Q: “Can keeping my credit cards at a zero balance hurt my score? My score seems to fluctuate with no real changes to my profile.”
A: There are several elements that go into answering your question, Kenya.
First, it does not hurt your credit score to pay off your balance in full every month. It would be unfair to force people to carry a balance from month-to-month and waste money on interest in order to get the best score. The proper use of credit is paying off the balance every month.
However, if you do not use a credit card for more than six months, you will not receive any points for that card. So technically, not using a card doesn’t give a negative hit to your score like a late payment does, but you won’t receive a reward for using that card either. Therefore, for max. credit points, you want to use the card every once in a while. Buying something you’d buy anyway–such as toothpaste and a tank of gas–is sufficient. Having a small balance-to-limit ratio is best for maximum points.
The most common reason for seeing a fluctuation in scores for no apparent reason is using a credit monitoring service. This is because those services are not using the actual scoring algorithm used by the credit bureaus for mortgage lenders. While those scores might be somewhat helpful, they are not to be relied on. In the mortgage business, we don’t consider them to be your real scores.
I doubt that you are having your credit report pulled by a mortgage company every few months; and if you were, I would tell you to stop doing that as it is harmful to your credit.
The bottom line is that you should take those scores with a grain of salt. When your mortgage lender pulls your credit report, your actual scores will be different anyway.
For people who need to restore or repair their credit, take a look here. The information is as relevant today as it was in 2010.