Credit & Debt Category
Dear Liz: Here’s a suggestion for the reader who prefers a debit card to a credit card so she will not get in debt: Use your credit card as a debit card. Every month I pay any credit card balance plus an additional amount equal to a month’s average purchases. Then I keep track of what I spend so I don’t go over that amount during the billing period. This is the same as paying the bill one month ahead. I don’t go into debt at all and still get my reward points.
Answer: Another way to accomplish the same end is to check your credit card balance every week and move that amount to a savings account. When the bill is due, you can move the money back to checking from savings and pay in full. It’s important in any case to stay on top of your balances and make sure you’re not spending more than you can pay off each month.
Dear Liz: I will be inheriting around $300,000 over the next year. My instincts are to pay down debt with this money. I have two homes and for practical reasons need to keep them. One home has a $260,000 mortgage balance at 5%. The other has a $130,000 mortgage at 4%. We have $35,000 in credit card balances. Some are telling us to invest. I think we should pay off all the credit cards and then pay down the larger mortgage by $100,000 or more. Am I on the right track?
Answer: Paying off your whopping credit card debt is a great idea. You need to figure out, though, what caused you to rack up so much debt and fix that problem. Otherwise, you’re likely to find yourself back in the hole.
Paying down a mortgage is a trickier proposition. Most people have better things to do with their money than prepay a low-rate, tax-deductible debt. Before they consider doing so, they should make sure they’re saving adequately for retirement, that all their other debt is paid off, that they have a substantial emergency fund of at least six months’ worth of expenses, and that they’re adequately insured with appropriate health, property, life and disability coverage. Those with children should think about funding a college savings plan.
If you’ve covered all these bases, then paying down and perhaps refinancing the larger mortgage makes sense.
Dear Liz: We took a home equity loan against our house to open a business in 2006. We also ran up credit card debt for the business. The business went under, and we’re struggling to pay off the loan, which is $150,000 (a $1,150 payment every month), and the credit card debt, which we got down to about $20,000 from $37,000. Is there any way to get relief from the loan since it was a legitimate business (a franchise we bought from another franchisee)? We don’t know what to do and have been taking money out of our savings to pay the debt.
Answer: Your home equity lender doesn’t care whether you spent the money on a “legitimate business” or an around-the-world cruise. The lender expects to get paid, and chances are it will, since you secured the loan with your house. Failing to pay a home equity loan can trigger a foreclosure.
If you have equity in your home, you may be able to do a cash-out refinance of your current mortgage to pay off the loan. You’d wind up with a bigger primary mortgage, but a longer payback period and a lower interest rate should reduce your total debt payments. Another option is to sell your home to pay off the debt so you can start over.
What you shouldn’t do is dip into your savings without a real strategy for resolving this debt. A session with a fee-only financial planner could help you understand your options. The planner also may suggest a consultation with a bankruptcy attorney.
Dear Liz: I’m a single mom with three kids. My mortgage is $1,700. My other monthly bills include $355 for a car loan, $755 for school tuition, $350 for utilities, $790 for credit cards, $200 for gas, $208 for braces and $235 for a 401(k) contribution. This leaves no money for food. I get no child support. How can I pay down my credit card debt? I don’t have any money for a baby sitter or I could get a second job.
Answer: The way you pay down credit card debt is by reducing expenses and increasing income to free up extra cash. If that’s not possible, you may need to consider bankruptcy, given the amount of debt you’re carrying.
If you’re paying only the minimums on your credit cards, that monthly bill indicates you have close to $40,000 in credit card debt. Since you can’t cover your basic expenses, you’re probably adding to that debt pile every month. That needs to stop.
You don’t say why you aren’t receiving child support, but if the father isn’t dead or disabled he should be helping to support his kids. Your state has an enforcement agency that can help you. Child support enforcement is often part of a state’s social services department, although it may also be offered by the state attorney general or its revenue (tax) department.
One obvious, if painful, place to trim is private school tuition. If the school can’t offer you financial aid, you should consider placing your kids in the best public school you can manage.
What you don’t want to do is trim your retirement plan contribution. You’re probably getting a company match, which is free money you’ll need to sustain yourself in retirement.
In general, your “must have” expenses — shelter, transportation, food, utilities, insurance and minimum loan payments — should equal no more than 50% of your after-tax income. If your must-haves exceed that level, it will be tough to make ends meet, particularly if you’re trying to pay off debt and save for the future.
Dear Liz: What is your opinion of debt reduction programs? I am constantly receiving mail from various companies, and I was wondering if they are legit. They claim they can reduce my debt, which sounds promising, but I am hesitant to get involved with them.
Answer: You’ve got good instincts.
Many of the companies sending out these solicitations say they can settle your debt for pennies on the dollar. What they often fail to mention is that the debt settlement process can result in your being sued by your creditors and having your credit trashed. That’s assuming they try to settle your debt at all, rather than just disappearing with any money you pay them in advance.
If you’re struggling with too much debt, you should make two appointments: one with a legitimate credit counselor (visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at http://www.nfcc.org for referrals) to see whether you qualify for a debt management program to repay your credit card debt, and another with a bankruptcy attorney (check the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org for referrals) to see whether a bankruptcy filing might be appropriate for your situation.
Dear Liz: I’m trying to transfer some credit card balances to existing accounts that are now offering 0% for 12 to 18 months. If I come close to maxing out the credit limit using one of those offers, will that affect my credit score adversely? Or, should I open up a new card, since I’ve gotten several 0% offers recently?
Answer: Using all or even most of your credit line on any revolving account can hurt your credit scores.
Although opening a new card may ding your scores a few points, it’s usually preferable to spread your debt over several accounts rather than pile it all on one card. This advice assumes you plan to use these offers to pay off your debt as rapidly as possible, rather than as an excuse to continue carrying balances.
If you can’t pay off your balances before the teaser rates expire, consider getting a three-year personal loan from your local credit union and using that to get free of debt. The interest rate you pay may be somewhat higher initially but you’ll likely save money in the long run.
Dear Liz: I need to refinance my home. My credit score has slipped a bit over the last year (still pretty good) and my wife has lost her job. I’m concerned that if we get denied, that will impact my credit score. Some have told me that inquiries from potential lenders can hurt the score but being denied doesn’t show up. What are the facts?
Answer: The credit scoring formula used by most mortgage lenders, the FICO, combines all mortgage-related inquiries made within a certain period and counts them as a single inquiry. (The period is generally 45 days.) Single inquiries typically knock less than 5 points off your scores. The scoring formula also ignores any inquiries made within the previous 30 days. That allows you to shop for a mortgage without unduly damaging your scores.
Being denied credit doesn’t knock any further points off your scores. Given your situation, though — lower income and lower scores — it would make sense to talk to a few lenders before submitting any applications so you’ll have a better idea of whether you’re wasting your time. Also, consider talking with a housing counselor approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. (You’ll find a link at http://www.hud.gov.) These counselors keep up with various refinancing programs and may be able to guide you to one that works in your situation.
Dear Liz: I’m in my early 30s and never carry cash. I charge everything on my debit card. This seems to be a topic of discussion in my office. My co-worker keeps getting his identity stolen and says that using debit cards to pay for everything wreaks havoc on your finances. He says I should use my credit card instead. I just finished paying off all the expenses that creep up when buying a house and really don’t want to start using credit cards again. I don’t think I’d be as good as keeping track of where my money goes when it’s not coming automatically out of my account. But I don’t want to end up losing it all now that identity theft is running rampant. What’s the best solution here?
Answer: What you like most about your debit card — that the charges come directly out of your checking account — is also its greatest flaw. A bad guy who gets access to your account can drain it, and you’re left fighting to get your money back.
Contrast that with fraud on a credit card: You’re not required to pay the disputed charges while the credit card issuer investigates.
That doesn’t mean you should never use a debit card, but you should avoid using it in higher-risk situations. Using a debit card for online purchases isn’t smart, because your computer could be compromised with malware and because merchants often store purchase information in less-than-secure databases.
You also shouldn’t hand your debit card to anyone who could take it out of your sight, such as a waiter at a restaurant, since that person can swipe it through a device called a skimmer to steal the card’s relevant information before handing it back to you. Gas stations and outdoor ATMs can be risky as well, since criminals can more easily install devices to swipe your information than at more protected, better supervised locations.
Even at trusted merchants, though, things can go wrong. Tampered debit card terminals at Michaels craft stores allowed thieves to access customers’ bank accounts.
Using a credit card clearly has advantages, and doesn’t have to be an invitation to debt. Most issuers allow you to set up text and email alerts that let you know when balances exceed limits you set. Apps on your smartphone can help you keep track of charges as well.
Vigilance is the key to limiting the damage caused by identity theft. You should review transactions regularly on all your credit and bank accounts, regardless of what method you choose to pay.
Finally, keep in mind that debit cards do nothing to improve your credit scores, since debit cards are not attached to credit accounts. Light but regular use of credit cards can help achieve good scores, which in turn will save you money on mortgages, auto loans, utility deposits and, in most states, insurance premiums. You don’t need to carry a balance to have good scores, so exercising a little discipline in tracking your balances and paying them in full each month can save you money.
Dear Liz: I have $40,000 in credit card debt due to home healthcare I had to provide for my mom, who lived with me for six years before she passed away in 2011. I filed a Veterans Affairs claim on her behalf but just got a VA check for $344 with no explanation about whether this was all it was going to allow. If it is, I need to file for bankruptcy. I owe $18,000 on my mortgage and $32,000 on a home equity loan I took out in 2001 to help my son get on his feet after he finished graduate school and had his first child. I also had some credit card debt from helping my brother in 2009 when he had cancer and could not work and his wife left him so he had no income. I also have $20,000 in a money market account that I call my retirement fund. Is it protected if I were to file for bankruptcy? The economic downturn caused me to have to take a $700-a-month pay cut the first of this year that will reduce my annual salary to $55,000 if there are no more cuts or layoffs. If they were to close the business completely, my Social Security benefit will be $1,900 per month, compared with $3,400 that I take home now. I have always paid my bills, but Mom’s medical expenses really have taken a toll on my finances.
Answer: Your debt exceeds your income, and few people in that situation manage to pay off what they owe. But bankruptcy isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Your home equity and your savings could be at risk. Had you actually put your money into a qualified retirement account, such as an IRA or a 401(k), it would have been protected from creditors. Just calling an account your retirement fund offers no protection whatsoever. A bankruptcy attorney familiar with the laws of your state can tell you what to expect. You can get a referral from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org.
You also need to call the VA at (877) 222-VETS, or (877) 222-8387, to find out whether you can expect any more help. The VA does offer some long-term care benefits to veterans and their spouses who qualify for the aid. The time to request help, though, was when your mother was still alive.
Which leads us to the problem of your spending money you didn’t have to help people who may well have had other options. If your mother couldn’t get VA help, she may have had assets that could have paid for assistance. If not, she might have qualified for long-term care benefits through Medicaid, the federal healthcare plan for the indigent. Your brother also may have qualified for federal or state benefits. Your son may have had a rough time getting established, but he had a degree and a working lifetime ahead of him.
That doesn’t mean you should have thrown family members to the wolves. But it’s not clear you considered any other options before turning to credit. Sites such as Benefits.gov and the Eldercare Locator at http://www.eldercare.gov could have connected you and your family to resources that might have helped. Other family members may have been able to pitch in, or the people involved may have had assets to tap. If there truly were no other options, your assistance should have come out of your current income. If you have to borrow, then you really can’t afford to help.
As it is, your generosity has left you at the threshold of retirement with little savings and big debts. Let’s hope your family is as willing to help you in your old age as you were to help them.
Dear Liz: A few years ago when buying my son his college laptop computer, I applied for the store card at a big, well-known electronics store (at the encouragement of the sales associate). I was denied. I have never been denied a credit card before. I have eight cards that are always paid off monthly, own my own home and have a satisfactory retirement income and a top credit score. By receiving the card, I would have had a substantial savings on the computer. The denial has bothered me ever since. Was this a ploy on the company’s part to deny me the savings?
Answer: That kind of bait-and-switch happens sometimes, but there may be other reasons you were denied.
When you were turned down, the company should have provided you with the name, address and phone number of the credit agency it used to evaluate you. You should have immediately requested your report from the agency to see if the information was accurate. Someone may have stolen your identity, and credit denials are often the first sign many victims have that there’s a problem.
A collections account also could have torpedoed your scores. Many people discover that a medical bill, library fine or parking ticket went unpaid only when they find the resulting collections on their credit reports.