Credit card issuersÂ have consumers right where they want them, lending money at high-interest ratesÂ and earning money from many different fees. Even reward cards benefit the issuers, because all the additionalÂ perksÂ and rewards they provide are covered by the increased merchant fees, which essentially means theÂ credit card companyÂ offers you extra money to incentivize you to spend, and then demands this money from the retailers.
It’s a good gig, but some consumers believe they can beat the credit card companiesÂ and one of the ways they do this is via something known asÂ credit card churning.
What isÂ Credit Card Churning?
Many reward cards offerÂ sign-up bonusesÂ to entice consumers to apply. Not only can you get regularÂ cash back, statement credit, and air miles, but you’ll often get a reward just for signing up. For instance, manyÂ rewards credit cardsÂ offer a lump sum payment to all consumers who spend a specific sum of money during the first three months.
Credit card churningÂ is about taking advantage of these bonuses, and getting maximum benefits with as little cost as possible.
“Churners” will sign up for multiple different reward cards in a short space of time, collect as many of these bonuses as they can, clear the card balance, and then reap the rewards.
DoesÂ Credit Card ChurningÂ Work?
Credit card churningÂ does work, to an extent. Reward credit cards typically don’t require you to spend that much money to receive the sign up bonus, with most bonuses activated for a spend of just $500 to $1,000 over those first three months. This is easily achievable for most credit card users, as the average spend for reward cards is over $800 a month.
If you haveÂ good credit, it’s possible to sign up to multiple credit cards, collectÂ bonus offersÂ without increasing your usual spend, and get everything from hotel stays to free flights,Â cash back,Â gift cards, statement credit, and more.
However, it’s something that manyÂ credit card companiesÂ are trying to stop, as they don’t benefit from users who collectÂ sign-up bonuses, don’t accumulate debt, and then pay off their balance in full. As a result, you may face restrictions with regards to how many bonuses you can collect within a specified timeframe.Â
What’s more, there are several things that can go wrong when you’re playing with multipleÂ new accountsÂ like this, as all information is sent to theÂ credit bureausÂ and could leave a significant mark on yourÂ credit report.
Dangers of Churning
Even if theÂ credit card companiesÂ don’t prevent you from acquiring multipleÂ new credit cards, there are several issues you could face, ones that will offset any benefits achieved from those generousÂ sign-up bonuses, including:
1. You Could be Hit with Hefty Fees
Many reward credit cards haveÂ annual fees, and these average around $95 each, with some premiumÂ rewardsÂ cardsÂ going as high as $250 and even $500. At best, these fees will reduce theÂ amount of moneyÂ you receive, at worst they will completely offset all the benefits and leave you with a negative balance.
Annual feesÂ aren’t the only fees that will reduce your profits. You may also be charged fees every time you withdraw cash, gamble, make a foreign transaction or miss a payment,
2. YourÂ Credit ScoreÂ Will Drop
Every time you apply for aÂ new credit card, you will receive aÂ hard inquiry, which will show on yourÂ credit reportÂ and reduce yourÂ FICOÂ scoreÂ by anywhere from 2 to 5 points. Rate shopping, which bundles multiple inquiries into one, doesn’t apply toÂ credit card applications, soÂ credit cardÂ churnersÂ tend to receive manyÂ hard inquiries.
AÂ new accountÂ can also reduce yourÂ credit score. 15% of your score is based on the length of your accounts while 10% is based on how manyÂ new accountsÂ you have. As soon as thatÂ credit card accountÂ opens, your average age will drop, you’ll have anotherÂ new account, and yourÂ credit scoreÂ will suffer as a result.
The damage done by aÂ new credit cardÂ isn’t as severe as you might think, but if you keep applying and adding thoseÂ new accounts, the score reduction will be noticeable. You could go fromÂ Excellent CreditÂ toÂ Good Credit, or from Good to Fair, and that makes a massive difference if you have a home loan or auto loan application on the horizon.
Your credit utilization ratio also plays a role here. This ratio is calculated by comparing your total debt to yourÂ available credit. If you have a debt of $3,000 spread across three credit cards with a totalÂ credit limitÂ of $6,000, your credit utilization ratio is 50%. The higher this score is, the more of an impact it will have on yourÂ credit score, and this is key, as credit utilization accounts for a whopping 30% of your score.
Your credit utilization ratio is actually one of the reasons yourÂ credit scoreÂ doesn’t take that big of a hit when you openÂ new cards, because you’re adding a newÂ credit limitÂ that has yet to accumulate debt, which means this ratio grows. However, if you max that card out, this ratio will take a hit, and if you then clear the debt and close it, all those initial benefits will disappear.
You can keep the card active, of course, but this is not recommended if you’re churning.
3. You’re at Risk of AccumulatingÂ Credit Card Debt
EveryÂ new cardÂ you open and every time yourÂ credit limitÂ grows, you run the risk of falling into a cycle of persistent debt. This is especially true whereÂ credit card rewardsÂ are concerned, as consumers spend much more on these cards than they do on non-reward credit cards.
Very few consumers accumulateÂ credit card debtÂ out of choice. It’s not like a loanâitâs not something they acquire because they want to make a big purchase they can’t afford. In most cases, the debt creeps up steadily. They pay it off in full every month, only to hit a rough patch. Once that happens, they miss a month and promise themselves they’ll cover everything the next month, only for it to grow bigger and bigger.
Before they realize it, they have a mass ofÂ credit card debtÂ and are stuck paying little more than the minimum every month.Â
If you start using a credit card just to accumulate rewards and you have several on the go, it’s very easy to get stuck in this cycle, at which point you’ll start paying interest and it will likely cost you more than the rewards earn you.
4. It’s Hard to Keep Track
Opening one credit card after another isn’t too difficult, providing you clear the balances in full and then close the card. However, if you’re opening several cards at once then you may lose track, in which case you could forget about balances, fees, and interest charges, and miss your chance to collectÂ airline milesÂ cash back, and other rewards.
How to Credit Churn Effectively
To credit churn effectively, look for theÂ best rewardsÂ and most generousÂ credit card offers, making sure they:
- Suit Your Needs:Â A travelÂ rewards cardÂ is useless if you don’t travel; a store card is no good if you don’t shop at that store. Look forÂ rewards programsÂ that benefit you personally, as opposed to simply focusing on the ones with the highest rates of return.
- AvoidÂ Annual Fees:Â AnÂ annual feeÂ can undo all your hard work and should, therefore, be avoided. Many cards have a $0Â annual fee, others charge $95 but waive the fee for theÂ first year. Both of these are good options forÂ credit card churning.
- Don’t Accumulate Fees:Â Understand how and why you might be charged cash advance fees and foreign transaction fees and avoid them at all costs. The fees are not as straightforward as you might think and are charged for multiple purchases.
- Plan Ahead:Â Make a note of theÂ bonus offerÂ and terms, plan ahead, and make sure you meet these terms by theÂ due datesÂ and that you cover the balance in full before interest has a chance to accumulate.
- Don’t Spend for the Sake of It:Â Finally, and most importantly, don’t spend money just to accumulate more rewards. As soon as you start increasing your spending just to earn a few extra bucks, you’ve lost. If you spend an average of $500 a month, don’t sign up for a card that requires you to spend $3,000 in the first three months, as it will encourage bad habits.Â
What Should You do if it Goes Wrong?
There are many ways thatÂ credit card churningÂ could go wrong, some more serious than others. Fortunately, there are solutions to all these problems, even forÂ cardholdersÂ who are completely new to this technique:
Spending RequirementsÂ Aren’t MetÂ
If you fail to meet the requirements of the bonus, all is not lost. Your score has taken a minor hit, but providing you followed the guidelines above, you shouldn’t have lost any money.
You now have two options: You can either clear the balance as normal and move onto your next card, taking what you have learned and trying again, or you can keep the card as a back-up or a long-term option.Â
Credit card churningÂ requires you to cycle through multiple issuers andÂ rewards programs, never sticking with a single card for more than a few months. But you need some stability as well, so if you don’t already have a credit card to use as a backup, and if that card doesn’t charge high fees or rates, keep it and use it for emergency purchases or general use.
Creditor Refuses the Application
Creditors can refuse an application for a number of reasons. If this isn’t your first experience of churning, there’s a chance they know what you’re doing and are concerned about how the card will be used. However, this is rare, and in most cases, youâll be refused because yourÂ credit scoreÂ is too low.
Many reward credit cards have a minimumÂ FICOÂ scoreÂ requirement of 670, others, including premiumÂ American ExpressÂ cards, require scores above 700. You can find more details aboutÂ credit scoreÂ requirements in theÂ fine printÂ of allÂ credit card offers.
YourÂ Credit ScoreÂ Takes a Hit
As discussed already, credit card churning can reduce yourÂ credit scoreÂ by a handful of points and the higher your score is, the more points you are likely to lose. Fortunately, all of this is reversible.
Firstly, try not to panic and focus on the bigger picture. WhileÂ new accountsÂ and credit length account for 25% of your total score,Â payment historyÂ and credit utilization account for 65%, so if you keep making payments on your accounts and don’t accumulate too muchÂ credit card debt, your score will stabilize.
You Accumulate Too Much Debt
Credit card debtÂ is really the only lasting and serious issue that can result fromÂ credit card churning. You’ll still earn benefits on a rolling balance, but your interest charges and fees will typically cost you much more than the benefits provide, and this is true even for theÂ best credit cardsÂ and the most generous reward programs.
If this happens, it’s time to putÂ credit card churningÂ on the back-burner and focus on clearing your debts instead. Sign up for aÂ balance transferÂ credit card and move your debt to a card that has a 0% APR for at least 15 months. This will give you time to assess your situation, take control of yourÂ credit history, and start chipping away at that debt.
What is Credit Card Churning? Dangers and Benefits is a post from Pocket Your Dollars.