Could son’s unpaid bills harm parents’ credit? Maybe

Dear Liz: Our 24-year-old son lives with us. He failed out of college, has been fired from two restaurant jobs and is working part time at a grocery warehouse. He has neglected to pay his credit card for several months. He also waits until his cellphone carrier threatens to turn off his phone before he pays half of that bill. We are concerned that his poor payment history may start to reflect on our good credit histories. We are retired and may want to build a new house. His bills are sent to our address, and creditors call our home phone number looking for him.

Answer: His debts shouldn’t affect your credit reports and scores unless you cosigned loans or other credit accounts or added him as a joint user to your credit cards.

Note the word “shouldn’t.” It’s possible that an unethical collection agency would try to get you to pay these bills by posting the overdue accounts on your credit reports. That could negatively affect your scores. Check your credit reports at least once a year at http://www.annualcreditreport.com. You also may want to consider ongoing credit monitoring, which can alert you if any collections or other suspicious activity shows up on your reports.

Speaking of unethical actions, you need to consider the possibility that your son could steal your financial identity. He probably has access to the information he would need to open new accounts in your name, including your Social Security numbers. His failure to pay his bills, even though it appears he can, indicates some moral shortcomings. He may not be low enough to rip off his parents, but if you have any suspicions about his trustworthiness, consider putting a credit freeze (also known as a security freeze) on your credit reports. This freeze should prevent anyone from opening credit accounts in your name.

Finally, you can write letters to creditors telling them to stop contacting you. You run the risk that such a letter could lead a creditor to sue your son. But his creditors may sue him anyway if he doesn’t respond to their requests for payment.

5 debit card don’ts

ShopSmart, the excellent magazine from the publishers of Consumer Reports, just came out with a list of ways you shouldn’t use your debit card. Among them:

1. Don’t use your debit card for big purchases or when you shop online. Credit cards can serve as a middleman in disputes, so you’re typically not out any money if there’s a problem.

2.  Don’t take your debit card on trips. Credit cards often have travel insurance; debit cards don’t.

3.   Don’t use a debit card if you’re worried about getting ripped off. You have more protections under federal law with a credit card. You’re only responsible for up to $50 in unauthorized purchases, and credit cards typically waive that small amount. “With a debit card, you can be out $500 if you don’t report the theft or loss of your card or PIN within two business days of discovering the problem,” the magazine noted.

4.      Don’t rely on a debit card if you want to raise your credit score. Debit cards don’t build credit history. Credit cards do.

5.      Don’t use your debit card if you want to earn money on purchases. Banks have eliminated or reduced most debit card reward programs, while many credit card issuers have enhanced theirs.

Want to save money on gas? Check out these cards

Credit card comparison site NerdWallet took a close look at gas cards offered by Gulf, BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell and compared them to 10 cards that offered rewards at any gas stations. Nerdwallet’s conclusion: it doesn’t pay to be loyal to one brand of gas.

NerdWallet found the station-branded cards offered lower rewards and higher interest rates, plus they rarely had sign-up bonuses.

From the study:

There’s a popular misconception that station-branded gas cards will give you better rewards in exchange for limiting your fill-up options. But when you step back and actually compare, the numbers just don’t add up.

So what should consumers do who want gas credit cards?

Consider these no-fee, non-branded gas cards:

  • Pentagon Federal Platinum Rewards: unlimited 5 points per $1 on gas and $250 signup bonus
  • Chase Freedom: 5% cash back on gas for half the year and $200 signup bonus

Prepaid cards aren’t a great choice for travel

Dear Liz: I have been granted a Chapter 7 bankruptcy discharge of all my debts. I’m now debt free and plan to stay that way. I’ve been saving like crazy and have enough to afford a cross-country driving trip to attend my son’s wedding. I’d like your advice on using prepaid debit cards to cover expenses such as fuel, food and lodging. My plan is to load each of three cards with an amount of money to cover each category of expense, based on my best research estimates, as a means of controlling how much I spend. If you feel this is a good plan, which would be the best brand of card to use?

Answer: Your determination to stay out of debt is admirable, but prepaid cards are problematic. You don’t have the same federally mandated consumer protections you have with a debit or a credit card, so merchant disputes or a lost or stolen card can wind up costing you big time.

Furthermore, these cards can be expensive. You often pay to activate the card, to load it with cash and to access the cash in transactions. Card comparison site NerdWallet.com studied 40 popular prepaid debit cards and found that the average card cost nearly $300 annually in basic fees. Monthly fees of up to $14.95 took the biggest toll, but $1 to $2 fees per transaction and for ATM use could easily cost a typical user more than $20 a month.

If you’re convinced prepaid cards are the best money-management tool for your situation, though, you might want to choose the American Express Bluebird, which was dramatically less expensive than its competitors in the NerdWallet study. The Amex card charges no monthly or per-transaction fees and allows for direct deposit. ATM withdrawals cost $2 apiece and cash reloads are just a buck, compared with an average of $4.50 with other cards.

Eventually you may want to look into getting a secured credit card to help you rebuild your credit scores, since prepaid cards won’t help with that. A secured card is one in which you make a deposit at the issuing bank, usually between $200 and $1,000, and get a card with credit limit equal to your deposit. You don’t need to carry a balance on these cards, but you do need to have and use credit if you want to rehabilitate your battered credit. NerdWallet recommends the secured cards issued by Orchard Bank and Capital One.