Your credit score might be fluctuating. What to know before you freak out

Amid shifts in consumer behavior and irregularities such as credit reporting errors and inflation, vigilance is crucial.

Read more: Biden wants to change how credit scores work in America

If you’ve checked your credit score recently and were surprised by what you saw, know that you aren’t alone. Although credit score fluctuations normally occur as a result of factors such as payment history and debt level, the economic ramifications of COVID-19, combined with recent increases in consumer spending, have amplified these fluctuations for many.

As the economy has bounced back, consumers are spending significantly more on dining, travel, and major events like weddings. That’s in contrast to the shift in spending during the pandemic, largely toward online shopping, home improvement projects, and streaming services.

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If you’ve checked your credit score recently and were surprised by what you saw, know that you aren’t alone. Although credit score fluctuations normally occur as a result of factors such as payment history and debt level, the economic ramifications of COVID-19, combined with recent increases in consumer spending, have amplified these fluctuations for many.

As the economy has bounced back, consumers are spending significantly more on dining, travel, and major events like weddings. That’s in contrast to the shift in spending during the pandemic, largely toward online shopping, home improvement projects, and streaming services.

Brian Walsh, senior manager of financial planning at SoFi, says that although changing spending patterns are to be expected, consumers should remain cautious. He underscores the importance of reducing quarantine expenses before adding reopening expenses to prevent overspending and potentially racking up credit card debt. 

A slippery slope

According to a recent report by T. Rowe Price, the percentage of families carrying credit card debt has increased due to pandemic-induced financial strain. Families reporting credit card debt have risen from 43% in 2020 to 57% in 2021, which may explain why credit scores have fallen for some.

The report also found that although the pandemic exacerbated the racial wealth gap, increases in credit card debt do not vary meaningfully between racial groups: 30% of Black, 38% of Hispanic, 31% of Asian, and 35% of white families reported increased credit card debt.

Walsh points out that credit utilization, or how much of a consumer’s available credit they are using, is increasing for some as they spend more. The rule of thumb is that when your credit utilization is too high, your score goes down.

“Credit utilization, or your balances divided by your limits, is a major factor in your credit score and can change quickly,” Walsh says. Even small percentage increases in monthly utilization can lead to a decline in score. Meanwhile, overspending and late payments, combined with costly interest fees, can catch up quickly with those who are less vigilant.

“As the country reopened, we saw many members change their current behavior and plan ahead for trips and events,” Walsh says. “Many times, this meant paying up front, even though they were not traveling until later in the year. It is natural to travel and go out after being cooped up inside for more than a year, but it’s important to do so with a thoughtful budget that helps prioritize these expenses.”

All of this isn’t to say that current spending trends are sure to last. Given the continued spread of variant strains of the coronavirus, another surge or further increase in breakthrough cases could prompt a return to strict social distancing and cause consumer behavior and spending to pivot on a large scale once again.

James Chalmers, certified financial planner and senior advisor at Moneta, also emphasizes the importance of staying organized and aware of what you owe. He points to a new trend that he says the “digital generation” must watch out for, which is the accessibility of buy now, pay later (BNPL) tools that allow consumers to pay off almost any online product in monthly increments. One example is AfterPay, which Square earlier this week announced plans to acquire for $29 billion.

“That can be great for a person who’s organized and knows what they’re doing,” Chalmers says of BNPL services, “but where I’m seeing folks get into trouble is when they have lots of loans and credit cards and also are disorganized.”

Chalmers highlights how easily these expenses can add up and notes that the desire for immediate gratification that’s become prevalent in our culture exacerbates disorganization, acting as a negative feedback loop of sorts.

“It’s really back to behavioral finance. People make money decisions out of emotion, and it’s so much easier to say, ‘I’m going to bite this $100 purchase off in $20 increments,’” Chalmers says. “The ease that we’ve made things in the form of apps and one-clicks and everything being tied to a credit card or your bank account, that out-of-sight, out-of-mind makes it a lot easier to spend.”

Credit cards are often used for excess spending. However, for those who plan to pay off their credit cards in a timely manner, having a higher credit utilization or splitting up payments over time isn’t necessarily a huge concern. Walsh says that the key is to balance your activities with your available cash flow, so as not to put yourself in a vulnerable financial position.

Other factors at play

Credit scores aren’t fluctuating only as a result of increased spending and debt. Brian Kelly, CEO and founder of The Points Guy, notes that right now, more people than ever are reporting errors on their credit reports, “which makes an already difficult situation even more so, because these errors are affecting credit scores.”

In fact, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s online complaint database, the number of credit reporting complaints more than doubled in 2020 compared to 2019, setting new records for each month of the year.

Some errors can be directly attributed to the pandemic and its associated federal relief program. This program granted an extension for the repayment of some loans, which, according to complaints, was not accurately reflected on borrowers’ credit reports, making the loans appear past due and bringing scores down as a result.

Other common errors were tagged as “information belongs to someone else,” and among issues with this tag, more than one in five included the phrase “identity theft.”

“Data tells us that this problem existed long before the pandemic, but has worsened over the last year,” Kelly says. 

The rise in reporting errors might also be owed in part to the fact that normally, credit reporting agencies are required to address complaints within 30 to 45 days, but the government extended this window early on in the pandemic, granting agencies more flexibility in their response time.

The current spike in reopening-induced demand has led to a (temporary, according to the Fed) period of inflation. Because inflation typically is associated with higher prices, it often leads to an increase in the demand for credit. At times like these, vigilance in spending is all the more crucial.

Kelly adds that moving forward, he expects to see more fluctuations in credit scores as people continue to spend more on big purchases such as vacations, weddings, and homes, but notes that not having a perfect credit score isn’t the end of the world.

“You can set yourself up to receive the best deals from lenders and credit card issuers with a credit score that is nowhere close to perfect,” Kelly says.