There’s more than one way out of credit card debt

Dear Liz: In your book “Your Credit Score,” you note that one of the best ways to improve your credit score and lighten your credit card load is to get a personal loan with a credit union and pay it off in installments.

I have two high-interest credit card balances that are hovering right near my credit limits (a little over $15,000 total) that comprise the vast majority of my debt. I’d love to get an installment loan to pay them off, but I’ve applied several times and several places for personal loans — including my credit union — and have either been denied or not given a sufficient loan to cover the total amount. I also don’t have $15,000 in cash sitting around in a savings account to secure a loan of that size.

In this situation, what would you recommend? The minimum payments on these two cards are roughly $190 and $160 each, and I’d love to be able to combine them and maybe even save a few bucks too.

Answer: What you seem to be talking about is a secured personal loan, rather than one that’s unsecured. Secured personal loans typically require that you have an equivalent amount in a bank account or certificate of deposit as collateral for the loan. If you have the cash, though, you wouldn’t need the loan — you could use the money to pay off your debt.

Unsecured personal loans don’t have collateral. The bank or credit union is relying on your word that you’ll repay the loan. Not surprisingly, lenders can be pretty picky about whose word they will trust. Few will take a risk on borrowers with poor credit scores — and those maxed-out cards, accompanied by all those loan applications, aren’t helping yours.

For now, give up the idea of getting a loan. Instead, take whatever cash you have to pay down the cards as far as you can. Retain $500 or so as an emergency fund, but put the rest to use in eliminating this high-rate debt.

Next, start cutting expenses so you can free up more money to repay your debt. Do you eat out? Cut back. Pay for TV? Ditch the cable. Take vacations? Stay home for a while. None of these sacrifices has to be more than temporary, as long as you’re willing to stop adding to your debt.

Paying credit card debt is a lot like losing weight. If you don’t make much effort, you won’t get much result. But sending in big payments each month will help you see progress pretty quickly, which can inspire you to keep going.

Once you’ve got the debt paid off, don’t charge more on the cards than you can afford to pay off each month.

Adjustable mortgage poses risks

Dear Liz: Should my retired wife (age 74) and I (age 78) refinance our home just to lower our monthly payment by $100? I’m considering going for a five-year fixed at 2.74% followed by a 25-year variable. Our outstanding loans amount to $200,000. The value of our home has decreased to $400,000. My wife is fearful of the 25-year variable.

Answer: As she should be. According to mortality tables, she’d have to live with it longer than you will.

You two are old enough to remember the double-digit inflation of the 1970s and the havoc that wreaked. If inflation like that (or anything close) were to return, your mortgage payment could quickly become unaffordable.

Economists are concerned that all the cash that’s been pumped into the economy to fight the downturn could spark inflation if growth resumes. Too much cash chasing too few goods is what traditionally has led to serious inflation.

In any case, lenders know that today’s record low interest rates won’t last. That’s why they’re so eager to push loans that will become variable at some point — so that the borrowers will be the ones to shoulder the interest rate risk.

Some borrowers can take that risk, but they tend to be younger folks whose incomes are also likely to rise if inflation returns. For people on fixed incomes, the math really doesn’t work.

Do yourself and your wife a favor. If your current loan has a fixed rate, stay with what you have. If it doesn’t, consider refinancing to one that does.

When you should consider bankruptcy

The conventional wisdom—that people who file for bankruptcy are deadbeats who choose not to pay their debts—is typically dead wrong.

Ask any bankruptcy judge or trustee. Most people who file for bankruptcy don’t do it as a first resort. Most people, in fact, put off filing for far too long. They struggle for years with impossible debts, often draining retirement funds or home equity in vain attempts to satisfy their creditors. The tragedy is that the money they’re pulling from their IRAs or their homes would be protected from those same creditors if they had filed for bankruptcy sooner. But they try to do the right thing, and as a result wind up far worse off than they might have been.

Add up all your unsecured debts. Unsecured debts include:

  • Credit card debt
  • Medical bills
  • Unsecured personal loans
  • Loans from friends and family

Unsecured debt does not include auto loans, mortgages or student loans.

If your unsecured debts equal half or more of your current income, then you should make two appointments:

  1. Visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and set up an appointment with a legitimate credit counselor. These folks can tell you if you may qualify for a debt management plan that would allow you to pay off your credit card debt within three to five years. Credit counselors try to help you avoid bankruptcy, so to get a complete picture of your options you should also:
  2. Visit the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys and get a referral to a nearby experienced bankruptcy attorney. The attorney can review your situation and let you know your options in bankruptcy court. Many of these attorneys offer free or discounted initial sessions.

Even if you’re determined to avoid bankruptcy, you should consult with a bankruptcy attorney about your situation if you’re being sued over your debts or your wages have been garnished to pay your debts. Once the courts are involved, you need a lawyer’s help.

How to bounce back from bad credit

Foreclosure, bankruptcy or a history of missing payments can send your credit scores into the basement. The good news: nothing is permanent in the world of credit and credit scoring. You can rehabilitate your scores over time if you know how.

Here’s what to do:

Pull your credit reports from all three bureaus. Check for errors and dispute any serious mistakes, such as accounts that aren’t yours or late payments being reported when you paid on time.

If you don’t have any credit cards, apply for a secured card. These cards give you a credit line that’s equal to the amount of cash you deposit with the issuing bank. NerdWallet recommends the Capital One Secured Card and the Orchard Bank Secured Card.

Use your cards lightly but regularly. Your charges shouldn’t total more than about 30% of your credit limit—10% or less would be even better. And you shouldn’t charge more than you can afford to pay off in full every month. Carrying balances doesn’t help your credit scores, and it’s expensive. So don’t do it.

Apply for an installment loan. Your credit scores will recover faster if you have a mix of credit, which means both revolving accounts (credit cards) and installment accounts (mortgages, auto loans, student loans). If you don’t already have an installment loan, consider applying for a personal loan from your local credit union. These member-owned financial institutions often have been rates and more flexible credit standards than traditional banks. Don’t belong to a credit union? You can find one you’re eligible to join here.

Pay your bills on time, all of the time. One skipped payment can devastate your scores. So can an account that’s charged off, or that’s turned over to collections.

You can track your progress by using a credit monitoring service that includes your credit score. Some sites, like Credit Karma, offer credit monitoring for free, although the credit score you get isn’t the FICO score most lenders use. To get your FICO, you’ll need to sign up with MyFico.com.

Will home sale trigger eviction?

Dear Liz: Our landlady has been diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. In her precarious health, I find myself concerned that we may have to move if she gives up the duplex and moves to a care facility.

I’m unemployed and my 72-year-old husband has recently been diagnosed with early stages of dementia. I find it difficult to face the prospect of returning to work and finding proper care for him even though I know I need to do so very soon.

If she sells the duplex or leaves it to someone in her will should she die, what protection do we have against having to move out in a hurry or have our rent raised dramatically? Either situation would put us into chaos. What are our options?

Answer: If you have a lease, that contract typically would survive a change in ownership. The new owner would have to honor its terms until the lease was up. If you rent month to month, the new owner would have to follow minimum notice requirements determined by your state to raise your rent or terminate your tenancy. The Nolo website at http://www.nolo.com has additional information about tenants’ rights.

If you can no longer afford your rent, you may be eligible for government housing assistance if your income is sufficiently low. You can find more information by using the Eldercare Locator at http://www.eldercare.gov or calling (800) 677-1116. You should check out this federal service’s resources in any case, since you will have a big task ahead of you in caring for your husband even if nothing changes in your living situation.

Other good sites to explore include the Alzheimer’s Assn. at http://www.alz.org, which has information for caregivers and a “care locator” that can help you find care options in your community such as adult day centers, in-home care and respite care. And speaking of respite, you also should check out the ARCH National Respite Network at archrespite.org for people who can help when you need a break.

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.”

The best used cars, from Edmunds.com

If you’re in the market to replace a vehicle, check out Edmunds.com’s list of 2012 Used Car Best Bets, which include:

Compact Sedan: 2005-2010 Hyundai Elantra
Midsize Sedan: 2005-2010 Nissan Altima

Large Sedan: 2006-2010 Hyundai Azera
Coupe: 2005-2010 BMW 3 Series
Convertible:
2005-2010 Mazda Miata
Wagon:
2005-2010 Pontiac Vibe
Compact SUV/Crossover:
2005-2010 Honda CR-V
Midsize SUV/Crossover:
2005-2010 Ford Explorer
Large SUV/Crossover:
2005-2010 Chevrolet Tahoe
Minivan/Van:
2005-2010 Honda Odyssey
Compact Truck:
2005-2010 Toyota Tacoma
Large Truck:
2005-2010 Ford F-150
Luxury:
2005-2010 Infiniti G35/G37
Hybrid:
2005-2010 Toyota Prius

Sport Compact: 2005-2010 Subaru Impreza WRX

Edmunds.com editors picked the cars based on reliability, safety, value and availability. The editors considered cars that were two to seven years old, which is pretty much the sweet spot for used car purchases.

Since all cars are used cars as soon as you drive them off the lot, you might as well let someone else take the depreciation hit. You can tens of thousands of dollars over your driving lifetime by buying slightly used cars. Save even more by paying cash and keeping them for 10 years or so.

For more details on Edmunds.com’s list, visit http://www.edmunds.com/car-reviews/best-used-cars.html.

Don’t put college savings into custodial accounts

Dear Liz: I opened Uniform Transfers to Minors Act savings accounts for my two boys (now 7 and 10) when they were newborns. I chose not to go with the 529 college savings accounts because I didn’t like the restriction that the money had to be used for education. It has always been my intention to use these funds for college, but if they choose not to go to college, then it could be used to help them purchase their first homes, for example.

I’ve been squirreling away a couple hundred dollars each month in each account, but I read a few of your previous pieces and think maybe the UTMA accounts were not the best vehicle for this. Could they one day just demand the money and do with it whatever they want?

Answer: The short answer is yes. In most states, the money will become theirs at age 21 to spend however they want, although a few states let them have it at 18.

The other big disadvantage to custodial accounts such as UTMA and UGMA (Uniform Gifts to Minors Act) accounts is that they’re counted as the child’s asset in financial aid calculations. That can substantially reduce the amount of aid they get.

But even more important than the financial details is your attitude. You need to give up this notion that not going to college is a reasonable option for your kids. In the 21st century, some kind of post-secondary education is all but a necessity for a person to remain in the middle class, labor economists tell us. Your sons don’t have to study at a four-year school, but they are likely to need at least some vocational training beyond high school.

If you want to reduce the effect of these accounts on any future financial aid packages, you have a couple of options. One is to spend the money before they get to college, although that’s probably not the route you’ll want to take, given how much money you’ve already saved. If the accounts were smaller, you might just use them to buy a computer, pay for summer camp or cover the cost of tutoring. Such expenditures are allowed as long as the money is spent for the benefit of the child and doesn’t pay for expenses that are your obligation as a parent (food, shelter, clothing, medical care).

Another option is to liquidate the accounts and invest the cash in 529 plans. This would dramatically reduce the money’s effect on financial aid calculations, since it would be considered your asset rather than your child’s. The money could be withdrawn tax free to pay for qualified higher education expenses. If it’s not used for higher education, the contribution portion of the withdrawal won’t be taxed as income, but any earnings will be, plus there will be a 10% federal tax penalty on those earnings.

If you decide to transfer the money, the 529 account should be titled the same way as your UTMA accounts, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the college planning website FinAid. Ownership of the account shifts to the child when he reaches the age the UTMA account would have terminated. That gives him control of the money if it’s not spent on education, but he would have had that anyway. You can read more about the details at http://www.finaid.org/savings/ugma.phtml.

“Authorized user” info may not be enough

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about a young man who was turned down for a car loan because he graduated from college debt free and had no credit history. This is the same scenario my daughter encountered this past year.

Despite having a solid job for three years at a good salary, plenty of money in the bank (more than $10,000) and no expenses to speak of, she was turned down repeatedly for credit cards because of “no credit history.” She had been an “authorized user” of our cards for several years. (We have excellent credit scores.) She was told that she needed to be a responsible party on the cards for them to be counted in her application.

I would tell parents to have their child obtain a credit card through the bank or credit union that has her college checking account. That’s what we did with our youngest, who is just completing college and now has a credit history.

Answer: You bring up an excellent point. Although authorized user information can enhance someone’s credit scores, lenders usually have additional criteria they want applicants to meet, such as minimum income levels, job stability and a certain “thickness” to their credit files (which might include other types of credit accounts besides authorized-user accounts).

New credit regulations make it somewhat more difficult than it used to be to qualify for a credit card while in college, but it still can be easier to get a card while in school than afterward.

How to get free summer travel

My daughter hasn’t seen her cousins in the Northwest for awhile, so I just finished booking us a late-summer trip to see them. The net cost so far? Less than $30.

Here’s how I did it:

Amtrak roomette. We both love train travel, and the points I earn using my Starwood American Express card transfer directly to my Amtrak Guest Rewards program. Fifteen thousand points buys us a roomette, or double-bunk room, and all our meals for the 30-hour trip. Paying cash would have cost $411. (NerdWallet has a review of the Starwood card here.) I did have to buy a few extra points from Amtrak to make the purchase, since I recently depleted our Starwood points to book a hotel room for five nights in Hawaii. The good news is that Amtrak is offering a 30% bonus when you buy points, so I got 1,300 points for $27.50.

Hotel rooms. I’m a Hilton HHonors member, so I checked online for affordable hotels in Portland. Fortunately, the Hilton chain includes options from inexpensive (Hampton Inn, a great value) to astronomical (Waldorf-Astoria). I could have used 30,000 points to get us a free room, but that wouldn’t have been a great exchange rate, since rooms with two queen beds were available for less than $100 a night at the Doubletree. Here’s the beauty part: I’ll get 15 points per dollar spent for this stay, but it won’t actually cost me anything. That’s because the room is charged to our Capital One Venture card, which reimburses us for travel. We earn two points for every dollar we spend with the card, and we can use those points to offset the cost of travel. We book any flight, hotel or rental car we want, click on a button at the Capital One website to request a travel credit, and the rebate quickly appears on our account. Easy peasy. (CreditCardForum.com has a review of the Capital One Venture cards here.)

Flight home. We didn’t have a lot of flexibility on our return date, and I wanted to fly Alaska Airlines, where I’m (usually) an elite flier. I had enough Alaska miles to do a miles-and-cash deal—20,000 miles and $190 got us our flights home. And once again, Capital One will reimburse us for the cost of the flight.

I’ll still be shelling out for meals and museum admissions; Dear Daughter will pay for her own souvenirs and treats from her allowance and savings. All in all though, it promises to be a pretty cheap getaway.

Travel rewards programs don’t make sense for everyone. If you don’t pay off your credit card balances in full every month, for example, you should look for cards with low interest rates and skip the rewards versions, which tend to have higher rates. But if you spend a fair amount and travel a fair amount, as we do, you can wrest quite a bit of value out of your rewards programs.