Q&A: Do credit scores punish you for not carrying debt?

Dear Liz: I am fortunate to be able to afford homeownership without having to obtain a mortgage. The same is true of owning cars without a car loan. I pay my credit card bills in full each month. In short, I do not carry any debt.

However, it seems to me that I am being “punished” by not carrying a load of debt. My credit score is reduced by this lack of debt and I am wondering why this is.

Answer: The most commonly used credit scores don’t “know” if you’re carrying credit card debt or not. The balances used in credit score calculations are the balances the card issuers report to the bureaus on a given day (often your statement balances). You could pay the balance off the next day, or carry it for the next month, and it would have no impact on your scores.

A small part of credit scoring formulas measure your mix of credit, or whether you have both revolving accounts (such as credit cards) and installment loans (mortgages, car loans, student loans, etc.) You may get higher scores if you added an installment loan to your mix. If your scores are low, it can be worth adding a small personal loan to boost them. If your scores are good, though, it may not be worth the effort and interest expense.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Managing debt in retirement takes some planning. Also in the news: Why your credit score means both everything and nothing, 5 ways to save on energy during the dog days of summer, and what the Dept. of Ed’s proposed new rules on debt forgiveness requirements means.

Managing Debt in Retirement Takes Some Planning
What you can do to still retire comfortably.

Your Credit Score Means Everything — and Nothing
Don’t be afraid to look.

5 Ways to Save Energy During the Dog Days of Summer
Baby, it’s hot outside.

What the Department of Ed’s Proposed New Rules on Debt Forgiveness Requirements Mean for You
Rules are tightening up.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: This could be the biggest blow to your retirement. Also in the news: How one couple ditched their debt, why good credit is essential when remodeling a home, and how to apply for a credit card with no credit.

This Could Be the Biggest Blow to Your Retirement
The battle with healthcare costs.

How I Ditched Debt: ‘It Became Like a Game to Us’
One couple’s story.

Remodeling Your Home? Good Credit Offers a Strong Foundation
The better the credit, the better the offers.

How to Apply for a Credit Card With No Credit Score
Exploring the options.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: The benefits of a just-for-debt credit card. Also in the news: July’s stock market outlook, bogus organic fruit, and how long it takes your credit score to recover from a drastic drop.

Just-for-Debt Credit Card: It Has One Job
Use this card for only one thing.

Stock Market Outlook: A Market That Giveth and Taketh Away
Buckle your seat belts.

$6 Million in Bogus Organic Fruit Sold to U.S., Costa Rican Report Finds
Bogus pineapples fill the shelves.

How Long It Takes Your Credit Score to Recover from a Drastic Drop
Be prepared to wait.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to save money by thinking like a college student. Also in the news: What an average retirement costs, how soon should you worry about your credit, and how to budget for your kids’ summer vacation.

Save Money by Thinking Like a College Student
You can skip the ramen.

Let’s Get Real: What an Average Retirement Costs
Breaking down the numbers.

Ask Brianna: I’m 18. Should I Worry About My Credit Yet?
It’s never too soon.

How to Budget for Your Kids’ Summer Vacation
Summer can get very pricey.

Don’t let your credit die of neglect

Certified financial planner David Rae says he used to think that “anyone who could draw breath” could get an auto loan. Then one of his millionaire clients tried to buy a car — and failed.

The 42-year-old client was turned down for a loan because he had no credit scores , says Rae, who is based in Los Angeles.

Nineteen million American adults are “unscoreable,” lacking enough recent credit history to generate credit scores, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. They either have “thin” files, with too few accounts, or “stale” ones that haven’t been updated in a while. In my latest for the Associated Press, find out how having no scores can cost you.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Seeking smart, funny – and a credit score above 700. Also in the news: Wellness travel helps you tune up or tune out, what you need to know about investing in IPOs, and a major tax mistake to avoid if you have student loans.

Seeking Smart, Funny — and a Credit Score Above 700
Your credit score could impact your dating options.

Wellness Travel Helps You Tune Up or Tune Out
Getting in touch with what matters.

What You Need to Know About Investing in IPOs
Proceed with caution.

Got student loans? Don’t make this major tax mistake
Don’t forget to deduct your interest.

Q&A: Credit scores come in many forms

Dear Liz: I am now getting my credit score from three different places: my bank, one of my credit cards and a free online site. Why are all three of the scores always different?

Answer: You don’t have one credit score, you have many and they change all the time. Furthermore, you’re probably looking at scores created with different formulas that may be using information from different credit bureaus.

The FICO 8 is the most commonly used score, but the number you see may vary depending on whether the data is drawn from Equifax, Experian or TransUnion credit bureau and when the score was created. Your scores will change as lenders update the information in your credit report. FICO scores may also be tweaked for different industries, such as credit cards or auto loans, and be on a 250-to-900 scale rather than the 300-to-850 scale of other FICO scores. FICO scores also come in different generations, so your FICO Bankcard Score 2 may be different from your FICO Bankcard Score 5.

Free sites typically offer VantageScores, created by the three bureaus to be a rival to FICO. These scores are also used by lenders, but not to the same extent as FICO scores.

Q&A: The reasons behind falling credit score

Dear Liz: Please explain to me how one’s credit depreciates. After paying off my home, my credit score went from mid-700 to mid-600. There were no changes or inquiries. I built it back up to 734, got into a tight spot and took a loan from my bank. I just checked the score again and now it’s 687. I have not been late or missed a payment. I thought keeping current on all payments and in some cases paying more would help, but it’s not. I need some help and direction.

Answer: We’ll assume that you’ve been monitoring the same type of score from the same credit bureau. (You don’t have just one credit score, you have many, and they can vary quite a bit depending on the credit bureau report on which they’re based and the formula used.)

Paying off a mortgage could have a minor negative impact on your credit scores if that was your only installment loan. Credit score formulas typically reward you for having a mix of installment loans and revolving accounts, such as credit cards.

But the drop shouldn’t have been that big. Something else probably triggered the decline, such as an unusually large balance on one of your credit cards.

Scoring formulas are sensitive to how much of your available credit you’re using, so you may be able to restore points by paying down your debt if you carry a balance or charging less if you pay in full each month. There’s no advantage to carrying a balance, by the way, so it’s better to pay off your cards every month.

Q&A: Building an emergency fund beats out building credit

Dear Liz: I am trying to raise my credit scores, which are very low. I have one negative mark on my account from a paid collection and I just got my first secured credit card. I have a bit of extra money right now and I’m wondering what’s the best way to use it to raise my scores. Should I get another secured credit card from a different issuer, get a secured 12-month loan through my financial institution or something else?

Answer: People rebuilding their credit often overlook the importance of an emergency fund. Having even a small amount of savings can keep a financial setback, such as a decrease in income or an unexpected expense, from causing you to miss a payment and undoing all your efforts to boost your scores. You can start with just a few hundred dollars and slowly build the fund over time.

Adding an installment loan can assist with building credit as well, but a secured loan may not be the best option if money is tight. The cash you deposit with the lender as collateral for the loan won’t be available again until you pay off the loan. Consider instead a credit-builder loan, in which the money you borrow is placed in a savings account or certificate of deposit to be claimed when you’ve finished making the monthly payments, typically after one year. That means you can keep the cash you already have for emergencies. Credit-builder loans are available from some credit unions and Self Lender, an online company.

You’ll want to make sure both the credit card issuer and the installment loan lender are reporting your payments to the three credit bureaus. If your accounts don’t show up on your credit reports, they’re not helping to build your scores.

In addition to making payments on time, you’ll want to avoid using too much of the available credit on the card. There’s no bright line for how much to charge, but typically 30% or less is good, 20% or less is better and 10% or less is best. Use the card lightly but regularly and pay it off in full every month because there’s no advantage to carrying a balance.