Q&A: Personal loan debt vs credit card debt

Dear Liz: I need to understand how credit reporting agencies treat personal unsecured loan debt versus credit card debt.

I am considering getting a personal loan from a reputable lender to pay down my credit card debt. The amount of my overall debt will still be the same, just in a different category. How will my credit score be affected?

Answer: What you need to understand is how credit scoring formulas treat installment debt (loans) versus revolving debt (credit cards). Credit reporting agencies maintain the credit reports used to create scores — but don’t bless (or curse) particular types of debt.

The personal loan’s overall effect on your credit scores is likely to be positive if you pay the loan on time. What you owe on an installment loan is typically treated more favorably than a similar balance on a credit card.

Installment loans have other advantages: You typically get a fixed rate, rather than the variable one charged on most credit cards, and your balance will be paid off over the term of the loan, which is usually three years. If you stop carrying balances on your credit cards, you should be in much better shape: free of debt with potentially higher scores.

Often the best place to get installment loans is from credit unions, which are member-owned financial institutions that may offer lower interest rates.

Avoid any lender that gives you a high-pressure sales pitch, that offers you a loan if you have bad credit or that pitches debt settlement, which is far more dangerous to your finances than a personal loan.

If the lender tries to tell you about a new “government program” that wipes out credit card debt or tries to collect big upfront fees, you’ve stumbled onto a scam.

Q&A: Co-signing student loans

Dear Liz: I have two kids heading to college. Both need co-signers for their student loans. Will me co-signing have a negative effect on my credit? The kids have no choice. I’m middle class, having made enough to get myself by as a divorcee, but there’s no college savings. To make matters worse, I make just over the base for them to get a Pell Grant. I’m concerned about my credit, but my kids need to go to college.

Answer: Your children probably do need to go to college if they want to maintain a middle-class lifestyle in the 21st century. They probably don’t need to finance that education with private student loans, which are the kind that require a co-signer.

Co-signing means the loans show up on your credit reports. Your credit scores can be trashed if your children miss a single payment. If they stop paying, the lender will come after you for the balance.

Federal student loans are a much better option. They have fixed rates, numerous repayment options and the possibility of forgiveness.

Private student loans typically have none of those attributes. Quite the opposite: There are horror stories of private lenders that refused to forgive the balance of borrowers who died, leaving co-signers on the hook.

The big problem with federal student loans is that the amount your children can borrow is limited.

A first-year student typically can borrow just $5,500 and usually no more than $31,000 for an undergraduate degree. The average net cost of a public four-year university — the sticker price for tuition, fees, room and board minus grants and scholarships — was just under $13,000 in 2014-15.

That leaves a fairly substantial gap to cover, especially with no savings and two children.

If you can’t cover the gap out of your current income, your family needs to consider some options. Finding more generous colleges might be one.

Institutions vary tremendously in their willingness to meet families’ financial need. While few meet 100% of a typical student’s need, the more generous shoot for 90% or more. Some meet less than 70%. (You can find these need statistics, and many others, at the College Board’s Big Future site, at http://bigfuture.collegeboard.org.)

You also could consider a couple of years at a community college. There are some one- and two-year technical degrees, typically in the health and science fields that pay more than the average four-year degree.

Or your children could attend community college to get some requirements out of the way cheaply before transferring to a four-year school, but be aware that the dropout rate at two-year schools is high, even for students who start fully intending to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Another option is for you to borrow, but you shouldn’t consider doing so unless you’re saving adequately for retirement and can continue to do so while paying off the loans. Federal PLUS loans offer fixed rates, but if you can pay the loan off quickly, a home equity loan or line of credit may be a less expensive option.

Q&A: IRS Electronic Payment System

Dear Liz: I was intrigued by your answer to the question about paying taxes through the IRS Electronic Tax Payment System. I went to the website you mentioned (www.irs.gov/payments) and found that there was a fee.

You didn’t point this out, and I think it is relevant. My quarterly estimated payment would be $1,726 and the fee for a Visa payment would be 2.29%, which equals $39.55. If my math is correct, that is quite a significant amount. Did I reach the correct interpretation of fees being charged?

Answer: If you return to www.irs.gov/payments, you’ll see two big blue buttons. The one on the left, IRS Direct Pay, takes you to the IRS’ free payment system for individuals. Directly below that button is a link for the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, which offers a free method for businesses to pay their taxes.

Only if you choose the button on the right that says “Pay by Card” will you be taken to various payment processors that charge a fee. Those fees can be significant, which is why it’s worthwhile to take the time to explore the free options.

Q&A: Term life insurance

Dear Liz: My husband doesn’t qualify for term life insurance because he is overweight and pre-diabetic. Although he’s working on getting in shape, I’m afraid something might happen. I should add we have a 3-year-old daughter, and he is the main breadwinner.

What would you suggest we do to ensure we are covered if something were to happen?

Answer: Just because your husband was turned down by one insurer doesn’t mean others won’t accept him. Even people who are obese or who have diabetes can find coverage, so your husband shouldn’t accept that he’s uninsurable.

Look for an independent agent or broker who works with several companies rather than a captive agent who works for just one or two. A fee-only financial planner may be able to help you find a good agent. The planner also could recommend an appropriate amount of coverage.

Your husband also should investigate any coverage he might have through his job. Many employers provide a base amount of coverage as a benefit (frequently $50,000 or one year’s pay) and often allow workers to buy additional coverage without requiring medical exams.

The downside of employer-sponsored group life insurance is that he may not be able to buy as much coverage as he needs. He may need 10 times his annual salary, for instance, but his group policy may max out at five times his salary. Also, the policy may not be portable — it may end if he’s laid off or quits, for example.

The best strategy will depend on the costs he faces. But one approach may be to buy as much employer-provided coverage as possible and supplement it with an individual term policy purchased on his own.

If his health improves, he could boost his individual coverage while buying less of the employer-provided kind.

Q&A: File and suspend strategy for Social Security

Dear Liz: You recently wrote an interesting piece regarding the “file and suspend” strategy for Social Security benefits. I liked the possibility of getting a lump sum if I should need the money downstream.

But when I checked with Social Security, I was told that the lump sum maximum was six months of suspended payments. Am I missing something? My understanding was that I could collect all the suspended payments if need be. Is there a specific code I could reference to our Social Security office to clear this matter up?

Answer: You’re not missing something. The Social Security representative you talked to is confusing retroactive benefits with the reinstatement of benefits that were voluntarily suspended.

When you file for benefits after your full retirement age (currently 66), the maximum lump sum you can get is six months’ of missed benefits.

When you “file and suspend” your application at or after full retirement age, however, you can end the suspension at any time and get a lump sum for all the benefits you missed.

Unfortunately, the misinformation you received isn’t unusual.

Financial planners around the country have reported running into Social Security reps who insist that only six months’ of benefits are available to people who file and suspend, which isn’t true.

The procedure is outlined in the Social Security Administration’s “Program Operations Manual System” under GN 02409.130 Voluntary Suspension Reinstatement

It’s also described in plain English on Social Security’s site: “If you change your mind and want the payments to start before age 70, just tell us when you want your benefits reinstated (orally or in writing). Your request may include benefits for any months when your payments were suspended.”

The ability to file and suspend, then change your mind, is an important protection for those who understand the important role Social Security plays as longevity insurance.

The smartest course is often to let your benefit grow to its maximum amount, taking advantage of the “delayed retirement credits” that increase your benefit 8% annually between your full retirement age (currently 66) and age 70.

If you should later find yourself in need of the money, you can get a lump sum payout for the missed benefits back to the day you filed and suspended, if you want.

But opting for the lump payment means you lose your delayed retirement credits for that period. In other words, if you ask for a lump sum dating back to your initial filing, your monthly benefit is reset to the smaller amount you would have gotten then.

Q&A: Student loan forgiveness

Dear Liz: I have $105,000 in medical school loans with an interest rate of 2.875%. I have another consolidated federal loan at 6%. I’m making $180,000 in the private sector and like my job.

Should I consolidate everything, try to get a public sector job, and apply for loan forgiveness after 10 years while paying as little as possible? Or should I accelerate my loan payments?
I would be able to pay almost the full amount after 10 years. I’m also trying to save for a house in a high-cost area. I have about $110,000 in savings and stocks.

Answer: Why would you upend your life to qualify for help you don’t need?

Loan forgiveness and federal income-based repayment programs are intended for those struggling to pay their education debt. These programs are available only for federal student loans, by the way.

The low interest rate on your medical school loans indicates that those are private student loans, which wouldn’t qualify for the relief programs or for a federal consolidation loan, for that matter.

So the question really is whether you should pay your loans off over time or try to retire them as quickly as possible.

A slower repayment schedule could allow you to buy a home sooner and save more for retirement, which are both worthy goals. Faster repayment could lower the overall cost of the debt and leave you less vulnerable to rate hikes, since the interest rates on private student loans are typically variable.

There’s no single right answer, but it’s a good question to discuss with a fee-only financial planner who can assess your entire financial situation and explain your options.

Q&A: Credit scores and new accounts

Dear Liz: My spouse signed up for a store credit card to receive a discount on a large purchase. As she has no strong interest in maintaining a line of credit there, is there a simple way of discontinuing this account without affecting our credit scores, given that we may apply for a mortgage in the near future?

If not, is it critical we maintain some frequency of use on this account?

Answer: First, let’s correct a popular misconception that marriage somehow combines your credit records. Assuming she applied for the card in her name alone, this account won’t show up on your credit report or affect your scores.

Should you apply for a mortgage together, however, her scores could affect the interest rate and terms you get. Opening and closing accounts can ding scores, so it’s best to avoid both when you’re in the market for a major loan.

Issuers vary in their policies on closing inactive accounts, so it’s hard to predict how much activity would prevent the card from being shut down. Typically, though, a small charge every two to three months is enough to keep an account open.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I started my Social Security benefits at 66 and am now 70. I was married for 23 years and have not remarried.

When I ask about spousal benefits, I am told that my own monthly benefit is too high to get benefits based on my ex’s work record. My monthly benefit is only $1,509, my 401(k) has tanked, and I am surviving on less and less available part-time work.

I was told further that I can apply once my ex passes away and then it won’t matter how high my income is. Could that be correct? What is the exact cut-off amount to get spousal benefits?

Answer: Many people misunderstand the way spousal benefits work, and they think that they can get an additional check on top of their own retirement benefit. That’s not quite how it works.

Essentially, Social Security compares the amount of your retirement benefit with what you would get as a spouse or divorced spouse and gives you the larger of the two. Spousal benefits are up to half of what your spouse or ex receives.

If your ex’s benefit is $2,000 a month, for example, your spousal benefit could be $1,000, which is less than you’re getting now. If your ex dies, however, you can apply for a survivor benefit that equals what he or she received — in this example, $2,000 a month.

Q&A: Debt collection

Dear Liz: I am trying to help my daughter deal with enormous student loans.

She is a doctor and very busy and simply cannot deal with the stress of almost $350,000 of education debt. I want to help her refinance, but to get the best rate I would like to help her improve her credit score (even if it is already 712).

She had three small debts turned over to a collection agency after a visit to an emergency room a couple of years ago. We plan to pay them off. Do I have to ask the collection agency to erase them or contact the original creditor?

Answer: You mention that your daughter has a 712 score, but she actually has many credit scores that change all the time. Small medical collections can have an outsize impact on those scores — or they can have no effect at all. It depends on what credit scoring formula the lender happens to use.

The latest version of the leading credit score, FICO 9, ignores paid collections and treats unpaid medical debt less harshly than other types of collection accounts. The most commonly used version, though, is FICO 8, which ignores only those collections under $100 and doesn’t differentiate medical from other collections.

Some lenders still use older versions of the formula that punish people for even small collections.

FICO also has a rival, the VantageScore. The latest and most-used version of that formula, VantageScore 3.0, also ignores paid collections.

You can contact the lenders you may use to refinance the debt to find out which scores they use, and which versions. That could help you decide how hard to push to get these collections erased.

If paid collections aren’t counted, you can just pay them off and be done with it. (You’ll of course want to keep the paperwork showing the debts have been paid and have your daughter check her credit reports to make sure the accounts reflect a zero balance.)

If the accounts could hurt her even if they’re paid, you have a couple of options.

One is to ask the hospital to take back the accounts, since medical bills are often placed with collection agencies on consignment rather than being sold to them outright. Then you can pay the hospital, and the collections should disappear. (Although, again, your daughter will need to follow up to make sure.)

Another option is to try to negotiate a “pay for deletion” — which means the collection agency promises to stop reporting the account in return for payment. You’ll want this agreement, if you can win it, to be in advance and in writing.

Q&A: IRS direct pay

Dear Liz: Regarding the reader whose tax payment never made it to the IRS: I agree that electronic payments are the best and safest, but you might want to emphasize that the payments should be done directly through the IRS website.

I made the mistake of scheduling a couple of payments through my online banking, and a month later I received a notification from the IRS that I was in arrears, although the bank statement indicated that the payment has been debited.

It took several months of correspondence before the IRS acknowledged that the money was received. Luckily, the penalties and interest were only about $20, so I didn’t have to go through the additional hassle and filling out forms to reclaim it. The IRS website is very easy to use, and I haven’t experienced any problems since.

Answer: The IRS’ Electronic Tax Payment System, which was designed primarily for businesses, has been around for nearly two decades, but the agency only recently added a “Direct Pay” option expressly for individuals to make estimated tax payments and pay bills.

These methods and others, including electronic funds withdrawal when you e-file your return, are explained at http://www.irs.gov/payments.