Dear Debt Adviser,
I have a question I hope you can help with. I have been working hard to pay off credit card debt and now find myself with two cards that have no debt on them. I was going to cancel the credit cards and be done with them, but a friend told me that doing so could hurt my credit rating and credit score. I need your advice. Should I close the credit card accounts so I can't use them in the future, or should I leave them open with a zero balance so as not to affect my credit score?
Congratulations on paying off your two credit cards. I hope you have gone the additional step and are managing your finances so that you are no longer charging -- unless you know that you can pay off the balance in a short period of time. It's hoped that you'll only charge what you can afford to pay off in full by your next statement so you'll never have to pay interest on a credit card bill again. After you meet the goal of paying off all your unwanted debt, your next goal should be to avoid getting into that kind of debt again. It sounds so simple, but you'd be amazed by how many people end up with large amounts of credit card debt again after working diligently to pay everything off.
Now for your question regarding closing the accounts with zero balances or leaving them open. The answer depends on what you are trying to accomplish. If you are looking to manage your credit and want to get rid of the temptation of excess credit, that is one thing; if you want to raise your score, that's another.
Your friend is right that closing the accounts may negatively affect your credit. Here are two reasons why. First, length of credit history comprises 15 percent of your FICO credit score. If the credit card accounts that you are considering closing are among your oldest credit accounts, your credit score could decrease.
Second, how much you owe makes up 30 percent of your FICO credit score. One of the elements considered in the amounts you owe is your credit available to credit used ratio, or the credit utilization ratio. Closing your zero-balance credit card accounts will reduce your available credit and increase the ratio of debt to available credit, and that would negatively affect your credit score. Say you have three credit cards. One has a $500 balance and a $2,000 credit limit. The second has a zero balance and a $3,000 limit and the third has a $1,500 balance and a $1,500 limit. In this scenario, your credit utilization ratio is 30 percent ($2,000 balance divided by $6,500 limit). By closing the second card, your credit utilization ratio goes to a much higher (and lower scoring) 57 percent ($2,000 balance divided by $3,500 limit).
That being said, if your issue is not wanting the extra credit whispering to you in your sleep, you will be better served to close the card and avoid a worse debt problem down the road. Only you know whether you can avoid using the cards if you keep the accounts open. You could always use the old credit counseling trick of placing your cards in a bowl of water and then placing the bowl in your freezer. But, we all know you can make purchases on your credit card account without having the actual card and microwaves are everywhere. Just don't keep the card numbers around where you might be tempted to use them and be sure to check the frozen statements periodically.
Because you mention that you "can't use them in the future" if the accounts are closed, my inclination is to recommend that you close the accounts. Your credit may suffer slightly in the short term until you pay down your remaining debt, but you have worked hard to pay off your debt and I'd like to see things stay that way. Closing the accounts so you do not have access to the credit may be the best way to accomplish that goal.