Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: The lowdown on new tools to jump-start your credit. Also in the news: The new credit card that pays cash-back rewards for on-time payments, tuition discounts grow at private colleges and universities, and what to do in your 20s and 30s to be set in your 60s and 70s.

The Lowdown on New Tools to Jump-Start Your Credit
Learn how they work and if you should use them.

No credit history? This new credit card pays cash-back rewards for on-time bill payments
Introducing Petal.

Tuition discounting grows at private colleges and universities
Tuition costs are dropping.

What to do in your 20s and 30s to be set in your 60s and 70s
It’s never too early to prepare.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Is better credit worth exposing your banking data? Also in the news: The average 401(k) balance by age, 8 common and costly homebuying myths, and why debt collectors may soon be able to text you.

Is Better Credit Worth Exposing Your Bank Data?
Other ways to build credit.

The average 401(k) balance by age
Balances typically increase as you age.

8 Common and Costly Homebuying Myths
Don’t get trapped.

Why Debt Collectors May Soon Be Able to Text You
And email you.

Is better credit worth exposing your bank data?

America’s credit bureaus haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory when it comes to protecting your private data. So you might well be skeptical about two new credit-enhancing products that require not just credit information but also access to your bank accounts.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why the boost in your score might not be worth the exposure of your banking data.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Are you robbing your parents’ retirement. Also in the news: When is your credit score high enough, when a cash back card is better than travel rewards, and how to pay for your pet’s healthcare.

Are You Robbing Your Parents’ Retirement?
Parents helping their adult kids at the expense of their future.

When Is Your Credit Score High Enough?
Your credit health matters.

It’s OK If Travel Rewards Cards Aren’t for You
A cash back card could be better.

How to Pay for Your Pet’s Healthcare
Taking care of your furkids.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How your tax refund could improve your credit. Also in the news: What to buy (and skip) in April, 8 warning signs it’s time to course correct in college, and 7 last-minute tax tips to lower your 2018 bill.

How your tax refund could improve your credit
Using your refund strategically.

What to Buy (and Skip) in April
Good time for a vacuum upgrade.

8 Warning Signs It’s Time to Course Correct in College
Change course if you want to graduate.

7 Last-Minute Tax Tips to Lower Your 2018 Bill
There’s still time to save money.

Q&A: Take a look behind the credit-score numbers game

Dear Liz: I recently got an email from my credit card issuer stating my credit score had just dropped 21 points. Having a good credit score and not aware of any recent adverse actions, my first reaction was alarm.

Checking with the issuer online, I saw only advertisements for “protect your credit” services, so I phoned. I was informed the numbers came from Equifax credit bureau. I contacted Equifax as well as TransUnion and Experian, which resulted only in more offers of products to protect my credit. I downloaded my free credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com and found nothing suspicious. I was finally directed to FICO, but an email sent more than a month ago remains unanswered.

Is it legal for these companies to market their products through presumably fictitious or even fraudulent means? What is the best way to find out my true credit score? Can my credit score suffer because I ask these questions in a public forum?

Answer: Knowing a little more about how credit scoring works may put your mind at ease.

There is no one “true” credit score. Lenders and other companies use many different kinds. FICO is the leading credit scoring company and the FICO 8 is the most commonly used score, but many companies use older versions or ones modified for their specific industry (such as the FICO Auto Score 5, for example). Plus, your FICO 8 from Experian may be different from your FICO 8 from TransUnion or Equifax because the scores are based on the information in your credit bureau files and the bureaus are separate, competing businesses that don’t always have the same information.

Then there’s the VantageScore, a rival to the FICO, which is used by some lenders and by many sites that offer people their credit scores for free. The VantageScore formula is different from the FICO formula, so your numbers could be different as well.

All these credit scores, however, are created solely using the information in your credit reports. Your income, gender, address, political opinions, computer operating system and online comments are not included in credit score calculations.

Some people are understandably confused about that. Various start-ups and researchers have suggested that non-credit information — such as information gleaned from someone’s social media postings or online surveys — could replace credit information in loan decisions. But the U.S. has fair credit reporting laws that probably would make such alternatives unworkable. (It would be nice if start-ups checked to see what regulations apply to their industry before sending out press releases, but that doesn’t always happen.)

Given that you didn’t see anything obviously wrong on your credit reports, you don’t need to worry too much. The credit score drop you describe might be because you charged more on a credit card than usual, had a credit limit lowered or applied for a bunch of credit in a short period of time. It probably will reverse itself over time.

Alerting you to credit score changes isn’t an illegal practice, even if the company’s primary purpose in keeping you up to date is to market credit-monitoring services to you. (Credit protection is a misnomer because these services can’t prevent identity theft. They can only alert you if it’s already happened.)

You did exactly what you should have done when you were alerted to the point drop — you went to AnnualCreditReport.com and checked your credit reports. If you want to put your mind further at ease, consider freezing your credit, a process that could prevent identity thieves from opening new accounts in your name.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: More parents are putting limits on college help. Also in the news: Mastercard’s new rule will make some “free” trials more transparent, what you need to know about SIPC insurance, and why you should be wary of new tricks for raising your credit score.

More Parents Are Putting Limits on College Help
Limiting contributions.

Mastercard’s New Rule Will Make Some ‘Free’ Trials More Transparent
Reminding you when the trial is up.

SIPC Insurance: What It Does and Does Not Protect
Covering your brokerage.

Be Wary of New ‘Tricks’ for Raising Your Credit Score
They could end up doing the opposite.

Q&A: Don’t value credit rewards over scores

Dear Liz: You’ve advised people that “it’s important to keep your credit utilization down, even if you pay in full (as you should).” That may be good advice regarding one’s credit score, but there is another perspective. Although we pay in full every month (and have paid no credit card interest since 1971), charging almost every purchase or expense has earned us three pairs of round-trip frequent flier miles tickets to Paris — one pair first class and the other two business class — in the last 15 years.

Answer: Maximizing rewards shouldn’t come at the cost of your credit scores, particularly if you want to qualify for future cards that offer tempting sign-up bonuses. You can continue to charge away, as long as you either spread the charges across several cards or make two or three payments every month on each card you use to keep the balances from getting too high.

Q&A: One auto-pay misstep and her credit score falls off a cliff

Dear Liz: I recently took a deduction in my Experian FICO score of more than 100 points due to a single late payment to my mortgage. My score of 810 dropped to 704.

The mortgage company notified me several months ago that my impound account would go up $51 a month due to higher homeowners insurance premiums. I believed my auto-pay would adjust automatically as it used to, but that didn’t happen. About 10 days after it was “past due,” I received a letter saying I owed the $51 plus a $53 late fee. I promptly sent the money and asked that the late payment be deleted from my credit reports. The mortgage company refused, saying they would not and could not because of federal regulations.

I am about to get a mortgage loan to buy my daughter’s house, but now the rate will be at least 1 percentage point higher. Why would FICO scores drop over 100 points on one late payment? Anything I can do about this? How long will it be before my FICO scores are above at least 750 if there are no more late payments and my credit utilization stays below 10%?

Answer: “Federal regulations” can be a convenient punching bag for financial services companies, but they don’t prevent a lender or mortgage servicing company from deleting a late-payment notification for a good customer. The company should own up to the fact that this is its policy, not something imposed by the feds.

Your experience does show the potential downside of automatic payments and of impound accounts. (For those who don’t have impound accounts: They’re an arrangement by which the mortgage company collects payments for insurance and property taxes.) They can be enormously helpful when everything goes right, but they’re not “set it and forget it.”

Ideally, you would have made a note on your calendar to check that the larger payment was made on time and been able to quickly correct the error. There’s not much you can do now except ensure that all your bills are paid in full and on time from now on. It may take up to three years of stellar credit-handling behavior for your scores to break 800 again. Credit scores are like mountains — you can fall pretty quickly, but it takes a long time to regain lost ground.

The scores are extremely sensitive to late payments because that’s often the first sign of financial troubles that will end up in defaults, collections and bankruptcy. Credit reports and credit scores make no distinction between a late payment caused by human error versus one caused by lack of funds.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What to buy every month in 2019. Also in the news: Giving income updates to credit card companies, Experian adds a new way to strengthen your credit, and how the latest Fed decision affects rates on credit cards, mortgages and savings accounts.

What to Buy Every Month in 2019
Plan your purchases accordingly.

Should You Give Income Updates to Your Credit Card Issuer?
The pros and cons.

Experian ‘Boost’ Adds a New Way to Strengthen Your Credit
Utility bills can become a factor.

How the latest Fed rate decision affects rates on credit cards, mortgages, savings accounts
Understanding what it all means.