Many goals, few resources: How do you focus?

Dear Liz: I have read tons of books on finance and debt repayment, but I’m having trouble deciding what to do next. My husband and I are 52. He receives a monthly disability income, and I work two days a week. We still have about $105,000 left before our mortgage is paid off. We also owe about $7,000 in credit card debt and $5,500 in overdraft charges.

Should I concentrate solely on paying off debt, including the mortgage? Should we modestly renovate our 20-year-old home because after six kids, it is in need of a little TLC? We could downsize, but I’m somewhat emotionally attached to this house, and downsizing would still mean renovating to get the house in shape to sell. At the same time, we’d like to start a small business in our town. It wouldn’t be a huge investment of money, but it’s an outlay nonetheless. I don’t really want to wait five or 10 years to have to do this because it would mean income for one of our children who needs it and sometimes has to rely on us financially. How should I focus?

Answer: You didn’t say a word about retirement savings, but that should be a priority for most people.

If you don’t make a lot of money, Social Security is designed to replace 40% to 50% of your earnings. (The more you make, the less Social Security will replace, on the assumption that you’ve had more opportunity to save.) But most people, of any income level, would have trouble adjusting to living solely on their Social Security checks.

You can estimate your future benefit checks by using the Social Security Administration’s calculator at http://www.ssa.gov/estimator. Your results will be based on your actual earnings. Then you can use the AARP calculator (in the “work and retirement” section of the website) to figure out how much you need to save to have a comfortable retirement. You may not be able to reach that goal, but you should at least try to put aside something to improve your future life.

You don’t need to be in a rush to pay off your mortgage, but you should target that credit card debt and that shocking amount of overdraft charges. You also should know that renovations rarely pay for themselves when you’re ready to sell a home. At best, you typically get back 80 cents for every dollar you spend. A better approach is to make some cosmetic fixes that don’t cost a lot, such as new paint, clean windows and freshened-up landscaping.

As for opening a store, understand that small businesses can take a while to get off the ground. If you don’t have adequate savings or access to a line of credit, the business could fail and take your investment with it. The Small Business Administration at http://www.sba.gov has resources and Small Business Development Centers to help you understand what lies ahead. Do your research before you begin, and consider holding off at least until your toxic debts are repaid.

Finally, you didn’t explain why your child needs your money. If he or she is still a minor, that’s one thing. If he or she is an adult and not disabled in some way, however, then the parental dole needs to stop. It doesn’t sound like you and your husband are adequately providing for your futures. Your kids need to know they have to provide for their own.

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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.”

“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.

Don’t count on plastic to cover big expenses

Dear Liz: I’m 27 and have no consumer debt, a decent salary and a boatload of student loans. I use my credit cards for most of my expenses to earn rewards points and generally pay off my cards each month. I also take advantage of the 0% introductory rate offered by many credit card companies. This grace period gives me a security blanket so that I can spread large expenses such as insurance or car repairs over several months without derailing my saving plans. Can I apply for these offers without wrecking my excellent scores?

Answer: Occasionally applying for a new card won’t affect your scores much. Typically such applications ding your scores by five points or less.

You should be budgeting and saving for large expenses, however, rather than leaning on your cards. (Car repairs, in particular, aren’t really “emergency” costs — if you have a car, you know they’re coming, and calculators like Edmunds.com’s “True Cost to Own” feature can give you a good idea of what they’re likely to be.) Those 0% offers often come with balance transfer fees or other charges that make the deals a lot less attractive than they seem at first glance.

Also, you should be in the habit of always paying your cards in full — always. “Generally” isn’t good enough, since you could easily be enticed into spending beyond your means, especially as you chase rewards points. Rewards cards are a good deal only if you don’t carry a balance. Otherwise, you can pay frighteningly high interest rates that offset any benefit you may earn.

How to find the right rewards card

Dear Liz: Should we get a rewards card? We have excellent credit scores. I’m a stay-at-home mom and my husband has a good, steady job. We spend about $6,000 a month with our debit card or automatic drafts from our checking account. I think our family should have a rewards card. My husband disagrees and says that for the amount we spend each month, we wouldn’t rack up any points. Is he right? If we should get a card, how do we pick the right one?

Answer: If you’re positive you’ll pay your credit card bill in full every month, you would be great candidates for a rewards card.

Right now, you’re passing up at least $720 in rewards annually. That assumes you’d be getting a card that rebates 1% of your purchases. With excellent credit scores, you could qualify for even richer rewards cards, since those are reserved for people with the best credit.

The simplest rewards cards are the cash-back cards, which rebate a portion of the purchases you make. Card comparison site NerdWallet recently named the Chase Freedom card as the best cash-back card with no annual fee. The card gives you a $200 sign-up bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months. All your purchases earn 1%, and you can earn a 5% rebate on certain categories of spending that change every three months.

NerdWallet also recommends American Express Blue Cash Preferred, which offers a $100 bonus if you spend $500 in the first two months. Supermarket purchases earn 6% cash back, and spending at gas stations and department stores earn 3%. Everything else earns 1%. “There is an annual fee of $75,” NerdWallet.com notes, “but your rewards easily offset the cost. In fact, $25 in groceries every week is enough to make up the difference.”

There are other types of rewards cards that earn points or miles for travel, or discounts on gas. You can learn more about these cards and shop for offers at NerdWallet or one of the other card comparison sites, including CardRatings.com, CreditCards.com and LowCards.com.

It’s important, once you get the card, to keep track of your spending so you never accumulate a balance you can’t pay in full. Always pay your account on time, since a single skipped payment can knock up to 110 points off those excellent scores.