In a NutshellIf you’ve recently noticed a drop in one or more of your credit scores, take a deep breath. This is a fairly common experience, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you did something wrong. It’s important to know that many factors contribute to your credit scores, and any one — or a combination of them — may prompt a drop. What’s key is that you understand what factor, or factors, might be impacting your scores so that you can take action.
It’s never a good feeling to see that your credit scores have dropped since you last checked. But being able to quickly identify the cause can help you take the right steps to get them back on track.
Credit scores can drop due to a variety of reasons, including late or missed payments, changes to your credit utilization rate, a change in your credit mix, closing older accounts (which may shorten your length of credit history overall), or applying for new credit accounts. And don’t forget that credit report inaccuracies due to mistakes or identity theft can also cause a dip.
Let’s look at the nine main reasons why your credit scores might have dropped, and how you can address each of them.
- Late or missed payment
- Derogatory mark on your credit reports
- Change in credit utilization rate
- Reduced credit limit
- You closed a credit card
- You paid off a loan
- You’ve recently opened, or applied for, multiple lines of credit
- Mistake on your credit reports
- You were the victim of identity theft
1. Late or missed payment
Payment history is a critical component of credit scores. In fact, FICO® says that it’s the most important factor in its scoring model, accounting for 35% of it.
If you were only a few days late on a payment, it’s unlikely to show up on your credit reports. But once payments are more than 30 days late, card issuers will report them as delinquent to the credit bureaus. If this happens to you, you can expect your credit scores to take a hit. And if the payment is reported as being 60 or 90 days late, your credit scores could fall even further.
Keeping track of payments can be difficult, especially if you have multiple credit cards and loans. If you’re worried about bills getting lost in the mail pile, enrolling in automatic payments could be a smart move.
2. Derogatory mark on your credit reports
Derogatory marks on your credit reports indicate that you didn’t pay a loan as agreed in some way. Here are a few reasons why your bank or credit issuer may have placed a derogatory item on your credit report.
- Late payment
- An account in collections (or charge-off)
- Tax lien
Unlike hard credit inquiries, derogatory marks don’t fall off your credit reports in two years. Instead, they’ll typically remain on your reports for seven to 10 years.
That means your credit scores could be negatively affected by a derogatory mark for close to a decade. But the good news is that the effect of a derogatory mark goes down over time.
Additionally, you may be able to get certain derogatory remarks taken off your credit reports. If you see a derogatory remark on a report, first verify that it’s legitimate. If it’s not, contact the credit bureaus to dispute it. If you’re a Credit Karma member, you can use our free Direct DisputeTM feature to help dispute the error.
3. Change in credit utilization rate
Your credit utilization rate (how much of your available credit you use) is another important factor in determining credit scores. VantageScore says that it’s “extremely influential,” and FICO® says that it accounts for 30% of your overall score.
If you spent more than usual last month (because of a large purchase, family vacation or other reason), it will increase your credit utilization rate. How far will your scores drop because of it? The effect will vary, depending on how much your ratio of credit used versus available credit went up. To keep your credit scores steady, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, recommends that consumers keep their credit utilization rate below 30%.
Imagine that you have a $10,000 credit limit, of which you typically only use $1,500 (15% credit utilization rate). If your spending one month increases to $2,500, your utilization ratio will still be solid overall at 25%. But if your spending suddenly increased to $5,000 (50% credit utilization rate), your scores could start showing a decline.
4. Reduced credit limit
Why can a lower credit limit cause your credit scores to drop? Because your credit utilization rate will go up even if your spending stays exactly the same.
Consider this example. You typically spend $1,500 of your $7,000 credit limit for about a 20% credit utilization rate. That’s good. But then imagine that your credit limit is reduced to $5,000. In that case, your credit utilization rate would instantly jump to 30%.
If your credit scores take a hit after a credit limit reduction, take a close look at your utilization rate. You may need to reduce your credit card spending to improve your scores.
Alternatively, you may be able to look at opening a balance transfer credit card. This might be helpful on two fronts: It may help increase your overall credit limit, which in turn helps to lower your credit utilization rate. Additionally, if you qualify for a 0% introductory rate, you may be able to pay off your balance faster.
5. You closed a credit card
There are multiple reasons why closing a credit card can cause your credit scores to drop. First, when you eliminate a credit card, it reduces your available credit. So, if you don’t reduce your spending in kind, your credit utilization ratio will go up.
The second reason closing a credit card could hurt your credit scores would be if it hurts the average length of your credit history. The older an account, the more it could affect your average account age when you close it. Before you close your oldest credit accounts, consider whether it’s absolutely necessary.
6. You paid off a loan
Wait — paying something off can cause your credit scores to drop? While it may seem illogical, the answer is yes.
One reason that paying off a loan can have a negative effect on your credit scores is that it could change your credit mix. In general, having a healthy mix of revolving credit (like credit cards) and installment loans (like mortgages and auto loans) is good for your credit scores.
But this doesn’t mean that you should avoid paying off your loans only for the sake of your credit scores. You can still build strong scores without having one of each type of credit.
7. You’ve recently opened, or applied for, multiple lines of credit
When you open several credit accounts in a short period of time, you represent more of a risk to lenders. For this reason, your credit scores may drop if you’ve had several hard credit inquiries placed on your credit reports recently.
It’s important to point out that checking or monitoring your credit with tools like Credit Karma doesn’t affect your scores because it only results in a soft credit inquiry.
If you’re rate shopping, FICO® recommends that you do so in a short period of time. For example, if you’re shopping for a mortgage or auto loan within a 30-day period, the credit bureaus will typically group the inquiries together. But if you’re considering applying for a credit card, keep in mind that you’ll get a ding on your credit reports for each credit card you apply for, no matter how close those hard inquiries are over a matter of days. So be sure to only apply for credit cards that you truly need.
8. Mistake on your credit reports
So far we’ve assumed that your credit scores dropped because of accurate information on your credit reports. But what if that’s not the case?
Lenders can make mistakes too. That’s why it’s important to check your credit reports to keep an eye out for errors. The CFPB says that credit report inaccuracies are one of the most common issues it deals with each day.
If you find a mistake on your credit reports, you have the right to dispute it with the credit bureaus and with the reporting lender. Companies are required to investigate the dispute free of charge and promptly correct errors that are confirmed.
9. You were the victim of identity theft
Finally, let’s address what might be the most frightening reason for a drop in credit scores: Someone could have stolen your identity and applied for (and opened) credit accounts in your name.
If you discover that an impostor is using your identity, don’t panic. There are actions you can take to help reverse the damage it may have caused to your credit scores.
But how do you spot identity theft in the first place? One step to consider is credit monitoring. Keeping a close eye on your credit scores and credit reports may help you catch suspicious activity faster than if you’re not regularly monitoring your accounts. You’re entitled to one free credit report periodically from each of the three major consumer credit bureaus at annualcreditreport.com.
If you’ve been a victim of identity theft, you’ll likely want to make a recovery plan. Placing a fraud alert on your credit file could be a good place to begin. You only need to place the alert with one of the national credit bureaus. The other two bureaus will be automatically notified.
After you’ve added your fraud alert to your credit profile, you may want to fill out an identity theft report with the FTC. Then you can begin the process of disputing inquiries on your report if necessary.
If you find that a fraud alert isn’t doing enough to slow down the identity thieves, you may want to consider freezing your credit. A credit freeze restricts access to your credit file, making it much more difficult for fraudsters to open accounts in your name. Learn how to freeze your credit.
Seeing your credit scores drop may cause you some anxiety. But if you take the steps necessary to identify the factors that led to the decrease, you’ll often find that you can take action to get your scores back up.
Whether it’s setting up auto pay so you don’t miss a payment, disputing a derogatory remark or correcting a mistake on your credit reports, these drops can be temporary if you put the right plan in motion.