Dear Liz: Over the last couple of years I have managed to pay off my credit cards. I know that closing those accounts will hurt my credit so I kept them open. When I checked my credit report, I found that my rating had gone down and was told that I had to actually use the credit cards and pay them off to keep my score up. I’ve been doing that over the last year or so and my credit score responded well. This past month my credit score went down again by a few points and I learned that it was because the credit card companies had rewarded my diligence by raising my credit limit. This apparently hurt my score. What’s up with this? Is there any way not to get dinged by the reporting agencies?
Answer: Higher credit limits would reduce the percentage of available credit you are using, and that should help your credit scores, rather than hurt them. So the score you’re seeing either isn’t a FICO score, which is the score used by most lenders, or you are being given questionable information about what affects your scores. Many score monitoring systems are set up to give you explanations for any change in your numbers, but those explanations might be vague or might not accurately depict what’s truly influencing your scores.
Your FICO credit scores change all the time, based on the ever-changing information in your credit reports. Variations of a few points shouldn’t be a cause of concern. Continue to use your cards lightly but regularly, paying the balances off in full each month. Over time, the variations will smooth out into higher scores.
Today’s 20-somethings have a unique–and easily blown–opportunity to set themselves up for their future. Because of the power of compounding, the money they save now for retirement is worth far more than if they start even a few years later. The idea that you can put it off and “catch up” when you’re older? Basically, it’s a myth, since it’s so very, very hard to make up for missing that early start.
NBC News columnist Bob Sullivan outlines how this works in “When $30k is worth more than $90k.”
The takeaway? Paying off debt is important, but not as important as saving for your future. Opportunities to save for retirement really are “use it or lose it,” and blowing them off could make your future self the real loser.
Please join us around 4:50 p.m. Eastern/1:50 p.m. Pacific for the discussion.
The mover had a variety of entirely bogus reasons for hanging onto our stuff while trying to exceed the written, “not to exceed” estimate. Among the excuses: We didn’t tell him there were steps at the new house (there were two) or it was at the fringes of Los Angeles (we’re actually quite close to the geographic center of the city).
At the time, I didn’t know that reputable movers were being bought up by bad guys who pulled these stunts, or that moving in many areas is so lightly regulated that they can get away with this crap.
If you’ve got a move planned this summer, take the time to check out Consumer Report’s tips for avoiding scams.
One of the best tips I know isn’t included: Ask your employer, or another major company in the area, which companies they use to move their executives. These movers won’t be the cheapest, but since they rely on repeat business, they’re far less likely to be scamsters.
In the end, I paid a couple hundred dollars more than we agreed to ransom our stuff–much less than the $1,000 or so the mover demanded, but still too much. If we ever have to move again, I’ll be a lot more diligent in choosing a mover.
Who doesn’t love obscure commemorative/promotional days? But this one is worthwhile since it brings attention to the state-run college savings plans that can help you pay for your children’s future education.
Here are the most important facts you need to know about college savings:
If you can save for college, you probably should. The higher your income, the more the financial aid formulas will expect you to have saved for college–even if you haven’t actually saved a dime. Even people who consider themselves middle class are often shocked by how much schools expect them to contribute toward the cost of education. (By the way, it’s the parents’ assets and income that determine financial aid, so if you don’t help your kid with college costs, he or she could be really screwed–no money for school and perhaps no hope of need-based financial aid.)
More savings=less debt. Most financial aid is in the form of loans these days, so your saving now will reduce your kid’s debt later. (A CFP once told me to substitute the words “massive debt” when I see “financial aid.” So when you say, “I want my child to get the most financial aid possible,” I hear: “I want my child to get the most massive debt possible.”
529 plans get favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. These accounts are presumed owned by the parent, so less you’re expected to spend less than 6% of the total each year–compared to 35% of student-owned assets.
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.
Dear Liz: I am receiving many unsolicited credit card offers in the mail and am worried about identity theft. Do you know of a phone number or Web address whereby I can opt out of these offers?
Answer: You can call 1-888-5OPTOUT or visit www.optoutprescreen.com to remove your name from marketing lists that the three credit bureaus sell to credit card issuers. Opting out won’t keep every card solicitation out of your mailbox, but it should decrease substantially the number of offers you receive. You can opt out for five years or permanently, but you need to be prepared to give your Social Security number, since that’s one of the key ways the bureaus identify you in their records.
Here are some ideas to cut your costs:
Travel outside the box. Your options aren’t just “fly or drive”? Donna Freedman recommends checking out the Megabus. “I went from Philly to NYC for $1.50. Could make day trips really cheap.” She also traveled on the Megabus in the United Kingdom for a fraction of what the train fare would have cost. Speaking of trains, overnight trips on Amtrak can be pretty expensive, but we’ve scored free roomettes (double-bunk sleeper) and bedrooms on overnight trips up and down the West Coast using Starwood points that we dumped into Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program.
Book strategically. The best day to book airfares is often Tuesday, while the cheapest day to fly is usually Wednesday. But Bing’s price predictor can help you figure out whether to snap up a fare or wait a little longer. (Just search for an airfare, and the predictor will give you the likelihood the current fare will increase or drop.) Join frequent flyer programs and sign up for email newsletters so you can hear about special sales. Kiplinger has more here in its “21 secrets to save on travel.”
Rescue orphaned miles. Got points in a travel program you no longer use? You may be able to shift them to a loyalty program you do use. Check out Webflyer.com’s Mileage Converter to explore the possibilities. Speaking of points:
Don’t settle for expensive. Last-minute trips don’t have to be budget-busters. Airlines may release more seats a few days prior to the flight so that you can book them with frequent flyer miles. Priceline and Hotwire are great places to bid for cheap flights, rooms and cars.
Re-shop your reservations. Change fees make rebooking airfares tough on most carriers, but you can typically change hotel and car rental reservations without penalty. I usually book a few months in advance, then check three weeks out and again a week out to see if hotel or car rates have fallen.
Plan cheap fun. Last time we visited Hawaii we bought an Entertainment book for the islands before we left. The $10 we spent for the book was offset with our first museum visit; the coupons for other activities and restaurants were a bonus. Donna suggests talking to locals and doing searches for “free/cheap things to doyou’re your destination. “Maybe something just opened & isn’t on the general radar yet,” she noted.
Dear Liz: A few years ago I finished paying off my debt and now am in the very low-risk credit category. I have savings equal to about three months’ worth of bills and am working to get that to six months’ worth. I’m wondering, though, about an emergency that may require me to pay in cash (such as a major power outage that disables debit or credit card systems, or the more likely event that I forget the ATM or credit card at home). How much cash should a person have on hand? Is there a magic number?
Answer: There’s no magic number. You’ll have to weigh the likelihood you’ll need the green, and the consequences of not having it when you need it, against the risk of loss or theft.
Many people find it’s a good idea to tuck a spare $20 into their wallet for emergencies, and perhaps another $20 in their cars if they’re in the habit of forgetting their wallets or their plastic.
Cash for a disaster is another matter. Power could go out for a week or more, or you may need to evacuate and pay for transportation and shelter at a time when card processing systems are disabled. A few hundred bucks in cash probably would be the minimum prudent reserve you’d want to keep in a secure place in your home. You may decide that you need more.