Most credit card interest is compounded daily. In other words, each day interest will get charged to your account based on that day’s balance.
Advantages of Paying Off Your Credit Card on Time
Unsure of whether to pay off your credit card or keep a balance? Here’s the case for paying off your credit card on time and in full:
• Avoid late fees and other consequences: Should you miss making your credit card minimum payment by the due date, you’ll get charged a late fee. Late fees typically range from $25 to $35. Plus, late payments of more than 30 days can get reported to the credit bureaus, affecting your credit score. You could also see an increase in your credit card APR.
• Skip paying interest: Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of paying off your credit card balance in full is that you’ll avoid paying any interest. Thanks to the grace period, credit card interest only starts to accrue if you carry a remaining balance after the statement due date. Some credit cards even reward you for paying on-time. If you apply for a credit card with SoFi and get approved, for instance, you’ll get a lower APR after making 12 on-time monthly payments of at least the minimum due.
• Dodge credit card debt: Paying off your statement balance in full will get you into the habit of only charging your credit card how much you can afford to pay. Plus, you’ll avoid the possibility of debt starting to pile up if you stay on top of your payments.
• Lower your credit utilization: Another perk of paying off your credit card on time and in full is that it will lower your credit utilization rate. A lower credit utilization rate can positively affect your credit score — a rule of thumb to keep in mind if you’re working on building credit.
What Is the Best Way to Pay Off a Credit Card Balance?
The “best” way to pay off a credit card balance is whichever method works best for you and your unique financial situation. Some common ways to go about paying off a credit card balance, or making it easier to pay, include:
• Paying promptly in full: If possible, pay your credit card balance in full each month. This will prevent you from paying interest, as well as getting hit with potential late fees if you fall behind.
• Making early or multiple payments: Another option is to make an early payment. Paying off all or part of your balance before the due date lowers your credit utilization, which in turn can positively affect your credit score.
• Adjusting your payment date: Reach out to your credit card issuer to see if you can move your credit card payment due date so that it’s easier for you to to stay on time with your payments. For instance, you might set your due date for right after you usually get paid.
• Considering the debt snowball or debt avalanche payoff method: If you’re staring down a mountain of debt, consider one of two popular debt payoff strategies. With the debt snowball method, you pay off the card with the lowest balance first. Once that’s knocked out, you move to paying down the card with the next-highest balance. The debt avalanche method, on the other hand, is where you start with paying down the card with the highest interest rate. Once you get that card paid off, you focus on the card with the next highest interest rate and so on, until all of your debt is paid down.
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What to Do if You Need to Carry a Balance
Sometimes it’s just not feasible to pay down your credit card balance in a single month. If that’s your situation, here’s what to do to make sure you stay on top of your debt and can pay it off sooner rather than later:
• Make at least the minimum payment: Falling behind on your payments isn’t good for your credit score, so make sure you’re at least making the minimum payment on time. This will also allow you to avoid getting hit with any late fees, not to mention the potential danger of your credit card issuer increasing your APR or worse, your account getting sent to collections.
• Consider credit card debt consolidation: If you’re carrying a balance across a handful of high-interest credit cards, you might consider debt consolidation. With this approach, you’d effectively lump together your debts into a new loan. The potential advantages of doing this include paying it off quicker and saving in interest, depending on the terms of your loan.
• Look into a debt management plan: Another option is to work with a third-party organization to create a debt management plan. You’d then make a single monthly payment to the organization. The organization might be able to negotiate on your behalf with credit card companies for lower monthly payments or a lower interest rate. A potential downside of a debt management plan is that it might require you to close your accounts until your balances are paid off, which could affect your credit score.
• Research the option of a balance transfer: When you use a balance transfer credit card to move over your outstanding balances, you might be able to take advantage of a promotional APR that’s sometimes as low as 0%. If you can pay off your credit card before the promotional period ends, it could save you in interest fees. Note that you generally need good credit to qualify though (in other words, if you’re still establishing credit, this might not be the right option for you).
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Carrying a balance isn’t necessary to help build your credit score, and in some cases, it can hurt your score. If you need to carry a balance, make it a priority to at least make your minimum monthly payments, and aim to pay down your balance in full as soon as you can.
Not only can making your minimum payments on time help you avoid late fees, in some cases, it can reap you rewards. With the SoFi credit card, for instance, cardholders can secure a lower APR after making 12 on-time payments of at least the minimum amount due. And on top of that, cardholders can earn rewards on all eligible purchases with the SoFi credit card.
The SoFi Credit Card offers unlimited 2% cash back on all eligible purchases. There are no spending categories or reward caps to worry about.1
Should I carry a balance or pay off credit cards?
Ideally, you should aim to pay off your balance in full each month. That way, you won’t pay any interest. Plus, you’ll lower your credit utilization and improve your history of on-time payments, both of which are factors that determine your credit score.
How much of a balance is ideal for me to keep on my credit card?
The lower the balance, the better. Contrary to popular belief, carrying a balance will not help your credit, so there is no benefit in doing so. You should pay off your credit cards in full as quickly as possible. And if you do need to carry a balance, consider a balance transfer, credit card consolidation, or debt management plan.
Is it advisable to keep a zero balance on a credit card?
Yes, keeping your balance at zero will help you to build your credit or maintain a strong score. Plus, it will keep your credit usage low, and you won’t pay any interest.
What amount is too much of a balance on a credit card?
There’s no specific, one-size-fits-all amount. Rather, a credit card balance becomes too high if it brings up your credit utilization to over 30%, or if you have trouble keeping up with payments.
Photo credit: iStock/Delmaine Donson
1Members earn 2 rewards points for every dollar spent on purchases. No rewards points will be earned with respect to reversed transactions, returned purchases, or other similar transactions. When you elect to redeem rewards points into your SoFi Checking or Savings account, SoFi Money® account, SoFi Active Invest account, SoFi Credit Card account, or SoFi Personal, Private Student, or Student Loan Refinance, your rewards points will redeem at a rate of 1 cent per every point. For more details please visit the Rewards page. Brokerage and Active investing products offered through SoFi Securities LLC, member FINRA/SIPC. SoFi Securities LLC is an affiliate of SoFi Bank, N.A.
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