Don’t close accounts; pay off debt instead

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.

You don’t have to be in debt to have good scores

Dear Liz: How deep in debt must a person get before he or she is able to get a mortgage on a home? My grandson, age 26, has been steadily employed by the same company for nearly six years. He rents a place he can afford, buys used cars for cash, has a nice savings account and basically avoids debt by not buying things he can’t afford with cash. Now he would like to begin investing in a home. When applying, however, all he hears is that because he doesn’t have a credit rating, he can’t get a loan. Does he really have to create debt in order to get a loan?

Answer: The idea that you have to be in debt to have a good credit score is a persistent and destructive myth. It’s just as wrong as the idea that all you have to do to have good scores is manage your finances responsibly.

To have good credit scores, you must have and use credit accounts. This does not mean you have to be in debt or carry credit card balances. Simply using a couple of credit cards lightly but regularly and paying them off in full is enough to build good scores over time.

Your grandson may need to start by getting a secured card, which offers a line of credit equal to the amount of cash the applicant deposits at the issuing bank. Websites such as NerdWallet, CreditCards.com, CardRatings.com and LowCards.com highlight current secured card deals.

He also could consider “piggybacking” onto someone else’s good credit by being added as an authorized user to that person’s credit card. In some cases, the other person’s history with the card can be imported to your grandson’s credit bureau files. The person considering adding your grandson should check with the issuer to see whether such an import is possible.

Skip a payment, trash your scores

Dear Liz: We are trying to negotiate our second mortgage and have not paid it since June. Will this affect my wanting to purchase an auto?

Answer: It may not affect your desire to purchase a car, but it’s likely to affect the actual transaction if you’re not able to pay cash.

Failing to pay a credit obligation can devastate your credit scores, the three-digit numbers lenders use to gauge your creditworthiness. The worse your scores, the less likely you are to find a lender willing to do business with you. Even if you can secure a loan, it’s likely to come with a scandalously high interest rate.

Does giving up your land line hurt your credit scores?

Dear Liz: I recently heard that not having a land-line home phone number can hurt your credit score because it indicates instability. Is this true? I, like many people, use only my cellphone and no longer have a land line.

Answer: The answers to most credit scoring questions are complex because the formulas are complex. In this case, though, the answer is simple. What kind of phone you use is not a factor in your credit scores.

Credit scores are based on the information in your credit reports, which typically doesn’t include information from telephone companies unless you’re applying for a new account (in which case a credit inquiry may appear) or seriously delinquent in paying your bills (in which case a collection account may appear).

Lenders typically use other criteria in addition to your credit score to evaluate your application. Those criteria may include your income, your debt-to-income ratio, how long you’ve worked for your current employer and other information that’s not part of the credit scoring formulas. So it’s conceivable a lender might prefer people who have land lines, but with so many people using cellphones only, that lender would certainly be behind the times.

How to fight a medical collection

Dear Liz: My credit score just dropped more than 100 points within 45 days. The only thing I can think of that might have caused it is a $46 medical bill that was paid by my flexible spending account. I have a confirmation that the bill was paid, but for some reason the bill went to a collection agency. How do I get my credit score back to 828? I just recently moved and need a good credit rating for numerous reasons, especially purchasing a home and a new car. I was just turned down for a credit card from the bank that holds my mortgage. I tried dealing with the original medical office that received my payment, but they said I have to talk to the collection agency.

Answer: Check first to see if the collection account is actually on your credit reports. Go to http://www.annualcreditreport.com, the only site that offers you free, federally mandated annual access to your credit files at the three major credit bureaus. Other sites may advertise “free” credit reports, but they often come with strings attached such as requirements that you sign up for credit monitoring. Sites that offer free scores typically aren’t providing the FICO scores that most lenders use.

If the collection account isn’t on your reports, something else may have caused the score plunge. Consider buying at least one of your FICO scores from MyFico.com, which will give you an explanation of why your score isn’t higher.

If you find the collection account on your records, however, you need to go back to the medical billing office and insist that someone fix this, said Gerri Detweiler, a credit expert for Credit.com.

“The bill did not magically turn up in collections,” Detweiler said. “Someone made a mistake and since it is their office that was the source of the mistake, they need to fix it.”

Detweiler recommends sending a certified letter explaining that the office has damaged your credit reports and that if someone doesn’t fix the mistake immediately, you will be talking to an attorney about a credit damage lawsuit.

“If the medical office placed it for collections, they can pull it back from collections,” Detweiler said. “It sounds like they are being lazy by refusing to help.”

If the office balks for any reason, you can follow up with an attorney (you can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Advocates at http://www.naca.net). You also can send a certified letter to the collection agency explaining the mistake and insisting it be removed from your credit reports.

You should mention in the letter that you’re trying to get a mortgage and a car loan and that if you’re unsuccessful because of this error, you’ll be talking with a consumer law attorney. It would be helpful to include proof of the mistake, Detweiler said. In many cases, the collection agency will simply delete the erroneous information rather than face getting sued.

“They may not want to bother with it since it’s such a small amount and not worth risking a lawsuit over,” Detweiler said.

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Cash-only lifestyle can complicate getting credit

Dear Liz: My brother is 63, living on Social Security only and needs to obtain a credit card. He is old school and pays cash for virtually everything, but realizes he needs a credit card for some basics (renting a car, for example). If he has only $17,000 income a year, would that be enough to qualify him for a basic credit card from any provider? If not, do you have any suggestions for emergencies where a credit card would normally be required?

Answer: Some people use debit cards or prepaid cards in situations where credit cards are typically accepted. But gas stations, hotels and some other merchants can put a “block” or hold on an account for more than the amount being charged. That can limit the user’s access to the rest of the money in their checking account or on their prepaid card for several hours or even days. Also, debit and prepaid cards have fewer consumer protections than credit cards.

The biggest problem your brother faces in getting a regular credit card is his habit of paying with cash. He may not have enough of a credit history to generate a credit score, and most card issuers rely heavily on scores in evaluating applications. He should consider visiting MyFico.com and see if he can buy one of his FICO scores for $20. If he doesn’t have FICOs, he may want to consider a secured credit card.

A secured card gives him a credit line equal to a deposit he makes at the issuing bank. NerdWallet, an online financial site that evaluates credit cards, recommends the U.S. Bank Secured Visa Card, which has a low $35 annual fee and security deposits ranging from $300 to a respectable $5,000. Another option is the Capital One Secured Card, which has a lower annual fee of $25 but a credit limit of just $200.

Using a secured card lightly but regularly, and paying off the balance in full every month, can help your brother build credit scores that eventually will be high enough to qualify for a regular card.

Why high credit scores take longer to heal

Dear Liz: I am confused about your recent article about a person who did a short sale and questioned its effect on her credit. You said that if she started with a score of 680, it would take about three years for her FICO numbers to return to normal. You then said, “If your scores were high, say 780, it would take about seven years to restore them to their old peaks.” This doesn’t make sense to me. Why would it take longer to recover if you started with better credit?

Answer: Think of credit scores as a mountain that gets steeper the higher you climb. Not only does it take longer to achieve the lofty peaks, but if you tumble down the mountain, it will take you longer to return to those peaks than to achieve some intermediate stage.

The FICO formula is designed to reflect your likelihood of default. If you’ve recently missed a payment, had a bill go to collections or had a foreclosure or short sale, the formula assumes you’re much more likely to default on another bill than someone who doesn’t have those black marks on his or her record, and your scores fall to reflect that higher risk of default. As time passes and you handle credit responsibly, your scores will begin to slowly rise, but it will take more time to regain your peak scores if they were high.

Something else to understand is that the penalty for most negative credit events is greater for people with high scores than those with lower scores. Missing a single payment can knock up to 110 points off a 780 score but might deduct just 60 points from a 680 score. That’s because a higher risk of default is already “baked in” to the lower score. The higher score presumes you’re less likely to default. If you do miss a payment, the formula is set up to punish you more. In most cases, though, you won’t “fall down the mountain” as far as someone who started with a lower score. After the missed payment, the 780 score could be 670, while the 680 score could be 620.

Short sales, foreclosures have similar effect on credit scores

Dear Liz: I went through a divorce in the last year after being separated for two years. During our separation, we closed credit cards with high balances to make sure neither party would spend more on credit. We also had to short sell our home. So, as a single woman in her mid-30s, I have credit that’s somewhat shot for now. How many months should I expect the short sale to affect my credit scores? And was closing the credit card accounts good or bad for my credit?

Answer: Closing credit accounts can’t help your credit scores and may hurt them. In a divorce, however, it’s usually wise to close all joint accounts. Otherwise, your credit rating is in the hands of your ex-spouse, who could trash your scores by paying accounts late or maxing out credit lines.

In any case, the short sale probably had a much greater effect on your credit than the account closures. Short sales typically damage your credit as much as a foreclosure, according to the company that created the leading FICO credit score. Recovery times are measured in years, not months. If your scores weren’t that high to begin with — say 680 in the 300-to-850 FICO scale — it would take about three years for your numbers to return to their old levels. If your scores were high, say 780, it would take about seven years to restore them to their old peaks.

These recovery times assume you handle credit responsibly from now on. That means having and lightly using a credit card or two, making all payments on time and ensuring no account goes to collections.

Carrying a balance won’t help your scores

Dear Liz: I question your advice to the father whose son was turned down for a car loan. You told the father: “Your children don’t need to take on debt to build their credit histories. A couple of credit cards, used lightly but regularly and paid off in full every month, will do the job.”

Recently I was on the phone with a credit bureau questioning an item on my credit report. I have always paid off my credit card balance every month. The credit bureau representative told me that my credit score would be higher if I paid less than the full balance owed on my credit card every month. I asked her how it could possibly hurt my credit score by paying what I owe each month on a timely basis. She assured me that it does hurt my score. I still don’t understand it, but after I read your piece I thought I would pass on to you the advice I received from this credit bureau representative.

Answer: Just because someone works at a credit bureau’s customer service center does not mean she understands how credit scores work.

The information she gave you was dead wrong. She’s not only incorrect about how credit scoring works, but she seems unclear about how credit information is actually reported to her bureau.

The credit card balances that lenders report to the bureaus don’t reflect whether you pay your debt in full. The credit card issuers report the balance on a given day each month. Typically, but not always, it’s the balance from your last statement. You could pay the full amount the day you get your bill, or pay only the minimum. The credit bureaus would never know.

The leading credit scoring formula, the FICO, uses the balances that are reported to the bureaus to calculate your credit utilization. Since neither the bureaus nor the scoring formula “know” whether you pay that balance in full or not, there’s no advantage to carrying a balance. It doesn’t help your credit; it just costs you money. That’s also why it’s important to limit how much of your credit you use at any given time, since maxing out your cards can hurt your scores, even if you pay the balance in full.

“There is no reason to carry a balance to improve your score,” said Anthony A. Sprauve, public relations director for myFico.com, the only place where people can buy their FICO scores. “If someone is paying all of their bills on time; keeping their credit card balances low or at zero; and not opening new lines of credit, they are doing the three most important things they can to have a good credit score.”