Debt To Credit Ratio: The True Impact On Your Credit Score

Posted by CreditCardGuru

Regular readers will surely know what it is. But in case you’re a newbie – first let’s do a quick overview of the debt to credit ratio definition:

In a nutshell, it’s the amount of credit you are using.

So let’s say you have a credit card with a $10,000 credit limit. On it you have a $4,000 balance. Your debt to credit would be:

4,000 ÷ 10,000 = 0.40 ratio a.k.a 40 percent utilization of your available credit

Obviously the above example was easy to figure out in your head, but for more complicated numbers you will need a calculator to figure out your debt to credit ratio.Here is the full formula to figure out more complicated scenarios:

Step One: Enter the amount of your balance
Step Two: Press “÷”
Step Three: Enter the amount of your credit limit (or in the case of a loan, the original starting amount)
Step Four: Press “=” and voila, you have just calculated your ratio

By the way, this is also known as your credit utilization ratio.

So that brings us to the question, what is a good debt to credit ratio? Is there such a thing as an ideal ratio that will magically increase your credit score?

The answer is yes and no. Here’s why…

For starters it’s important to point out that the FICO credit score formula is secret. The best anyone [myself included] can do is to make an educated guess based upon all the various clues that FICO has given over the years.

Clue #1 – Averages From “High Achievers”

If you use MyFico.com to check your score they will tell you about a category called “high achievers” which is those who have a FICO score of 760 to 850. They have said this about them:

  • On revolving credit accounts (i.e. credit cards) the average debt to credit ratio is 7 percent.
  • On installment accounts (i.e. mortgage and other loans) an average of 35% has been paid off (as in 35 percent of the original loan amount)

Understandably, the ratio on mortgages and other loans can be high (35 percent paid off = 65 percent utilization). While having installment loans on your credit record is important, the debt to credit calculation on them is largely a null issue. This is why the conversations surrounding this subject are almost always about credit cards.

Clue #2 – The Credit Utilization Brackets

Myself and many others who study credit (such as personal finance writers) frequently say you should not use more than 25 percent or 30 percent of your credit limit on a given credit card.

However if you want to be real nit-picky, a number of clues have been given which suggest the existence of brackets, so to speak, when it comes to credit utilization:

  • <10%
  • 10 – 19%
  • 20 – 29%
  • 30 – 49%
  • 50 – 84%
  • 85 – 100%

Those numbers were actually posted by a moderator on MyFICO who has 30,000 posts under their belt. While the exact bracket ranges for 10 percent and above may or may not be accurate, there is ample evidence to support that having a debt to credit of 9 percent or lower is best and falling within any bracket above that will adversely affect your score (the higher you go, the more it will hurt).

Clue #3 – FICO “Damage Points”

Back in 2009 FICO pulled the curtain back a bit on their algorithm, by releasing a list of “damage points” which are common mistakes and what their effect on your credit score will be.

While most of FICO’s damage points apply to severe offenses like foreclosure, bankruptcy, and debt settlement, there were some a few clues relating to the debt to credit ratio credit score impact, at least when it comes to maxing out a card:

  • 680 credit score with 1 maxed out credit card = 10 to 30 point drop
  • 780 credit score with 1 maxed out credit card = 25 to 45 point drop

Source: MyFICO Credit Missteps

Note: Being “maxed out” allegedly includes any ratio that falls within that estimated top bracket of 85 percent to 100 percent.

These damage points don’t tell us much, but they do confirm the fact that having too high of a balance – even if it’s only on one credit card – could negatively impact your credit score. If you currently have a high balance on an account, consider transferring it to another card.

The truth about the true impact

What is debt to credit ratio based on… individual accounts? The cumulative average of all accounts?

The answer is both. The FICO scoring will take into account the credit utilization on an individual as well as a cumulative basis. Unfortunately there’s no way to know exactly how each is weighted. Nor do we know their combined effect.

I have seen many media sources say that credit utilization makes up 30 percent of your credit score… that’s wrong and they’re not reading FICO website very carefully.

What FICO tells us is that the “amounts owed” category makes up 30 percent of your score. However, debt to credit isn’t the only thing in that category. There are other components involved.

So the truth is that credit utilization – when combined with other components – makes up 30 percent of your credit score. Kind of vague, huh? Yeah that’s the point… remember FICO guards their formula like the recipes for Coca-Cola and Colonel Sanders fried chicken.

So what’s the ideal ratio?

With all that said, we’re still left with the question: What debt to credit ratio is ideal?

Chances are, you will get a different question from each source you consult. My personal take? The answer isn’t black and white. I think the degree of impact largely depends upon how long and robust your credit history is.

For example, years ago before the recession, CreditCardForum veteran jeffysdad played the 0% arbitrage game by borrowing about $54,500 of a $55,000 credit limit on a card and putting that money into a savings account. His score? “I don’t think it’s ever been below 770 and has been as high as 800 or so over the last several years.”

Meanwhile on the other hand, there are a plethora of posts on the forum from those newer to credit, who see their credit score plummet because of a high debt to credit ratio (even if it’s just on one account).

What’s the lesson here? FICO is like Google. If you think their algorithm is straightforward and easy to decipher, think again! While there’s no denying a good ratio is low, at the end of the day how your ratio affects your credit score will be influenced by many other factors, too. The one takeaway is that the “beefier” your credit history, the less of an impact higher balances will have.

The easiest way to improve your cumulative ratio?

As mentioned, FICO analyzes the ratio on a cumulative basis (across all cards) as well as on a per account basis.

On a per-account basis, we all know the solution to decreasing the ratio: reduce a card’s balance. Of course that’s easier said than done, since you may not have the cash to do that right now.

But what about on a cumulative basis? One solution: have more credit cards. Even if you don’t use some of them often, just having those extra accounts will increase the cumulative amount of available credit you have.
Last updated June 1, 2014


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Editorial Disclosure: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of the bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

32 comments... read them below or add your own

  1. Emily May 14, 2014 at 2:52PM

    Hi, per the cumulative credit ratio; I have a credit card that I’ve had open for about 10-12 years, it has a higher credit limit (over $20k) and I never use it. It’s a rewards card, and as mentioned I never use it but I’m paying $60 a year to keep it open. Will it have a big impact on my credit if I close it and open a new rewards card that I would actual use, especially if I already have another card with a higher limit that I’ve had open just as long, probably longer?

    Thanks for the input!

  2. phil April 30, 2014 at 6:10AM

    Just got approved for a barclay card with the amount of 700.00. I spent 634.00 for a new computer which I needed for college. Thats about a 95 utilization. I know that will hurt my credit but it is a pay in full in 12 months and there would be no interest. What I was going to do is pay at least 52.00 a month for the 12 months. This being said am I hurting my chances of increasing my credit score. Any suggestion would help. Trying to build my score and credit up. Thank you.

    • Mike Williams August 30, 2014 at 8:46PM

      I did the same thing, but to my understanding the Barclay card, while being very good is still a credit card and follows that same criteria and credit guidelines. Having 12 months or so to pay it off with no interest is nice and all, but adversely affecting my credit score utilization is something I try to avoid, for me it’s simply a Credit card with a deferred interest rate and as such it will have a typical 10% utilization. BTW they give automatic increases after 7-8 months or so, they’ve tightened their criteria but usually it’s automatic as long as you show proper usage and responsible payoffs, e.g. charge and pay off or down balance before cycle ends. That said my wife had a constant 85% utilization and they still gave her a $5000 increase, each case is different but I still smh with that. Gd Luck

  3. Stanford Craner April 18, 2014 at 8:55PM

    You are able to definitely see your expertise in the perform you create. The world hopes for all the more passionate writers such as you who’re not afraid to mention how they think. On a regular basis stick to your heart.

  4. Mark April 9, 2014 at 2:46PM

    Here is my situation, my credit scores as of March 17, 2014 are 801 (Equifax), 825 (Transunion), & 805 (Experian). My debt to credit ratio on my mortgage account is 96%, from 557,500 and still owe 536,347. My installment accounts (2 car loans) debt to credit ration is 86% from $33,202 and still owne $28,444. Finally, my revolving accounts (2 credit cards) is 0% with a credit limit of $8,600 and owe $0. That gives me a total of 94% debt to credit ratio, total of $599,302 credit limit and still owe $564,791 which most of that is for my house. You probably guess it right, I live in Hawaii. So my total monthly payment amount for all accounts is $3,472.
    Now with all these informations I provided. Do you think I have a chance to get another car loan in the amount of +/- $30,000? By the way me and my wife’s gross income is between $9,500-$10,00/month.
    Please let me know what you think because I don’t want to try and apply for a car loan if I have no chance of getting approved. It would just be another hard hit on my credit score. Thank you and your help and input will be greatly appreciate it.

    • derek June 19, 2014 at 8:46PM

      Utilization on fixed loans is almost a non-issue. Its the revolving accounts where that matters. Since your revolving accounts have a zero balance, it is your monthly payments vs your monthly income that will matter.

      You have a high credit score and no revolving debt. The only thing in your way is the percentage of your monthly income that goes towards debt payments. You didn’t include that info its not possible to say yes or no.

  5. Jack February 25, 2014 at 2:12PM

    Michael, with all the banking laws coming out over the past few years, is there a regulated standard to WHEN a credit card company reports on our accounts? I have a Visa Platinum Loyalty card and to rack up points (and we do utilize them!), we charge almost everything on it… purchases, pay bills, etc. When the statement comes out, we’re around the 80-90% utilization but our savings/checking account has built up, and we always submit the PIF (paid in full) prior to the due date to avoid ANY interest.

    Good financial planning would say this is a great practice… always paying our debt in full and yet taking advantage of free rewards, but I think the crazy credit scoring system would say otherwise.

  6. Amy February 18, 2014 at 8:25PM

    How is debt to credit ratio figured with student loan installment accounts? Is the credit the original amount of the loan? That’s counter-intuitive in that the difference in the original amount of the student loan less the balance is not exactly “credit available”. I used to pay attention to debt to credit ratio on my revolving (credit card) account, but when I realised my revolving account is negligible relative to my student loan debt, and that dramatically reducing my student loan balance in the near future unrealistic, I just gave up. Education was a poor investment.

  7. Melissa K Swink February 8, 2014 at 5:51PM

    Hi Michael
    I recently applied for a travel trailer, and they said my debt to income ratio was 70% utilization. I was planning on paying off 7 credit cards with my income tax refund. So, what will that do to the 70%? Or,:are they talking about the balance of the remaining cards? Thanks!!

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  9. Robbi Crumpler December 30, 2013 at 1:18PM

    I would like to purchase a home. My scores range from 615 to 670. My husbands are less, in the upper 500′S to lower 600′S. I had my loan company pull all our debt and we got a consolidation loan. We owe about 2000.00 on it. It is payroll deducted. We plan to pay it off in Jan. 2014 when income tax comes in. We have 1 other personal loan that will be paid off in 1 yr. We have never missed or was late on a pmt.WE are never late on rent x 8 yrs 2 different landlords. We pay every utility pmt on x for 8 yrs. My question is will my credit improve drastically when it comes to paying off loan. We also paid off 2 cars since 2006. I plan on borrowing against my 401k for a down pmt of 10,000. This will leave me 5,000 left and 39,000 in my pension fund. Do u think our score will improve enough to get a house at a decent rate. We made about 59,000 last yr but my husband is getting a promotion on Jan. so our income should go up. Im also concerned that all our insurance for health and our vehicles comrs out of my check ,as well as my 403b pmt only leaving me around 800.00 a month out of 2200.00. What is your advice and what other improvements can u see us make. How long should we wait before trying to qualify? Thank You

  10. Leo November 15, 2013 at 3:57PM

    When it comes to credit scores, the way i understood about insurance companies is they take into consideration that the guy with a low credit score is more likely not trying to pay for the new tires and brakes his car might need and becomes a risk if injury. That being said, thats all a credit score really is. It’s how much good stuff compared to how much bad stuff and how severe the bad stuff is. For the people with insurance questions i highly suggest you get your free credit report not just from the 3 bureaus, but from lexis nexis as well as they will include multiple branches as well as your Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Report, or C.L.U.E. report. What most Americans don’t know is that aside from the 3 major credit bureaus (experian, equifax, and transunion) there are a multitude if agencies that report information for the various types of risk you present to a company trying to insure or loan to you. These agencies that report this info must give you what they have in their files according to the fair credit reporting act(fcra). Even debts that might of been yours can be disputed for accuracy. Coming from someone who doesn’t have the patience to cook hard boiled eggs in the morning out of impatience of 10 mins, i one day picked up a fantastic book called the road to 850. Everything you can imagine about credit is in this, most importantly are the sections of how much money your credit score can cost you ESPECIALLY on loans. I highly suggest you look up not just your 3 major bureaus but your lexis nexis as well. This might be a lot to take in but trust me, I looked this info up in June, got my 3 reports for free from annualcreditreport.com. Take it from someone who paid $1500 to have some bs credit repair company fix for me, I did more in the past 5 months by myself then he was able to do in 3 years. My credit score went from 490 to now 670 and continuing to going up. The 3 most important things to having good credit are TIME, PATIENCE, and EDUCATION. Put the time in, do the work that’s required with patience and educate yourself on the subject if credit and loans. And remember, any disputes you have always do in writing mailed from the post office certified.

    Leo

  11. josh October 18, 2013 at 9:34AM

    My debit to credit is usually a 100% by the end of the month, but I pay the balance in full each month. Does that affect my credit negatively? Or would I be better off keeping the ratio to 9-10% and pay cash for everything else? My limit is $500.00.

    • Bill November 15, 2013 at 4:15PM

      Keep your credit ratio at under 50 at absolute most 60%. If you can’t do this, next time you pay off your full balance call the card company and tell them you’d like a credit limit increase. This will increase the ratio of your utilization …..the for instance:
      400 out of a $500 credit limit utilizes 80% of your credit. You are at heavy risk for default. Ask for a credit limit increase…… :)

      The same $400 out of $1000 ….40%… You are much less of a risk to default on this and seem more responsible and in control of your finances. Dont believe me? Take out multiple credit lines, of 1000, 5000, 10000 and 20000. $36,000 of credit lines.

      Take the $1,000 card and max it out and watch how fast all your accounts dwindle down to almost nothing in credit lines and letters in the mail stating “Amount owed on accounts too high”

  12. Megan October 16, 2013 at 8:23AM

    What a helpful article; however, I have more questions. Much like Ashley from above, I have a huge school debt looming over me. My husband has an even larger amount that awaits him. We both have a bachelor’s degree and are finishing a masters (he in Project management and I in special education). We have two small children and much like Ashely, are unable to obtain credit other than small credit cards. We have most debt paid off with the exception of my cc as I ironically enough had my computer go out in the middle of a semester. As well, our two cars went out needing much repair. We applied for a loan and was denied due to the looming school debt. Ideas? Thoughts? Anything appreciated.

  13. Ashley September 18, 2013 at 12:46PM

    I recently applied for federal loans for school in the amount of 15k. I have no revolving credit and my debt to credit ratio is 100%–what do I do, please help! I have two or three small bills which rage from $100 to about $400 which I can pay off right away. I can’t really secure any credit and If i could how much would I need so that the ratio is lowered. I am still in school and the loan in deferred.

    Thanks
    Ash

  14. Chris August 9, 2013 at 10:29AM

    Man what a great article you have here. Thank you for sharing this info. I work to help people improve their credit all the time. Typically, there are more impactful ways than the Debt to Credit Ratio, but this is like icing on the cake for some of my clients who have already fixed collection, charge off, and other similar issues. I would like to comment that a FICO score is not as big a deal as it seems depending on the what someone wants to use their FICO for. If someone want to take out any type of loan thenYES!! it is always helpful to have a better FICO. I think a good follow up article would be how people (like me at one time) with bad FICOs can still get top end financial assistance. It takes work, but can be done. I always use the example that I purchsed a used truck for about $21,000 on a %3.126 interest rate with a FICO score under 500. It was not “just” my FICO..other factors played a massive portion..the loan to value of the truck, and the style of report pulled, and their are hundreds more reports than the 3 main ones everyone talks about..(my company never uses the main reports..we built our own) Still there are ways to get financing if needed…and not pay astrnomicl interestrates.

  15. Louella May 7, 2013 at 2:53PM

    I have a debt to credit ratio of .08, never had a late payment, only have 1 card with a balance (because it is 0% for 36 mo. on a home improvement) and still do not qualify for “best” insurance rate. What gives? I have 3 cards I use (I rotate each month to keep them active) and never carry over a balance. What gives?

    • Chris August 9, 2013 at 9:17AM

      Isurance is based on many factors, not just your credit socre, or credit utilization. Congrats on the awesome ability to work your credit for best results…still insurance companies use everything from your driving record, style of car, age of car, area you live in, past claim hostory (fault and no fault) amount of miles you say you drive per year, and multiple other categories. Your credit is just another way of rating you. Would someone with 10 at fault accidents but a 850 FICO get the “best” insurance rates..no. But my question is how can someone with a 450 FICO and never had a claim not qualify for “best” insurance rates…shady

  16. Toni May 7, 2013 at 11:31AM

    Hi Michael,

    Good information. My question is; we just bought a new home and have very little to no other outstanding debt or revolving accounts. It shows my ratio at 98% because we have only been in the home for maybe 6 months. Is there anything that can be done about that? It doesn’t seem quiet fair to assign a number on a new home loan account like that because it’s not like I can charge back up to the original loan amount without a total refinance.

    Thanks!

    • Chris August 9, 2013 at 9:35AM

      I agree it may not seem “fair”…granted it is the same for everyone (which leads to a fairness thought…but what about a renter, or like a car lease) Technically, your credit to debt ratio, based on numbers, is accurate..and short of paying a lot of money off your home it would not reduce for a long time. As someone who extend credit I see this all the time. That is why lending institutions have exceptions, or brackets, or whatever you want to call it for “Home Owners” For example, a 680 FICE for a Home Owner and a 720 FICO for a non-Home Owner may net the same rate for a financial product. It can depend on the product, the debt to income, and other factors…not just the FICO score itself. Typically, there is a minimum FICO and then other factors on top…makes lending simpler…(not always better) Another example, say you want to buy another home, and keep the one you have. You may not qualify for the best rate because the combination of your FICO, DTI ratio, etc. do not fit the structure of the loan..basically it would be a higher risk than if you were selling your current home, and buying the new one. I see this a lot with home owners wanting to buy investment property to rent out…the DTI becomes a large factor as rental income can be calculated at a lower percentage to qualify for a loan. Depending on what you need your FICO score to produce for you I would not worry about the home reducing your score. Even if it drops some, you can focus on other areas to improve it, and lending companies tend to love home owners. There is just as large a algorithm to qualify you for any financial product as there is for determining your FICO score.

  17. JOSE March 3, 2013 at 6:43PM

    Michael,
    I am looking at refinancing my 2 homes. 1 home is under VA Loan $166K left and the other is FHA conventional $167K left. . They are both 30 year fixed at 5%. Who would you recommend I refinance with. I have Wells Fargo for the VA Loan and Flagstar Bank with the other. Do you know anything about interest rate reduction loans?

    • ANa March 6, 2013 at 11:35PM

      I a senior mortgage consultant and I can tell you a lot about an IRRRL which is the VA interest reduction loan. I have done several in past couple of months.
      For your VA loan, you definetly want to use the IRRRL. Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loan is the best loan out there. You will have very minimal closing cost and the closing cost can be added to your loan if you desire. Now, Wells Fargo might require an apprisal report to make sure you are at 100%ltv or they might not. The actual Va guidelines do not require an appraisal but most lender have additional guidelines due to investors’requirement so make sure to check on that. Other than that, IRRRL is the best loan you can possible on your current VA loan

      On the FHA loan,you want to go with FHA Streamline. This is also a wonderful product but nothing compares to VA. Minimal closing cost since lender uses the rebate of the interest rate to pay for the closing cost. The higher the rate, the less money you will end up bring to the table. Very inportant- if you got your FHA loan on May 31 2009 or prior , your current MIP will not go up. NOW if your FHA loan was obtain after May 31,2009, your MIP will go up
      Right now, the MIP factor is 1.25% but starting April 1 2013, it will go up to 1.35% …..so make sure to watch for the MIP!!! Take Care

  18. JULIANN January 15, 2013 at 12:14PM

    Hello, my debt to ratio for installment is 98% mostly due to student loans. What does that mean? I own close to $60,000 in student loans. Overall, my credit score is very poor because I had some things that went into collections. What do you think I should do?

    • Chris August 9, 2013 at 9:53AM

      I would advise you to focus on the collection items. That is where you can make up ground and improve your FICO the easiest and fastest. Collection items are like little black eyes on your report. They can be for very small amounts and the term “collections” (whooooohooooo – ghostly sound and wiggly finger) can have a dramatic impact. BUT..there is a positive spin I can put on it too..an account in collection it typically a debt that has been written off by the original lender..basically it’s just a slip of paper saying you owe money. A collection agency bought the “right to collect your debt” and is more than willing to let you pay it off for a heavily reduced amount. For example, if you owe $10,000 in collection items, there is a great chance you can pay them all off for an average of about 40%. The catch is you have to pay the %40 in one lump sum. I have used this tactic with many people in my line of work. It’s almost fun for me..not for everyone. Typically collection agencies are as helpful as used car salesman, but the fact remains they need to collect to make anything. I know the collection agency bought your debt for pennies on the dollar..and that is ammunition for you. You can negotiate all you want on these accounts..pay a little as possible…but always ask for documentation that states you are settling the account…not just making a payment. A settlement in full (SIF) letter is good confirmation. Also, depending on what state you live in the collection accounts can be removed after time. There are specific rules to it all that more favors the collection agency, but are like a little trump card if you can get through the details of it. For example, one of my clients had not spoken to her creditors in 4+ years..turns out in her state that was the time frame needed where the debt she owed could no longer turn into a law suit against her..known as a statue of limitation…know this time had passed we were able to use this as more ammunition and settle her debts for 15% of her total accrued amount…a few months later her FICO started climbing…these results are not as typical if the debt is not as aged.

    • Lisa September 27, 2013 at 1:55PM

      Julianne,

      I am in the same boat,. Considering it has been some time I would like to talk to you personally. It’s nice to know I am not the only one and am having a hard time finding answers.

  19. Jennifer September 20, 2012 at 7:53AM

    Hi Michael – I have some paid off debts (paid off well over four years ago) that’s being calculated into my balance in the DTC ratio and it’s jacking my ratio sky high. Without it, my DTC is much lower. Shouldn’t that balance be current debts and not ones that are paid off? Thanks!

  20. Matthew September 14, 2012 at 10:39AM

    Hi Michael – I am working on improving my credit score which is currently at 607. I have revolving credit limit of $10,900.00 with a balance of $5,000.00,so based on my understanding my credit to debt ratio is 50 percent. I plan to make a payment of $3,000.00 towards the balance to reduce the debt down to 2k. My question is do you have any idea how many points will be added to my score by doing this and will getting a secured credit card boost my score as well?

    Thanks
    Matt

  21. Collin September 4, 2012 at 3:53PM

    Hi Michael,
    Very informative article. I learned about this the hard way, when my credit plunged 85 points over the last year from 730 to 645. Since I paid off my car and other old debts, I only have one credit card open, which I filled up during 9 months of unemployment. This took my debit-to-credit ratio from 5% to 98% and ruined my credit rating. What I’m wondering is, if this ratio is the only blemish currently on my credit report, will paying it all off now raise my credit score back to an acceptable level immediately, or will take a long to to come back up to where it was? Thanks for any advice!

  22. Jonathan August 14, 2012 at 11:08AM

    Michael,

    Excellent article. I have a question for you. I have a card that I use to buy around $80K a month in inventory for my business. The card only has a $30k limit. What I’ve been doing is paying off the balance in full multiple times in a month. I constantly rack up charges up into the $25k range. However, I’m always paying off the card in full each month. I was curious if you think doing this would damage my credit score.

    Thanks!
    Jonathan

    • Michael August 16, 2012 at 8:20PM

      Thanks, glad you liked it! Yes, it might hurt your credit depending on (a) when you pay it each month, and (b) the date which the CC company reports your account each month. Often times they report your statement balance, so if that happened with your card, it would should $25k out of $30k being used. With that type of spending and history, I’m surprised they won’t raise your limit?

      • jonathan August 17, 2012 at 1:17AM

        Thanks Michael! I don’t know why they won’t raise it. I’ve gradually gone from 12K up to 30K in the past 6 months though. I constantly have to request that they raise it.

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