Email FacebookTwitterMenu burgerClose thin

What Is a Credit Limit and How Is It Determined?


Your credit limit is based on various factors, including creditworthiness, income, credit history and other financial obligations. Understanding these factors can help you maintain a healthy credit score and avoid the pitfalls of overborrowing. Here’s what you need to know.

A financial advisor can help you create a plan to maximize your finances and reach long-term goals.

What Is a Credit Limit?

A credit limit is the highest balance an individual can carry on their credit card or credit line without incurring penalties or declining transactions. It’s an integral part of the lender’s risk management strategy, ensuring that the borrower does not accumulate debt beyond their capacity to repay.

Understanding your credit limit is important for maintaining financial health and creditworthiness. It directly affects your purchasing power and the utilization ratio — the percentage of available credit that has been used. A high utilization ratio can negatively impact credit scores, signaling to potential lenders that you might be overly reliant on credit and could struggle to manage debts. Conversely, a low utilization ratio suggests prudent financial management and may improve your chances of obtaining loans with favorable terms in the future.

How a Credit Limit Works

Credit limits are not arbitrarily assigned. They are based on a thorough analysis of the borrower’s financial background. Lenders use a variety of metrics to evaluate creditworthiness, including credit scoring—a numerical expression based on an analysis of a person’s credit files. Factors such as income, employment history, and debt-to-income ratio are also considered to assess the risk associated with lending to an individual. These factors collectively provide a snapshot of the borrower’s financial health and their ability to repay the credit extended to them.

Over time, credit limits can be adjusted to reflect changes in a borrower’s financial situation. They can be increased when a borrower demonstrates responsible credit behavior, such as making payments on time and keeping balances low. This behavior signals to lenders that the borrower is a lower credit risk, which may warrant an increase in their credit limit. Periodic reviews by the lender may also lead to credit limit increases, providing the borrower with more financial flexibility. 

Credit Limit vs. Available Credit

A couple checking their available credit online.

Your credit limit is the total amount a lender has agreed to lend, while available credit is the portion of the credit limit that remains unused.

For example, if you have a credit limit of $5,000 and have made purchases totaling $1,000, your available credit would be $4,000.

Keeping track of your available credit will help you manage your debt responsibly by keeping within your credit limit and therefore avoid overspending. Monitoring your available credit will also help maintain a low credit utilization ratio, which is a key factor in calculating your credit score.

Factors That Help Determine Your Credit Limit

Financial institutions consider a variety of factors when setting a credit limit. Each factor provides insight into the borrower’s financial stability and their ability to manage and repay debt. Here are seven important factors that an institution considers when determining what your credit limit should be:

  • Credit score: Your credit score plays a significant role in determining your credit limit. Lenders use your credit score to assess your creditworthiness and determine the level of risk associated with lending to you. Generally, a higher credit score suggests responsible credit management and may result in a higher credit limit.
  • Income: Your income level is another crucial factor. Lenders consider your income to assess your ability to repay borrowed funds. Higher-income levels may lead to higher credit limits, as they indicate a greater capacity to handle debt.
  • Credit history: Your credit history reflects your past credit behavior, including your payment history, the length of your credit accounts, and your credit utilization ratio (the amount of credit you’re using compared to your total credit limit). A positive credit history with timely payments and low credit utilization can lead to a higher credit limit.
  • Debt-to-income ratio (DTI): This ratio compares your monthly debt payments to your gross monthly income. Lenders use DTI to evaluate your overall debt load and financial health. A lower DTI generally indicates that you have more disposable income to handle additional credit, potentially resulting in a higher credit limit.
  • Employment status and stability: Lenders may consider your employment status and stability when determining your credit limit. A stable job with a steady income can contribute to a higher credit limit, as it suggests a lower risk of default.
  • Existing credit lines: The credit limits of your existing credit accounts can also influence your new credit limit. If you have several open credit accounts with high limits and a good repayment history, lenders may be more inclined to offer you a higher credit limit.
  • Lender’s policies: Finally, each lender has its own underwriting criteria and policies for determining credit limits. These policies may consider industry trends, economic conditions and risk management strategies.

Bottom Line

A woman using her credit card to pay for a service.

A credit limit is set by lenders. It’s based on your creditworthiness, which plays a role in your personal finance management and future borrowing potential. Your credit limit is determined through a careful assessment of factors such as credit score, income, debt-to-income ratio and employment stability, and can be adjusted over time to reflect the borrower’s financial behavior and situation. Understanding the distinction between credit limit and available credit can help you avoid overspending and the negative repercussions that come with it. 

Tips for Financial Planning

  • Financial planning takes a number of factors into consideration. A financial advisor could help you create a plan to build wealth and improve your financial picture. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • Before heading down a new financial journey you may want to create a financial plan that can help be the roadmap for your success. However, it’s important to first understand how to build a financial plan for yourself before doing so.

Photo credit: ©, ©, © Productions