Working to preserve and improve your credit score is one of the most proactive things you can do in the current U.S. climate.

Yet, according to a recent survey from Bankrate, one-third (33 percent) of U.S. credit cardholders have done at least one thing since the start of the coronavirus outbreak that could potentially hurt their credit score. Since March 2020, per Bankrate’s report:

  • 17 percent of U.S. adults added to their debt
  • 12 percent paid a bill late
  • 8 percent carried a balance on their credit card with the intention of improving their credit score
  • 6 percent did not pay a bill at all
  • 3 percent canceled a card specifically to improve their credit score

Who’s potentially hurting their credit score, by generation

Baby boomer cardholders — those ages 56 to 74 — are the least likely group (24 percent) to have done something to potentially hurt their credit score compared to 43 percent of millennials (ages 24 to 39) and 39 percent of Gen Xers (ages 40 to 55).

In the same vein, a mere 14 percent of baby boomer cardholders report having added to their debt since March 2020 compared to 21 percent of millennials and 20 percent of Gen Xers. Only 9 percent of baby boomers say they paid a bill late compared to 14 percent of millennials and 17 percent of Gen Xers.

Misconceptions about credit scores

Despite cardholders admitting to these potentially harmful financial behaviors, only 13 percent report being worried their credit score would go down since COVID-19’s rapid spread throughout the United States. Additionally, less than one-third (28 percent) have checked their credit score.

This lack of concern surrounding credit scores may stem from a misunderstanding about how certain actions can positively or negatively impact one’s credit score.

Per the survey, more than 2 in 5 cardholders (44 percent) incorrectly believe that carrying a credit card balance can raise your credit score. Further:

  • 22 percent don’t know what effect carrying a credit card balance can have
  • 23 percent don’t know what effect canceling a credit card has
  • 26 percent wrongly think that canceling a credit card cannot lower your credit score
  • 28 percent wrongly think enrolling in a lender’s hardship program can lower your credit score
  • 52 percent don’t know the impact of enrolling in a lender’s hardship program

How COVID-19 has affected credit scores (and mindsets)

When asked to what extent their credit score has gotten better or worse since the initial weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, 12 percent of cardholders say their score has worsened, 16 percent don’t know, 19 percent say it’s better and 53 percent indicate it’s about the same.

Upon closer inspection, cardholders whose household income was negatively impacted by the virus are three times more likely to have concerns over their credit score (20 percent compared to 6 percent of those whose household income wasn’t negatively impacted by the virus).

Learn more: Credit card issuers offer customer assistance in response to coronavirus

A closer look: The coronavirus’ impact on household income

As for the virus’s impact on income, 49 percent of cardholders say that their household income was negatively impacted in some way – with 18 percent of this group indicating their credit score has worsened since the beginning of the U.S. outbreak.

Of that 49 percent, 47 percent potentially hurt their credit score since March 2020 compared to 20 percent of cardholders whose household income was not negatively impacted by the outbreak.

Keep your credit score intact

Ted Rossman, industry analyst at Bankrate, says that while credit card delinquency rates are currently very low by historical standards, signs point to rough waters ahead.

“The government stimulus programs were very helpful but temporary,” says Rossman. “Especially with the virus surging in many parts of the country and leading to more fears and restrictions, there’s reason to believe that delinquencies and defaults may have been delayed, not avoided.”

To get ahead of the wave, do as much as you can now to prepare your finances and, in particular, preserve and improve your credit score.

“There’s a lot of confusion surrounding credit scores,” Rossman says. “To set the record straight: Try not to carry balances, try to keep old cards open and ask your lenders for help if you’re struggling. Assistance is available but you need to ask for it.”

By practicing responsible card usage, such as that suggested by Rossman, you can help ensure your credit score remains the same or improves throughout 2020 and beyond.

“In general, you want to show a long history of making on-time payments and keeping your debts low relative to your credit limits,” Rossman says. “Staying well below your limits is one of the best ways to improve your credit score quickly.”

Spend within your limit

In line with not carrying a balance on your card month-to-month, keep your spending under 30 percent of your overall credit limit (and if you can, aim as low as 10 percent). Doing so ensures your credit utilization ratio — which makes up 30 percent of your credit score — stays within a low, healthy range and signals to lenders that you can spend responsibly.

Pay monthly bills on time

While your credit card issuer may forgive you for one late payment, multiple missed or late bill payments can seriously impact your credit score. To help stay on track and avoid late fees, debt and a lowered credit score, consider utilizing apps or other services that provide bill payment reminders, AutoPay and even budgeting tools and spend tracking.

Apps like Mint can help you do so, but many credit cards come with their own app or service that can seamlessly link to your card’s account. Certain Capital One credit cards, for example, offer Eno, a virtual “assistant” that helps keep your finances in check with personalized reminders, a text message-based question-and-answer service, security features and more.

Hold onto unused cards

According to a 2019 Bankrate survey, over 6 in 10 American cardholders have canceled a credit card, and “not getting enough use out of the card” was the second most cited reason for doing so. That same survey found just under 30 percent of cardholders don’t know what effect closing a credit card account has on one’s credit score.

Length of credit history — which includes how long a credit card has been open — makes up 15 percent of your credit score. This, coupled with the fact that credit card accounts add to your overall available credit, makes keeping old credit cards open key. Once a card is canceled, your available credit will be cut by whatever the card’s limit was, in turn potentially impacting your score.

If your unused card charges an annual fee, consider contacting your issuer for a downgrade. At most, you might need to make a handful of small purchases on your card each month to prevent your issuer from closing the account due to inactivity.

Ask your issuer for help, if needed

As the weeks and months go on, don’t hesitate to reach out to your issuer for assistance — whether it be a temporary card limit increase to make a rent payment on time or an extra few days to complete a monthly bill payment, fee-free.

Help isn’t guaranteed, but it’s worth a shot to prevent any long-lasting damage to your credit score.

Methodology commissioned YouGov Plc to conduct the survey. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1891 credit cardholders. Fieldwork was undertaken July 1-6, 2020. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards. It employed a non-probability-based sample using both quotas upfront during collection and then a weighting scheme on the back end designed and proven to provide nationally representative results.