Q&A: Why you need a credit score even if you don’t like debt

Dear Liz: As I counsel my teenage kids about their personal finances, I am wondering if they can live without a credit score. It is puzzling that to get a good credit score, you need to have debt, or at least a credit card. Wouldn’t living debt free be best? With FICO scores becoming de rigueur, is it reasonable for anyone to get away with no credit score at all, especially if the only debt they would consider is a mortgage someday? Also, the credit reporting companies now have some adjunct services that provide reporting based on payments for rent and utilities that might be helpful. How effective are those reports?

Answer: Credit scores aren’t meant to gauge how well you manage money. They’re meant to gauge how well you handle credit. If you don’t have and use credit, you won’t have scores, and lenders will be reluctant to extend you credit when you want or need it.

You also may have to pay higher deposits for utilities, miss out on the best cellphone deals and have trouble renting an apartment. In most states, credit information helps determine property insurance premiums as well. In fact, your credit may matter more than your driving record in determining auto insurance premiums.

It’s a myth that you must be in debt to have good credit scores. You just need to have and lightly use a credit card, and you should pay it in full every month. Another option is a credit builder loan, through which the money you borrow is placed in a savings account or certificate of deposit for you to claim when you’ve finished making 12 monthly payments.

There are services that will add rent and utility payments to your credit reports. The most commonly used versions of the FICO score, however, don’t include that information in calculating scores.

Q&A: How a card switch affects your credit score

Dear Liz: I have one American Express card and two Visa cards, all of which I have held for many years. I received notice that my American Express card was being converted to a Visa card. I do not want a third Visa card but have no choice. For credit score purposes, will this conversion appear to be a closing of my old card and an application for a new one? Obviously, closing a long-held credit card and applying for a new one will affect my excellent credit score, which is 830. If I decided to apply for a new American Express card, how would that impact my score?

Answer: Conversions from one issuer to another can have a temporary negative impact on your credit scores as one account is closed and another opened. The effect should be minor as long as you have other open, active accounts.

Within a month or two, the new account should show the same history as the old one, and your scores should recover. (You have more than one credit score, by the way, and your scores change all the time. As long as they’re generally above 760 or so, you should get lenders’ best rates and terms.)

The type of card usually matters less than the benefits associated with the card. If those benefits are useful to you and are enough to offset any annual fee, consider keeping the card. Its long history and credit limit are likely helping your scores.

That doesn’t mean you have to keep a card you really don’t want. The fewer cards you have, though, the more careful you probably need to be about closing one.

You can still add an American Express or other card to your portfolio. Adding a new card typically dings your scores less than five points. The effect is temporary, and the new account could contribute positively to your scores over time.

Q&A: Lowering credit limits

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about a woman who asked her credit card issuer to lower her credit limits. While it’s true that lowering your credit limit on a card can have a negative effect on your credit scores, it may be needed to leave credit room for new cards, as your total credit across cards vs. your annual income is considered. And of course your credit score won’t suffer when balances are paid down before the statement date.

Answer: Credit scoring formulas calculate your credit utilization based on the amount of credit you’re using on the day that the card issuer reports your account to the credit bureaus each month. That’s usually, but not always, the balance as of the statement closing date. Making a payment just before that date often lowers your credit utilization and can help your scores.

So yes, making a payment before the statement closing date can offset the negative impact of lowered limits. However, it would be rather foolish for an individual to request lower limits thinking that a credit card issuer might prefer them to have less credit. Typically, healthy credit limits are a sign you’re managing your credit well. Even if a credit card issuer might look askance at your available credit, you won’t know exactly where to draw that line. Credit card issuers have different policies on how they set credit limits, and they typically don’t broadcast how those decisions are made.

Q&A: Credit scores and card limits

Dear Liz: I have a 780 credit score but noted that one of my cards doesn’t count in the percent of credit used. I have had this card for 44 years and I could charge a couple hundred thousand dollars on a single purchase if I chose to, yet credit scoring formulas don’t figure in the “credit I have available” from Amex. Seems unfair?

Answer: As credit cards with six-figure limits are rare, what you’re describing is probably a charge card. Unlike credit cards, charge cards don’t have preset spending limits. They also don’t allow you to carry a balance from month to month, typically.

The “percent of credit used” you mention is called credit utilization, and it’s a large factor in credit scoring formulas. Credit utilization measures how much of your available credit you’re using, and the bigger the gap between your credit limits and your balances, the better.

But the credit utilization calculation can’t be made if one of the numbers — the credit limit — is missing. The only way the formulas would be able to calculate credit utilization in that case would be to assume that whatever amount you charged is equal to your credit limit, and that would be disastrous for your scores.

Q&A: Paying taxes with plastic

Dear Liz: I am selling a rental property that I have owned for several years. I know I could do a 1031 exchange, which would allow me to put off the tax bill by investing in another commercial property. But I just want out. I’ll pay the capital gains tax and invest the rest of the proceeds. I am considering paying the taxes by credit card and taking on the 3% premium to get rewards points offered through the card issuer. Is this a dumb idea, or does it have some merit?

Answer: The companies that process federal tax payments have processing fees of just under 2%, not 3%. You’ll still want to make sure you get more value from your rewards than you pay in fees, and that’s not a given. If your card offers only 1.5% cash back, for example, charging your taxes doesn’t make a lot of sense. But the math changes if you can get more than 2% in rewards, or if you could use the charge to help you meet the minimum spending requirements for a new credit card with a generous sign-up bonus.

If you do charge your taxes, you’ll obviously want to pay the balance in full before incurring any interest.

Q&A: Refreshing an old credit card

Dear Liz: I have and use three credit cards, two of which offer cash-back rewards. The third has no rewards program, so I would like to get rid of it and replace it with a new card that offers cash back or miles. But I’m afraid if I cancel this card my credit score will take a hit, especially since the card has a big chunk of my overall credit limit. What do you suggest?

Answer: You can ask the issuer for a “product change,” which allows you to swap one card for another without closing your account. Typically, your history with the old card is simply transferred to the new one, as is your credit limit.

The new card must be from the same issuer and you usually won’t qualify for any sign-up bonuses. But you won’t risk damaging your scores by closing one account and applying for another.

Research the issuer’s offerings and know which card you want before you call. This is usually a fairly routine process, but if you encounter any resistance, just mention that your other option is to cancel the card. If you’ve been a good customer, the issuer probably will want to keep your business.

A product change also can be a good idea if you want to switch from a rewards card with a high annual fee to one with a lower fee, or no fee. Any rewards you’ve already earned may not be transferable, so be sure to ask.

Q&A: How to keep your lightly used credit cards from closing

Dear Liz: I had a credit card that didn’t expire until 2024 but the issuer closed my account because it hadn’t been used in a few years. During these difficult times, I didn’t want to get into a lot of debt by using too many cards. The issuer should have let me know this could happen so that I could have used it at least once a year.

Answer: You’re smart not to want to charge your way into debt. If you want to keep a credit card from being closed for inactivity, though, you need to use it — and probably more than once a year.

One way to do so is to charge a recurring cost, such as a streaming video subscription, to the card. You can set up the payment to be automatic as well. You should still review the account’s transactions every month to ensure everything is working as planned and no fraudulent charges have been made. But otherwise, this approach is a low-effort way to keep open your access to credit.

Q&A: Downside of unused credit cards

Dear Liz: In the past, you have recommended not canceling credit cards because doing so can hurt credit scores. Over the years, my husband has signed up for at least a dozen credit cards, eight of which we never use and have not used for as long as 10 years. He signed up for another card recently because it offered attractive cash rewards. Is having so many credit cards advisable and safe? Does it make us more vulnerable to identity theft? Without hurting our credit scores, may we discontinue the older cards we have stopped using? Is there any drawback to having multiple, perhaps dozens, of credit cards, especially if some are older and never used?

Answer: The biggest downside to having a bunch of unused credit cards is having to monitor all those accounts for fraudulent transactions, and perhaps paying unnecessary annual fees. The unused accounts add to the amount of available credit you have, which is a positive factor for credit scores.

If you’re concerned about identity theft, your best move would be to freeze your credit reports at all three bureaus. Such freezes are now free, and you can easily “thaw” the freeze temporarily if you want to apply for credit.

Credit freezes make it harder for criminals to open new accounts in your name. If a criminal uses one of your existing accounts, you’re typically protected. The vast majority of credit cards offer “zero liability,” which means you won’t be held responsible for fraudulent charges. Even without zero liability, federal law limits your liability to $50.

If monitoring multiple accounts is too much hassle, though, then he should consider closing some of the cards. If he’s paying fees for cards he’s not using, another option is to ask the issuer for a “product change” to a card that doesn’t charge fees.

Q&A: Here’s why you shouldn’t put that huge hospital bill on a credit card

Dear Liz: Because of COVID, my 27-year-old son lost his job and health insurance. He was unable to afford continued health insurance and did not qualify for Medicaid. He contracted spinal meningitis and was hospitalized 12 days. The hospital reduced his bill to $28,000 from the original $80,000, but he is still unable to pay. He remains unemployed and without any savings. What would you suggest he do?

Answer: Your son should first call the hospital and ask about applying for financial assistance. Federal law requires nonprofit hospitals to offer this help to low-income patients, and many for-profit hospitals also offer programs that can reduce or even eliminate the charges.

He also should ask about a payment plan geared to what’s left of his income. He should resist any hospital pressure to put the bill on a credit card, because hospital payment plans typically don’t charge interest while credit cards do.

If he’s still left with a bill he can’t pay, he should consult a bankruptcy attorney, and do so as soon as possible. Bankruptcy experts are predicting a big uptick in filings as people and businesses struggle with fallout from the pandemic.

Q&A: Too many credit cards? Protect your credit scores while closing accounts

Dear Liz: Over the years, my husband and I have accumulated a number of credit cards. All have had a zero balance for years. I want to start canceling these cards, but I’m concerned that will hurt our great credit scores. How should I go about this, or should I?

Answer: As you probably know, closing credit accounts won’t help your scores and may hurt them. That doesn’t mean you can never close a credit card, but you shouldn’t close a bunch of them at once or close any if you’ll be in the market for a major loan, such as a mortgage or auto loan.

If you’re not planning to borrow money in the near future, then you can start closing accounts one at a time. You’ll probably want to keep the cards with the highest credit limits, and perhaps your oldest card as well. Monitor your scores to see how long they take to recover from each closure. You may need to wait a few months before shutting the next account.

Be sure to use your remaining cards occasionally by charging small amounts and paying the balance in full. That will keep the cards active and help prevent the issuer from canceling them.