Dear Liz: I am working on paying my bad debt from the past to rebuild my scores. I have one credit card that I pay in full every month, but no installment loan. I recently was given the opportunity to take a car loan with monthly payments I could easily afford. Here is my confusion: Taking on more debt while trying to eliminate past debt is usually not advisable. But I also know creditors like to see both revolving and installment credit. Am I OK to take the car loan to improve my mix of credit, or should I just use that extra money to pay off my past debt?
Answer: Adding an installment loan such as an auto loan, mortgage or student loan to your credit mix can indeed help rehabilitate troubled scores. But it’s advisable only if you’re well on your way to having the rest of your debt paid off. Otherwise, you risk stalling on your debt repayment or — worst-case scenario — adding another bad debt to the pile.
If your scores are still troubled, the car loan probably has sky-high interest rates. If you go this route, put down at least 20% of the purchase price so that you can refinance to more favorable terms in a year or two when your scores improve.
A better option may be to skip the car loan and try to get a three-year personal loan from your credit union. This fixed-rate loan would allow you to pay off some of your other debt while improving your scores.
Once your debt is paid off, you can save up to either buy your next car with cash or at least make a substantial down payment so you have to finance only a portion of the purchase.
Finally, you should know that although using and paying off your credit card is definitely helping your scores, paying off old debts may not be so helpful to your numbers. If the bills are already in collections, you may not see dramatic improvements in your scores as you retire those debts. That’s why you would be smart to look for other means to improve your scores.