I would also vote in favor of “not a good idea”

Most folks here know that we’re currently farming for a living, but I used to be a mortgage lender (yes, I worked for the Evil Financial Empire back in the day). So this kind of question came up for us all the time. Here’s why I think this is a poor idea, and what you can do instead:

First, if the sole goal of your getting the credit card is to bump your credit score, it’s not quite that simple. The credit score is a compilation of many different aspects of your borrowing history over time, and simply getting one card won’t change it much, particularly while the card is still relatively new. The kinds of changes which bump folks from one “loan package” bracket to another are large enough that any one card won’t make the difference. I’d be more interested in what your current score was, and what sorts of financial events or borrowing history created the score. You didn’t mention if you had already checked your credit score, and if so, what it was. I haven’t done mortgage lending for awhile (I was most involved in the industry prior to 2005), but we’d roughly rank credit scores as follows:
-above 750 and the rest of the loan package looks good, give them the best loan package we had
-between 600-650 but the rest of the loan package looks good, give them near the best
-between 600-650 and the rest of the loan package is iffy, give them a higher interest rate
-less than 600, that loan package had better be stellar to get any loan at all. Here is where the reasons behind a credit score would start to matter. If it was a single catastrophic event, like a medical bankruptcy (ie, they went into the red because of medical issues), and that event is over and done with and they’re clawing their way back out, that was handled one way. But if the credit score shows a lifelong history of poor spending decisions and spending habits, they were given the “clean up your financial health” speech and sent on their way. So getting a credit card would only be a drop in the bucket for how we ranked that score.

Secondly, the MUCH bigger issue for us was the debt to income ratio. That ratio actually had two separate but related calculations. First, we looked at just the proposed mortgage payment, compared to total income. We wanted to see that mortgage payment less than 28% of the total income. So for instance, if your monthly income was $5000, your mortgage payment needed to be less than $1400. The higher that ratio went, the higher the interest rate went. Secondly, we also looked at ALL debt, compared to total income. Here again is where having a payment (or even a potential payment) on a credit card could sink you. We wanted to see a ratio of all debt (mortgage + any debt bills of any kind) well under 50% of the total income. So in our $5000/month example above, with a mortgage payment of $1400, you could only have another $1100 in debt. And here’s the kicker. Many lenders do not look at what your credit card payment CURRENTLY is. They look at what your credit card payment COULD be, if you maxed out the borrowed credit. This is why paying down the card every month won’t help you. We would look at what your total balance could be on that card, figure what the total payment could be, and use THAT figure to calculate your total possible debt payment. The bigger the card, the bigger that payment, regardless of whether you actually paid it off every month. Why? Because banks know that Mr. Murphy is alive and well, and that even when folks intend to pay off the balance every month, it’s all too easy to have something come along to trip up that good intention and result in a balance on that card. So, getting a card with the intention of paying it down every month won’t help you at all, and could be the difference between a good loan package and a poor one.

Finally, I’d emphasize that ALL of us here had good intentions when we got our various credit cards. Yet here we are, because life happens and credit cards get away from us. They’re wily little creatures, very slippery, and they have a life of their own. You’re in a very large group of “good-intentions” folks when you say you’ll pay down the card balance every month. Real world records would indicate that a very large percentage of that well-intentioned group can’t or don’t live up to that promise. At which point the credit card shows itself for what it is, not a tool for your benefit, but a snake in your hand that is looking for ways to bite you. Let credit card payback statistics demonstrate to you that many folks start off with good intentions, but can’t maintain them. Don’t repeat their mistake.

If I were still a mortgage lender, and you came to me and said you wanted to strengthen your position to get a really good loan package at some point in the future, here’s the advice I’d give:
– pay off that $20K debt, as fast as you can
– having zero in savings will SINK any loan application you try to turn in. That single factor right there is the biggest red flag I see. Even if you came to me with a great loan package and a great credit score, that zero in savings would force me to shove your application into the higher risk category. No savings = no safety net, so anything unexpected MUST become a debt because you didn’t have the resources to pay for it from savings. Start padding that savings account as much as you can, in tandem with paying down the debt.

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