What Happens When You Don't Use Your Credit Card

Jul 22, 2016 | 6 Comments

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Do you keep your credit cards active? Tip: Link your unused cards to a subscription each month, like Netflix or your cable bill. Image via Shutterstock

Common sense might seem to say that it’s best not to use your credit card, right? Without using a credit card, you can’t fall into credit card debt and you can avoid potentially high interest rates for your purchases.

But not using your credit card can have negative effects on your finances as well. It could prevent you from utilizing an easy method to improve your credit score. It can also lead to your card being canceled, rendering it useless to you in an emergency.

When it comes to finances, there’s a lot more to the picture than things like avoiding fees and debt. While these principles are important, it’s equally as important to understand that financial tools like credit cards can have both negative and positive effects on your financial picture. All you have to do is know how to avoid the negative and maximize the positive.

To help you do that, here’s some advice to help. Learn just what happens if you don’t use your credit card - and how you can use your credit card to improve your financial situation.

What Happens to an Unused Credit Card - and Why You Should Care

Once you have a credit card, it may seem like it’s yours forever to use if or when you might need it. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

If your credit card account goes through a long period of inactivity, your card issuer could close it without warning. There are two immediate effects this can have:

  1. You no longer have access to your credit card if you need it (and you may not find out until it’s too late if you weren’t notified of the closure)
  2. Your credit score will take a hit

The first effect is pretty clear, but you might be wondering why your credit score will take a hit. There are many factors that go into a credit score, but one of them is credit utilization.

Unused Credit Cards, Credit Utilization, and Your Credit Score

Credit utilization is the amount of money you owe versus the amount of credit available to you. For example, if you have a $10,000 credit line and you owe $1,000, then your credit utilization is 10%. If you have two credit cards, both with $5,000 limits, and you owe $1,000, then your credit utilization is 10%. Pretty simple, right?

Now look at what happens if something changes. Going back to the two $5,000 limit credit cards, if one of them gets closed, then your credit utilization suddenly jumps to 20%. Why? Because you owe $1,000 in comparison to your now $5,000 available, which brings you to a 20% utilization of your credit.

In this example, it’s not a big deal. Financial experts recommend staying at a 30% or below credit utilization rate. But if you have multiple cards and any are close to the limit, then closing any of those credit cards (regardless of the balance of that particular card) will affect your credit utilization ratio.

In other words, it can be better to keep an unused credit card open rather than to close it, at least when it comes to your credit score.

Why a Credit Card Issuer Would Want to Close Your Unused Credit Card

So why would a credit card issuer suddenly close your account? You might think they’d rather keep it open in the event that you might use it and rack up interest charges. However, if enough time goes by without activity, the issuer actually loses money on your dormant account.

How long can a card go unused before being closed? There’s no set time for all credit cards, but typically a year or more is about the maximum your unused card might stay open. And, for some good news, you’re not allowed to be charged inactivity fees on unused accounts.

Should You Close Your Card Yourself?

If you find that you’re not using one or more of your credit cards, consider the reason why. Do you prefer not to make purchases with credit cards? Do you not feel you’re getting enough incentive from your credit card to use it? Are you afraid of falling into credit card debt? Do you think an unused credit card is ripe for identity theft?

Credit Cards vs. Debit Cards

If you prefer not to make purchases with your credit cards, consider what you are using. Oftentimes, a credit card is safer to use than a debit card because, in the event that fraud happens, your credit line will be affected but the money in your bank account won’t be. This isn’t a 100% protection from fraud, but understanding which you prefer to risk (your credit line or your bank account) is important to do.

Incentives to Using a Credit Card

If you feel you’re not getting enough incentive to use your credit card, it’s probably time to get a credit card that better matches your lifestyle. There are so many rewards credit cards out there that there’s sure to be one that meets your needs.

You could look at travel rewards, cash back rewards, or rewards for everyday spending. You could see if your favorite stores, brands, or vendors offer a rewards card that you can use on any purchase. The best way to decide what’s best for you is to evaluate where you do the most spending and what types of rewards would benefit your life and your finances the most.

How to Use Credit Cards Without Falling Into Debt

If you’re afraid of falling into debt, then there are things you can do to prevent that from happening. The first thing is to always pay off a credit card balance before the end of a billing cycle. That way you avoid debt and high interest rate charges. Even better, you could make payments on your credit card from your bank account as soon as you finish making a purchase (or at the end of the day if you’re out when you make the purchase). Then you can rest assured that your balance isn’t going to grow.

How to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft

If you’re worried about identity theft, that’s something to be vigilant of regardless of your credit card usage (or lack thereof). This kind of theft can come in multiple forms: fraudulent purchases and new loans or lines of credit being opened in your name.

To protect yourself from fraudulent purchases, you should review your credit card and bank account statements every month. Make sure every purchase made was yours and dispute anything that was not done by you.

To protect yourself from new loans or lines of credit being opened in your name, review your credit report often. You can get it for free on annualcreditreport.com. Since you get one report per each credit reporting bureau for free each year (there are three), you can space them out and check one every four months. Like your transactions, make sure all loans and lines of credit are things that you’ve opened. While you’re at it, keep an eye out for errors and dispute anything that seems incorrect, fraudulent or otherwise.

You Don’t Need to Carry a Credit Card Balance

Finally, understand that you don’t need to carry a balance on your credit card to improve your score. In fact, the lower your balance, the higher your score (thanks to the focus on credit utilization in calculating your score).

Not Going to Use It? Close It

If you read all this and still decide that you’d rather not have a credit card, go ahead and close it yourself. There’s no need to wait for your issuer to realize that you’re not going to use it. This, like all financial decisions, should be made mindfully. And then you can take action as you see fit for your finances.

How You Can Use a Credit Card to Improve Your Financial Picture

If you always pay off your credit card balances and therefore avoid accruing credit card debt, then there are many ways you can use credit cards to improve your financial picture.

Credit Cards Offer Flexibility

If you have one credit card, then you can utilize it for emergencies if you need to. They can also be more useful when making purchases online if you don’t feel comfortable using your debit card.

If you have multiple credit cards, you’ll have more flexibility as sometimes vendors will pick and choose what types of credit cards they’ll accept.

Multiple Credit Cards Offer Multiple Rewards

Choosing one credit card with the best rewards for you can help you earn money off of your everyday purchases. But if you use multiple cards, you may be able to maximize your rewards. For example, if you’re a frequent traveler who also has a long commute to work, you can use a travel rewards credit card for all purchases but gas. Then you can use a gas rewards credit card for the gas you use on your long commute. You’ll end up with more rewards for the things you love while doing the things you already had to do.

Multiple Credit Cards (or a Higher Limit) Can Increase Your Credit Score

If you can increase your credit limit, then that’s a great way to automatically boost your credit score (see the information on credit utilization above). All you have to do is call your credit card issuer and request a credit line increase. They’ll do a quick credit check and you should have an answer right away.

If that doesn’t work, you can instead boost your score by getting another credit card. That will automatically increase the total amount of credit available to you, which will automatically decrease your credit utilization ratio - as long as you don’t increase your balance on your old card or carry a balance on your new one.

Whatever You Do, Avoid Credit Card Debt

Whether you decide to close your unused card, use it, or get a new one, the absolute best thing you can do for your financial picture is avoid credit card debt.

Credit card debt is costly (think high interest rates and difficulty in paying the debt off), it can compound more quickly than even seems possible, and it can decrease your credit score.

If you use a credit card, pay it off before the interest hits (before the end of your billing cycle). If you have credit card debt now, make a targeted plan to pay it off. And, finally, create a budget or a spending plan to make sure you’re spending your money the way you want to be, not finding out after the fact what your financial picture looks like.

At the end of the day, every financial tool (credit card and otherwise) is only as useful as you make it. Stay mindful and make a plan and you’ll be sure to create the financial picture you want.

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SimonMBT
Friday, 19 Sep 2014 2:29 PM
<p>Andrew, your credit typically drops a little when you apply for a new credit card because it triggers a hard credit inquiry and your average age of accounts will drop. Over time, the average age will improve while your increased total credit limits will reduce your debt-utilization ratio (assuming your balances don't rise drastically).</p><p>Credit scores don't actually drop due to inactivity. However, credit scores will drop if card issuers decide to reduce your credit limits and/or close your account due to inactivity.</p><p>Whether you close your account or the card issuer closes your account, credit bureaus see that the account has stopped aging (which will reduce the growth of your 'average age of accounts' = credit score increases more slowly) and the closed-card's credit limit is gone (thus increasing your debt-utilization ratio = credit score drops).</p>
Thursday, 18 Sep 2014 6:07 PM
<p>The first question is, how much did my credit go up when opening the new credit card? Depending on how much it decreases due to inactivity will determine whether or not I would keep their card. Also, what is or is there an additional hit on your credit for closing the account?</p>
Friday, 07 Mar 2014 3:35 PM
<p>Yes I have that problem of being not using my credit card without knowing that if I am not using my cc that could cause me lowering my credit score because when the credit card or when the shop sale the credit card they never explain to me any of these things about not using the cc</p>
Monday, 17 Feb 2014 2:47 AM
<p>Saks Fifth Avenue credit card got my credit score reduced by 6 points for not having a balance and not using my card in over 4 months. Im wondering if its better to close it or keep it. Will it keep hurting my score if I dont use it or will it stop reporting that?</p>
Saturday, 22 Jun 2013 5:32 PM
<p>target sent me a letter saying they will close my account in 45 days if i dont use it and lowered my credit line from 5k to $200</p>
Saturday, 13 Nov 2010 10:31 PM
<p>Have you had any issues with inactive credit cards? Yes, just yesterday I shopped at Saks Fifth Ave, forgot my card so they looked me up but the account wouldn't work. After the store calling customer service we discovered that it had been dropped out of the system due to lack of use. This was most embarrassing and probably hurt my credit score as well. Stores should alert you if they are going to cancel you out. Thanks!</p>