Credit & Debt Category
Dear Liz: My husband and I are in the process of refinancing our mortgage. I just received my credit report in the mail, and my score was 724. The report indicated that a delinquency resulted in my less-than-stellar score. When I went to the credit bureau site to see where the problem was, I saw that I had a $34 charge on a Visa last year. I rarely use that card, so I did not realize that I had a balance. As a result, I had a delinquent balance for five months last year. I am sick about this, as I always pay my bills on time. To think that my credit score was affected by something so insignificant is really bumming me out. Is there anything I can do to fix this?
Answer: You can try, but creditors are often reluctant to delete true negative information from your credit files. That’s why it’s so important to monitor all of your credit accounts, and to consider signing up for automatic payments so that this doesn’t happen again.
You should know that your mortgage lender won’t look at just one credit score when evaluating your application. Typically, mortgage lenders would request FICO credit scores from each of the three bureaus for both you and your husband, then use the lower of the two middle scores to determine your rate. Even if 724 did turn out to be the lowest of the six scores, you should still get a decent rate, since that’s considered a good score.
Dear Liz: My husband and I are recovering from a job loss four years ago. We used up all our savings and home equity. My husband is now employed, but we are struggling to keep ahead even with a salary of about $100,000. I was a stay-at-home mom for the first 10 years of our kids’ lives and now I work two part-time jobs to help with our expenses. We are trying to follow the 50/30/20 budget plan you recommend, but can’t seem to get our “must haves” — which are supposed to be no more than 50% of our after-tax income — down from 80% to 90%. Most of the rest goes for “wants,” such as the kids’ dance classes and soccer teams and for cellphones. We’re not saving anything although we’re trying to whittle down our credit card debt. I have tried several times to refinance our first and second mortgages and home equity line of credit but have found we don’t qualify because too much is owed on our modest three-bedroom, one-bath house, which has gone down significantly in value. We also have two car loans that are worth more than the cars, and the insurance is killing us. Amazingly enough, we have never been late on a payment. We just can’t get ahead. Did I mention that both kids need braces?
Answer: You clearly can’t afford your life, and things will only get worse if you don’t get your spending in line with your income.
Your first step should be to consult with a HUD-approved housing counselor, who can advise you of your mortgage options. You can get referrals from http://www.hud.gov. If your first mortgage is held by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, you may be able to refinance it through the federal government’s Home Affordable Refinance Program. Recent changes in the program have helped more underwater homeowners refinance. Even if you’ve been turned down by one lender, you can try with another. One way to search for HARP quotes is through Zillow’s online mortgage quote service at http://www.zillow.com/mortgage-rates/.
The Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration also have streamlined refinancing programs for their underwater loans.
Government programs usually define an “affordable” payment as one that’s 31% or less of your gross income, but that may be too high for many families to comfortably handle. Ideally, your housing costs — including mortgage, property taxes and insurance — would consume no more than about 25% of your gross (pre-tax) income.
If you exhaust your options and can’t get your mortgage payments down to an affordable level, you should consider a short sale of your home. Moving is terribly disruptive and expensive but it’s better than letting a house sink your finances.
Then take a look at your cars. The average annual cost of owning a car is $8,946, according to AAA. You can make the argument that one car is a necessity, but having two is typically more of a convenience than a “must have.” Getting rid of one could dramatically lower your insurance and transportation costs.
Since you’re underwater on both, you’ll need to look at which is cheapest to operate and which is closest to being paid off. If they’re the same, then your choice is easier — you can work toward paying that car off faster so you can sell it. Otherwise, you’ll have to weigh which loan to target first.
Another way to get your budget balanced is to make more money. That may mean asking for more hours at your jobs or looking for opportunities that pay better.
You might think breaking into a corporate database would be hard. Not so. A recent report from the Verizon RISK Team found the vast majority of incidents required minimal skills and took place in a few hours. Unfortunately, those breaches often weren’t discovered for months or even years–and it typically wasn’t the company but rather a third party that discovered a breach.
From a Credit.com post on the study:
While one in 10 were so easy the average Internet user could have caused them, another 68 percent were the result of hacking attacks using the most basic methods, requiring relatively few resources to complete. Only one breach suffered in all of 2012 required “advanced skills, significant customizations, and/or extensive resources” to complete.
That is likewise reflected in the amount of time it took to cause most data breaches, the report said. Altogether, 84 percent took hours or even minutes to perpetrate, while these incidents typically took months or even years to discover. Nearly two-thirds of all breaches took at least that long, up from just 56 percent the year before, proving that it’s actually becoming more difficult to spot breaches, as well as contain them. While most were remediated in hours or days, nearly a quarter took months.
The take-away from this is that companies aren’t doing nearly enough to protect the information they collect about you. And the sad truth is that you have little control over what goes into these databases. You can do your best to protect your identity, and still have your information breached.
You should still take steps to reduce your exposure, steps like not giving your Social Security number to companies that don’t need it and refusing to give businesses permission to share your information. You should use tough-to-hack passwords and stop sharing secrets on social media. You also should monitor your credit reports and financial accounts.
Until companies get serious about protecting your data, though, you’re still a target for identity theft.
Dear Liz: I bought my condo in 2009. I took out a loan on my 401(k) account to use for the down payment. I left my job in early 2012, and at the time didn’t have the money to pay back the loan, so the balance was treated as a distribution. I now owe the IRS $10,000 and don’t have the money to pay them, nor can I afford monthly payments beyond about $50. I can’t borrow any money from a family member or friend. My tax guy suggested (another) 401(k) loan, but I’m really reluctant to go deeper into debt. Any suggestions?
Answer: Thank you for providing a vivid example of why people should think twice before dipping into retirement funds to buy a house. Not only are you facing a steep tax bill, but the money you withdrew can’t be restored to your account, so you’re losing all the tax-deferred gains that cash could have earned over the coming decades. You can figure that every $10,000 withdrawn costs you at least $100,000 in lost future retirement funds, assuming an 8% average annual return on investment over 30 years. If you’re 40 years from retirement, the toll can be twice as large.
So it would be good, if at all possible, to leave your retirement funds alone from now on. That means you need to come up with the cash to pay what you owe, and $50 a month doesn’t cut it. To use an IRS payment plan, you’ll need to come up with about $140 a month to pay your bill off within the required 72 months.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to trim your spending so you can free up more money to pay this bill. These ways include, but aren’t limited to: ending your pay TV subscription, preparing meals at home instead of eating out, trading your smartphone for a dumber one or at least switching to a prepaid plan, selling or storing your car and using public transportation, or selling your condo and moving to a cheaper place.
When people have virtually no discretionary income left after paying bills, and they’re employed, the culprits are often their housing or transportation costs, or both. Reducing these can be painful but may be necessary if you want to get on more solid financial footing.
Dear Liz: We have four credit cards that generate airline miles, each of which has a yearly fee. We also have a Capital One card with no fee that we use for travel to avoid currency conversion fees. We pay all cards off every month. Since it is getting so hard to use miles, we are thinking of closing all but the Capital One account, which also accrues points toward air travel. I have read that closing credit cards is not a good thing to do. I am 73, my husband 79, so I doubt we will need to incur debt in the future.
Answer: You may want to preserve your good credit scores even if you don’t anticipate taking out any loans. Insurers in many states use credit information to set premiums (although not in California).
If you do still care about your scores, you could consider asking your credit card issuers if you could switch to one of their no-fee cards. The closures of your current accounts may still affect your scores, but having several open, active accounts probably will offset the damage over time.
Or you could just take your chances and close card accounts rather than pay unnecessary fees. But consider having at least one additional credit card, in case your Capital One card is compromised or lost and you need a temporary backup.
Dear Liz: I am about to begin graduate school to get my master’s degree in nursing to eventually become an advanced registered nurse practitioner. I have Googled scholarships, grants, fellowships, and am coming up empty-handed. I am fearfully looking at student loans to finance my degree (it would be about $34,000). I am appalled at the rates on federal student loans, and private school loans or just personal private loans are even worse. Are there any other options that I haven’t discovered? I don’t have any school debt to date, so this is all very daunting.
Answer: Let’s start with the good news: Your education should pay off. Advanced registered nurse practitioners earn a median of $86,625, according to the salary tracking site Payscale. That compares with a median of $55,311 for a registered nurse. There are no guarantees in education, any more than there are in life, but you should be able to recoup the cost of your education fairly quickly.
To find scholarships, you need to know where to look. One place to start is the Fastweb database, which tracks scholarships, grants and other financial aid programs. Fastweb lists the National Student Nurses Assn., the American Assn. of Colleges of Nursing and a variety of smaller programs, many of which are school-specific, publisher Mark Kantrowitz said. If you’re willing to serve in a high-need area, you also can check out HRSA Nurse Corps Scholarship (at http://www.hrsa.gov/loanscholarships/scholarships/nursing/). The ROTC also offers scholarships.
“Many employers of nurses provide signing bonuses or loan repayment assistance programs to help new nurses repay their student loans, since nurses remain in demand,” Kantrowitz noted.
You’re smart to be cautious about education debt, since too many people have overdosed on student loans. However, student loans in moderation can help you get ahead financially if you’re borrowing for the right education.
Since there’s strong demand in your field and excellent pay, you shouldn’t shy away from federal student loans, which offer fixed interest rates and a number of consumer protections, including forbearance and deferral in the event you become unemployed. You would be borrowing far less than you’re likely to make the first year after you graduate, so your payments shouldn’t be burdensome. If you decide to pursue a career in public health or work for a nonprofit, you could qualify for federal student loan forgiveness after 10 years.
Dear Liz: Help! We’ve just received devastating news from our accountant that we owe around $11,000 to the IRS and the state for 2012 taxes. The reason for the huge bill is that we cleaned out my husband’s IRA to pay for our son’s college expenses. My husband is almost 65 and working part time after being laid off, and I’m 61 with a full-time job. What is the best way to pay this bill? Here are the options I can think of: 1) Cash out my three-month emergency certificate of deposit of $12,000 that I’ve saved to cover expenses in case I get laid off. 2) Take money out of my IRA. 3) Use a credit card check that will be at zero percent for the first 12 months and then will slide to 8.9%. 4) Arrange a payment loan with the IRS. 5) Sell our house in which we have 70% equity. Which is best?
Answer: Let’s take No. 2 off the table, shall we? If you learn nothing else from this experience, it should be that tapping retirement funds can trigger a big (and often unnecessary) tax bill.
Selling your house over an $11,000 bill is overkill, so let’s eliminate that option as well. Which leads us to three remaining possibilities: Use cash, borrow from a credit card or borrow from the IRS.
Borrowing incurs costs. That zero percent credit offer almost certainly comes with a fee, which is usually 3% to 5% of the total. If you can’t pay the balance within a year, you start incurring interest charges.
The short-term rate the IRS charges for installment loans is pretty low — lately it’s been around 3% — but you also typically incur late-payment penalties. The penalty typically is one-half of 1% of the tax you owe each month or part of a month until the bill is paid in full. If you file by the return due date, that rate drops to one-quarter of 1% for any month in which an installment agreement is in effect. The maximum penalty is 25% of the tax due.
How much either option will cost you depends on how long you take to pay the bill. The cost for cashing out the CD is, by contrast, almost zero. Whatever tiny amount of interest you’re getting is far less than what borrowing would cost you. If you should get laid off before you rebuild your emergency fund, your access to cheap credit could come in handy.
Going forward, let your son pay for his college expenses and conserve what’s left of your resources for retirement.
Dear Liz: I am a junior in college, and I might have to take out a loan my senior year because of financial cuts in the state. Is it really a bad idea to take a loan for college?
Answer: No, it’s not. You don’t want to overdose on education debt, but a student loan that helps you get the right degree could be the best investment you’ll ever make.
Someone with a college degree will earn on average $2.3 million over the course of a working lifetime, which is $1 million more than the lifetime earnings of someone with just a high school diploma, according to a study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in Washington. College graduates also are more likely to stay employed. The unemployment rate for people with college degrees is about half of that for people with only high school diplomas.
Of course, you’ll want to make sure there is sufficient demand for your degree to justify the costs of your education, since all college degrees are not created equal. PayScale, a site that tracks salary information, has a report on its site called “Majors That Pay You Back” that monitors median starting and mid-career incomes for various degrees.
You’ve probably heard horror stories about people winding up with massive amounts of expensive student debt. In many cases, these scholars used private student loans, which have variable rates and lack the protections of federal student loans.
Limit how much you borrow. In general, don’t borrow more than you expect to make your first year out of school. Also, exhaust all available federal student loans before you consider a private loan. If you can work a part-time job or increase your hours to avoid a private loan, do it — but don’t work so many hours that you can’t complete your schoolwork.
A loan that helps you complete school would be far better than dropping out now, since the economic payoff from a college education requires that you actually get your degree.
Dear Liz: I’ve seen advertisements for services that promise to help you raise your credit score by the exact number of points you need to qualify for a good mortgage rate. Are these services worth the money?
Answer: There’s one thing you need to know about these services: They don’t have access to the actual FICO formula, which is proprietary. So what they’re doing is essentially guesswork.
They may suggest that you can raise your score a certain number of points in a certain time frame, but the FICO formula isn’t that predictable. Any given action can have different results, depending on the details of your individual credit reports.
Rather than pay money to a firm making such promises, use that cash to pay down any credit card debt you have. Widening the gap between your available credit and your balances can really boost your scores. Other steps you should take include paying your bills on time, disputing serious errors on your credit reports and refraining from opening or closing accounts.