Credit Scoring Category
Dear Liz: I just finished paying off my last credit card and checked my credit report as I am now separated from my wife. I found we had one joint account that she had not been paying. There are two stretches of five months each of no payment.
I immediately called up the creditor and paid off the balance and the creditor closed the account due to the lack of payments. This one account killed my credit score. I also found two old accounts on my credit report that are both still active but I have not used them for years. Both accounts are in good standing.
I was thinking that if I started using the accounts again, paying them off each month, it would boost my credit score faster. I am looking to buy a house this summer and would have an easier time with a better score. Do you think using the old accounts would help improve my score faster or do you think my score would be better if I closed those accounts?
Answer: Closing accounts can’t help your credit scores and may hurt them. You should avoid closing any credit account when you’re trying to improve your credit rating.
Your experience shows why it’s so important to separate financial accounts when you’re separating from a spouse. Failure to pay any joint account can hurt both parties’ scores. This would be true even if you were divorced and had a divorce decree making her responsible for the debt. Your creditors don’t have to pay attention to such agreements.
Lightly using a few credit cards can help you recover from missteps like this one. “Lightly” means charging 10% or less of their credit limits, and you should pay the balances in full each month, since carrying credit card debt doesn’t help your scores. You shouldn’t expect your scores to bounce back overnight, however. If you had good scores before this incident, it may take you a few years to recover completely.
Experian stopped offering FICO scores to consumers a few years ago, even though it continued to sell the scores to lenders. This refusal made it tough for consumers to know what rates they should expect from mortgage lenders, which typically take the middle of your three FICO scores (one from each bureau). You could still get your TransUnion and Equifax FICOs from MyFico.com, but not your Experian FICO.
That’s apparently about to change. Buried in a press release today was an announcement that Experian will once again “make FICO Scores available to consumers through myFICO.com and through third parties.”
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: 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’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.
Dear Liz: I have a roommate who has truly bad credit. He has been turned down from getting a checking account at banks because his mom bounced checks on his account when he was 18 (he is now 31). What is the best way to rehab his credit? He can’t get a secured credit card because he doesn’t have a checking account. Is there a way around this?
Answer: You may not be getting the full story from your roommate. If his mom misused his checking account when he was 18, it shouldn’t still be affecting his ability to establish a bank account. Reports to Chexsystems, the bureau that tells banks about people who have mishandled their bank accounts, typically remain on file for only five years.
Your roommate should first request a free annual report from Chexsystems at http://www.consumerdebit.com and dispute any errors or old information. Even if he’s still listed in Chexsystems, he could get a so-called “second chance” checking account from several major banks, including Wells Fargo, Chase and PNC Bank. Responsible use of those accounts should allow him to graduate to a regular checking account. Then he can start the process of rehabilitating his credit.
Dear Liz: I know a high balance on a credit card hurts your credit score and that it’s best to keep balances low and pay them off each month. But does the same theory hold true for installment borrowing such as auto or student loans, which obviously have a higher balance in the beginning of the loan repayment period?
Answer: Paying down installment loans will help your credit score, but typically not as dramatically as paying down balances on revolving debt such as credit cards.
The leading FICO credit scoring formula is much more sensitive to balances on revolving accounts. The wider the gap between your available credit and the amount you’re using, the better.
Dear Liz: I watched 60 Minutes last night regarding the 3 credit bureaus and was amazed at what I learned. I was hoping to spend time trying to repair our credit score, but according to the report last evening, it sounds like a total waste of time as the three credit bureaus basically are not accountable to anyone and they very rarely take action in your defense. Was this a one-sided view?
Answer: The credit bureaus would tell you yes, but the answer is way more complicated than that.
The show reported that 40 million Americans have errors on their credit reports. That’s about one in five U.S. adults covered by the credit bureau industry. About half (one in 10) have errors serious enough to hurt their credit scores.
(Update: A Federal Trade Commission report released today said one in four had at least one “potentially material error” on at least one of their three credit reports and that one in 20 consumers had significant errors on their credit reports that could cause them to pay more loans.)
That’s a pretty high error rate, but an even bigger problem is that the process to fix mistakes is almost completely automated and structured to favor the data provider (the banks, lenders and others supplying information) over the consumer. Here’s how the Ohio attorney general described it:
“The federal law says that if you believe that there is a mistake, you can go to them and they have an obligation to do a reasonable investigation. They’re not doing a reasonable investigation. They’re not doing an investigation at all.”
The show interviewed former bureau employees in Chile who confirmed what others have reported: that their jobs were to assign two-digit codes to the complaints. That’s it. Then the complaints are forwarded to the lenders and other data providers for response.
People can and do get errors fixed if the data provider acknowledges the error or simply fails to respond to the credit bureaus’ queries. If the data provider continues to insist it’s right, however, it’s pretty tough (if not impossible) to get the bureaus to step in.
That’s how people get caught in seemingly endless cycles of disputing mistakes only to have them reappear, or never disappear, from their reports.
The credit bureaus, which apparently turned down opportunities to respond on camera, now point to a study by the Policy and Economic Research Council that found 95% of consumers were satisfied with the outcome of their disputes. The study was paid for by a grant from the Consumer Data Industry Association, which represents the credit bureaus.
It’s not exactly pointless try to fix errors. The FTC report said four out of five people who dispute errors get results. You should still try, and you may well find it’s possible, but you should plan to be tenacious if your initial efforts are rebuffed. (You should get your free credit reports directly from www.annualcreditreport.com. Don’t go to other, lookalike sites, some of which are owned by the credit bureaus but that aren’t the federally-mandated site that gets you your free reports.)
You should also support efforts by regulators and consumer advocates to require the credit bureaus to put a more responsive system in place.
Dear Liz: My boyfriend is deployed. I have his power of attorney, and during his deployment I have paid off all of his credit card debt. The accounts now need to be closed because they are ones that were acquired with his former wife. I know you say that it will hurt his credit to close accounts, but I’d rather close them because they’re tied to his ex.
Answer: If the former wife is a joint account holder on the cards, they should have been closed and the balances transferred to other credit cards in his name only before the divorce was final. The credit score dings from closing accounts and opening new ones pale compared with the potential damage a vengeful, or neglectful, former spouse could do with those cards. She could have run up big balances or tried to wrest control of the accounts and then failed to pay them, ruining his credit scores.
If your boyfriend has several other open credit cards, you could simply close these. If he doesn’t, you might talk to the credit card companies about closing these cards and simultaneously opening new ones in his name only. This might be tricky to do while he’s deployed, however, even with a power of attorney. Another option is to simply open a new card for him online before closing the others.
Dear Liz: I’m 22 and a graduate student with only one year left before I enter the “real world.” I have four credit cards — one store card, two Visa cards and one MasterCard — only one of which carries a balance. I want to make the best decisions regarding my financial health. Which would be better for my credit: closing the account that’s the oldest (opened when I was 18) but that will no longer be used because of its small credit limit and high interest rate, or leaving the line open?
Answer: Closing accounts can’t help your credit scores and may hurt them. If you had a long credit history and many accounts, the impact of closing a low-limit account shouldn’t be that great. With such a short history and relatively few accounts, though, you could be doing unnecessary damage to your scores.
The best thing you can do for your financial health, now and in the future, is to pay off your credit card balance. Credit cards should be used as a convenience, not as a way to live beyond your means. Resolve to charge no more than you can pay off in full each and every month. You’ll save yourself a fortune in interest and help protect yourself against bankruptcy.