Q&A: Dumping debt could make you ‘credit invisible.’ Why that’s a problem and how to fix it

Dear Liz: I have a credit card issue that I’ve not been able to resolve and hope that you can provide some helpful suggestions. I am a debt-free senior. I owe nothing on my house or vehicles and I pay off my one credit card each month. I’ve no missing payments on utilities. My credit card reduced my credit limit last year saying that my credit scores were too low. In fact they’ve fallen from 800s to 600s over the last year. The bank that issues my business credit card says they use an algorithm that allows no human interaction for adjustments for people like me who are debt-free. Any suggestions?

Answer: Many people who once had good credit become “credit invisible” if they’ve paid off all their loans and stopped using credit cards.

But regularly using a credit card or two should be enough to stay visible to the credit score algorithms and to keep good scores. The problem may be the type of card you’re using. Business credit cards often don’t show up on personal credit reports, so your use of the card wouldn’t be included in credit score calculations. If that’s the case, consider applying for a personal card to start rebuilding your scores.

The other possibility is that you’ve become the victim of identity theft. Please check your credit reports at the three major credit bureaus. You can do so for free by typing AnnualCreditReport.com into your browser window or by calling (877) 322-8228.

Q&A: Credit freezes

Dear Liz: You recently suggested a credit freeze. I agree that’s a good idea, and probably the only good way, to try to protect your credit.

But I’ve tried to periodically unfreeze my credit reports and that rarely goes well. The banks won’t tell you which credit bureau or bureaus they use to check your credit, so you have to temporarily thaw your reports at all three. This weekend, only one bureau worked well. At another, I was able to sign on but got a message the site was temporarily unable to access my information. The third didn’t recognize any of my possible usernames, so I tried my Social Security number and date of birth, which it also didn’t recognize. I’m SURE I don’t have those wrong, so I’d say part or all of their database is offline. More than likely I’ll be able to sort this out on a weekday when the bureaus staff their phones, but so far, I’ve worked on unfreezing my credit for two days and only one of the three services responded correctly.

Answer: Freezing and thawing your credit reports is certainly easier and faster than it used to be — plus, these services are now free by federal law. But as you’ve learned, you need to keep careful track of the credentials associated with your accounts at each credit bureau, including any login IDs, passwords and personal identification numbers.

You can write this information down and keep it in a secure location, but also consider using a password manager. These secure software programs allow you to create unique credentials for each site you visit. Given the prevalence of database breaches, it’s essential that you don’t reuse usernames and passwords. The programs also can help you change your passwords regularly, which is also important in keeping your information secure.

Q&A: How young people can build their credit

Dear Liz: Our 23-year-old daughter has a low-limit credit card from her bank, primarily to build her credit history. For the same purpose, we also added her as an authorized user on one of our credit cards (yes, we can trust her). When she checked her credit reports recently at annualcreditreport.com, one of the agencies produced a report but another claimed they couldn’t find her. Is that normal for a relatively new credit user? Could it possibly be because she has a hyphenated middle name? Should we worry?

Answer: It can take 30 days or more for information to be updated at the credit bureaus, so she should try again and also check the third credit bureau. If two bureaus can’t find her after 30 days, then it’s possible that both credit cards report to only one bureau. In that case, she should consider getting a credit-builder loan from a credit union that reports to all three bureaus.

Otherwise, the problem is likely the credit bureau’s, and she should try ordering the missing credit report via the U.S. mail. The bureau that couldn’t find her will have instructions for requesting a report that way on its site.

Q&A: Lenders were supposed to tell you about pandemic debt relief. What if yours didn’t?

Dear Liz: I had a problem last year and had no income so I couldn’t pay my bills for three months. I explained the situation to my creditors, but they still put the late payments on my credit reports. I called and sent letters, but it was no good: My credit score dropped to the mid-500s. How can I get the late payments taken off?

Answer: Last year, many lenders offered various kinds of hardship programs because of the pandemic. If you were approved for forbearance, the payments you missed should not have been reported as late. You could dispute the errors at the three credit bureaus (start at www.annualcreditreport.com) and ask the lenders to correct the record.

Unfortunately, lenders don’t always tell customers that forbearance or other hardship programs are available. If you weren’t given the option to enroll when you called to explain your problem, contact your lenders again, in writing, to point that out and request that the late payments be removed from your credit reports.

If a lender refuses to cooperate, consider making a complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Q&A: Business credit card dilemma

Dear Liz: I am a sole proprietor and have two business credit cards. I used my Social Security number to apply for the cards and put $2,000 to $3,000 a month on these cards, yet all this credit card activity is not reported to Experian, thereby hurting my credit score, and I now have “stale credit” per Experian. Is my credit card activity not reported because my cards are considered business cards?

Answer: The short answer is yes. Although you used your personal credit history to apply for the cards, business cards typically don’t report activity to the consumer credit bureaus (although negative activity may be reported, such as if the account is delinquent).

You can remedy the situation by getting and using a personal credit card or two. If your credit report has become so stale that it can’t generate a credit score at all, you may need to start with a secured card or look into a credit builder loan.

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: The right site for free credit reports

Dear Liz: It would appear you have been taken in by a scam. In a recent column, you state a free credit report may be obtained through www.annualcreditreport.com. I went to the site and filled out the information requested. Instead of receiving a credit report, it signed me up for a paid membership. I was able to cancel it but I did not receive any credit report.

Answer:
AnnualCreditReport.com, which has provided free credit reports since 2005, is not a scam. Unfortunately, many people navigate to the wrong sites and wind up being pitched credit monitoring or similar products. If you’re being asked for a credit card, you’re not on the right site.

One problem is that people search for terms such as “free credit report,” “annual credit report” or even “AnnualCreditReport.com” and click on the first link that comes up, not realizing that many search engines top their results pages with paid advertisements. The actual site, annualcreditreport.com, could be halfway down the page. The better way to access the site is to either click on a trusted link, such as the one provided here, or type the full URL into the address bar of your browser.

Q&A: She counted on pandemic rent relief but didn’t qualify. Now what?

Dear Liz: I have a friend in dire financial straits. She has borrowed from her retirement, spends too much and didn’t pay her rent thinking she would get pandemic relief, but she makes too much to qualify for emergency rental assistance. She has mental health issues, which are being addressed by a therapist, but I would love to offer her financial counseling services as well. She is in her late 50s and desperately depressed over this. It’s hard to stand by when the rest of our friend group is doing well, and we’re not sure how to direct her. I would possibly be willing to pay for a financial counselor but will not “loan” her money because that is a losing proposition.

Answer: Congress approved nearly $50 billion in emergency rental assistance to help pay back rent and utilities for low-income people impacted by the pandemic. The key phrase is “low income.” The help isn’t available for people who earn more than 80% of the area’s median income, and many programs are limiting the aid to those with incomes below 50% of the median. The aid is being distributed through more than 100 state and local agencies, and more programs are on the way. The National Low Income Housing Coalition is keeping a list.

Currently, landlords are mostly prohibited from evicting non-paying tenants, but eviction moratoriums will someday end. Your friend could find herself not just turned out of her home but unable to rent decent housing, since many landlords won’t consider anyone who’s been evicted. Avoiding that fate needs to be a top priority for her.

Nonprofit credit counseling agencies, such as those affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, offer a variety of low-cost or free services that may help your friend, including housing counseling, budgeting help and debt management plans. She also should consider discussing her situation with a bankruptcy attorney.

Her depression may make it difficult for her to take action, so you could help her make the appointment and even offer to accompany her. Ultimately, of course, it will be up to her to make the necessary changes, but supportive, nonjudgmental friends could be an enormous help.

Q&A: How much debt can you afford to pay each month? Put it in perspective

Dear Liz: I’m paying down credit card debts. At what ratio of debt to income would you consider my personal finances healthy?

Answer: The healthiest level of credit card debt is none. Credit card interest rates tend to be high and variable, which makes this kind of debt toxic to your financial health. Congratulations for making progress on getting rid of yours.

There are a number of measures you can use to judge whether an appropriate amount of your monthly income goes to debt payments. Among the most common:

◆ Traditionally, mortgage lenders preferred home loan payments to be 28% or less of your gross monthly income and total debt payments, including mortgage, to be 36% or less.

◆ Debt payments, including mortgages, that exceed 40% of gross monthly can be an indication of financial distress, according to the Federal Reserve.

◆ Under the 50/30/20 budget, all your must-have expenses — including housing, utilities, transportation, insurance and minimum loan payments — would be 50% or less of your after-tax income (your gross income minus income and payroll taxes). That leaves 30% for wants and 20% for savings and extra payments on debt. If a loan payment fits under the 50% limit with all your other must-haves, then it may be considered affordable.

You typically don’t need to rush to pay off lower-rate, potentially tax-deductible debt such as mortgages or student loans. Still, you’ll probably want to have all your debts paid off by retirement so you aren’t draining your nest egg to make the payments.

Speaking of retirement, are you saving enough for that goal? Do you have a sufficient emergency fund? Are you adequately insured? Are you able to enjoy your life without excessive stress about money? Financial health includes all those components in addition to paying down debt.

Q&A: Should you pay down debt with extra cash? It may not be the best plan during a pandemic

Dear Liz: I’m a teacher on an income-based repayment plan for my federal student loans. I don’t qualify for any loan forgiveness programs for teachers because I teach in an affluent area. Right now, interest and payments on federal education loans have been suspended because of the pandemic.

I’m trying to decide what to do when payments have to restart. Should I pay down a chunk of the loans from the money that accumulated in my savings from not having to make loan payments since April? Or pick back up where I left off with making near-double payments to get down the principal (slowly) and pay off loans in another five to six years? Or only make the minimum income-based payments while waiting to see if the new administration offers more comprehensive loan forgiveness for teachers? Thank you for any insights.

Answer: Although you may not qualify for loan forgiveness through programs meant to help underserved communities, you can still qualify for the federal public service loan forgiveness program. This program erases debt for schoolteachers and other public servants after they’ve made 120 qualifying payments toward their federal student loans.

You can learn more about this program at the U.S. Department of Education site. Follow the rules carefully because many people who thought they were on track to get forgiveness have discovered otherwise.

If you’re eligible, consider making only the minimum payments on your loans so that the maximum amount is forgiven. Even if you’re not eligible for forgiveness, though, you don’t necessarily want to rush to pay off this relatively low-rate, tax-deductible debt.

You should be on track with your retirement savings, have paid off all other, higher-rate debt and have a substantial emergency fund before you make extra payments on education debt (or a mortgage, for that matter). “Substantial” means having three to six months’ worth of expenses saved. If your job is anything less than rock solid, you may want to set aside even more.

Keep in mind that the money you send to your lenders is gone for good; you can’t get it back should you need it later.