Q&A: Here are credit score quirks to know about before you apply for a loan

Dear Liz: I have been reading your Money Talk column for years and it seems that about a third of the questions pertain to credit scores. Why are people fixated on their FICO result?

I was unaware of my score until recently, when my bank accounts started showing my score when I am online. I am 65 and have had credit cards since college over 45 years ago. I pay my bill in full each month. I have never been late with a mortgage payment or any other bill. When I have gone to buy real property or an automobile, I have never been turned down.

In other words, I have used credit successfully for decades by behaving responsibly without knowing my score. Are people interested in their FICO mostly to be used as a status symbol or way to brag?

Answer: Some are, but most understand that credit scores are hugely influential in our financial lives. Scores help determine whether we can get credit and the interest rates we pay, but also whether we’re able to rent an apartment, get affordable auto and homeowners insurance (in most states) and qualify for a cellphone carrier’s best deals.

Credit scores do reward responsible behavior, but have some quirks that are worth knowing about. Using more than a small percentage of your credit cards’ available limit, for example, can hurt your scores, even if you pay your balances in full. And closing credit accounts might seem like the responsible way to deal with a card you no longer use, but that can hurt your scores as well.

Also, you should know that you don’t have a single credit score; you have many, and they will differ based on which credit bureau and credit scoring formula was used.

FICO is the leading credit scoring formula, but there are many generations of the FICO score currently in use, from the older versions that have long been used in mortgage lending to the most commonly used version (FICO 8), to the most recent version (FICO 10). Auto lenders and credit card issuers use versions of the FICO that are adapted for their industries.

FICO’s main rival is VantageScore, which also has different generations in use.

On top of that, credit scores change constantly, based on the ever-changing information in your credit reports.

Your bank is making it easy for you to monitor one of your scores, which can give you a general idea of how lenders might view you as a borrower. Just don’t be surprised if the score your bank shows you doesn’t match what a lender uses the next time you buy a car or refinance your mortgage.

Q&A: Why you need a credit score

Dear Liz: I use a credit card for most of my shopping and pay the balance in full every month. The card was opened years ago as a business card, but the business has since been closed. My credit scores are high but my card isn’t listed on my credit reports. I believe that is because it’s a business card. Should this be of concern to me? My wife and I own our home outright and have no other debt.

Answer: Your scores should be fine as long as you have (and occasionally use) other credit cards that show up on your reports at the three major credit bureaus.

If you didn’t have other active credit accounts, eventually your credit reports would no longer generate credit scores. That could make it much more difficult and expensive to borrow money, rent an apartment, get a cellphone and, in most states, insure a home or a car.

Q&A: Got an old credit card that you no longer use? What to do instead of canceling it

Dear Liz: I have been keeping a credit card that I no longer use because I’m afraid that canceling it may reduce my credit score. I have had the card since 1983, and it shows on my credit report as my longest credit relationship. I have other credit cards that I use regularly. I no longer have a mortgage. Should I keep the unused card?

Answer: Closing the card certainly won’t help your scores, but it’s impossible to know in advance how much they might be hurt. That doesn’t mean you should never close a card, but you may want to consider alternatives, particularly because this is your oldest card.

Does the issuer offer another type of card with cash back or other rewards you could use? If so, consider asking for a “product change” to the new card. That should preserve your long history with the account while supplying you with a credit card that better suits your needs.

Q&A: A spouse’s debt, your credit score

Dear Liz: My spouse and I have added each other as authorized users on our credit cards. My spouse has more debt than I do. Does this impact my credit scores?

Answer: Possibly. Credit scoring formulas look at how much available credit is being used on each account. If your spouse has higher balances than you but also higher credit limits, your credit scores may not be harmed much, if at all. If, on the other hand, your spouse is using most of their available credit, your scores could suffer.

Most services that provide credit scores (including possibly your bank and your credit cards) typically offer some explanations about why your scores aren’t higher. If the explanations include anything about excessive credit utilization, you may want to consider getting yourself removed as an authorized user from the problematic cards.

Q&A: Investigate a credit score drop

Dear Liz: I had an 836 credit score as of last week. I’m a business owner and have been using my company credit card to pay bills on a large project to get 2% cash back. I charged $52,000 of the $70,000 I have available on that one card. (I have about $175,000 available across the three business cards I have) and my credit score went down to 699! I pay my cards off within days of receiving my statements. Is this a bad use of my cards? How long do you think it will take to get my score back up? Side note: I don’t need any more credit, but my business line of credit is coming up for renewal and I am buying a new truck in two months. Do you think this will be an issue?

Answer: Lower scores could cause you to pay more for credit, so it’s worth fixing this issue promptly.

There’s nothing wrong with using your cards to get rewards, as long as you’re paying your balances in full and not using too much of your available credit. Ideally, you’d use less than 10% of the limit on any card at any given time. (Credit scoring formulas pay close attention to the amount of credit you’re using on each revolving account as well as how much of your available credit you’re using overall.)

If you need to use a lot more of your credit limit, consider making more than one payment a month. Some people make bi-weekly or even weekly payments to keep their balances low.

(The balances that factor into your scores are typically the amounts that you owe on your statement closing date.)

Credit card issuers typically report to the credit bureaus every month, so it shouldn’t take more than 30 days for lower balances to improve your scores.

It’s a little unusual, however, for a business credit card to affect your personal credit scores. Typically, business accounts don’t show up on your credit reports, even if you used your personal credit history to apply for the cards. You may want to pull your three credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com to see if other problems may have contributed to your score drop.

Q&A: If the credit card is paid off, will the credit score go up or not?

Dear Liz: If I pay off my credit card and carry a zero balance, will my credit score go up quite a bit?

Answer: That depends, among other factors, on how much of your available credit you were using on that card. The closer you were to being maxed out — which means using most or all of your available credit — the more dramatic the improvement you might see.

But your credit scores also depend on a number of other factors, including how long you’ve had credit, how many open accounts you have, how much of the available credit you’re using on those accounts, when you last applied for credit and whether you have any negative marks, such as late payments, in your credit reports.

In general, credit scores respond favorably if you use only a small portion of your available credit. People trying to obtain top scores generally try to keep their credit usage below 10% of their credit limits.

Q&A: Dealing with credit challenges

Dear Liz: I felt you should have corrected the person who said they felt like a loser because heavy credit card usage lowered their credit scores. I went through a period of poor credit after I was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It took about nine months to get our financial footing again. My scores are on the mend now, but at no point did I feel like a loser. In fact, I am very proud of how I and my family responded to this challenge. Many people are hit with misfortune that is no fault of their own. Often they are truly winners with how they respond. I hope you take the opportunity to make a comment about how bad credit doesn’t make a person a loser. That often the best of us are revealed by how we deal with it instead.

Answer: The original letter writer was making a wry comment about their situation, writing that their husband “thinks it’s funny he has great scores and I look like a loser!”

But your point about people being more than their credit scores is well taken.

Q&A: Here’s what you should do about suspicious credit report activity

Dear Liz: I recently obtained copies of my credit reports from the three major credit bureaus and discovered my brother’s home address listed in the personal information section. I am extremely concerned about how and why this happened since I have never lived with my brother. This brother is the executor of our father’s estate, and the address listing was dated just before the distribution of that estate. What possible reason could my brother have for searching my credit background? I have zero communication with him because of an ongoing feud. He ignores any requests or inquiries. After I discovered this, I asked the bureaus to remove the address and put security freezes on all three credit reports, which I probably should have done sooner.

Answer: Your brother’s address wouldn’t show up in your credit reports in the unlikely event he had checked your credit. It might show up there if he had committed identity theft using your information, but if nothing else was amiss — you didn’t spot a credit account or loan you didn’t recognize, for example — then most likely the error was made by a creditor or other company that reports information to the credit bureaus.

The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act limits who can access your credit reports. Only businesses with a legitimate need to know the information can do so, and often your permission is required. You can check who has accessed your credit during the last two years in the “inquiries” section of your credit reports.

You may never discover exactly how your brother’s address wound up in your file, but you took the right steps in disputing the error and in freezing your credit reports.

For readers not as credit-report savvy: You can access your reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. But be careful; lots of sites want to sell you your reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. If you’re asked for a credit card number, you’re on the wrong site.

When you get your reports, look for accounts that aren’t yours and other suspicious activity. Consider freezing your credit reports at each of the bureaus to prevent someone from opening new accounts in your name. You can thaw the freeze whenever you need credit, also for free.

Q&A: Credit scores and usage

Dear Liz: Thanks for your recent column about how credit scores react to heavy credit card usage. We pay our credit cards in full each month but recently we had big charges on three cards for vacations, home supplies and other purchases. I am the primary account holder on all three cards and my credit scores tanked! I even got email warnings about it from my credit monitoring service.

I have paid off two of the cards and will pay off the third one soon. My husband has one credit card in his own name that he occasionally uses and he is an authorized user on the others. I have always been the fanatical financial partner so he thinks it’s funny he has great scores and I look like a loser! Good thing we were not planning to do a house purchase or refinance the mortgage.

Answer: Pretty soon your husband will have to find something else to tease you about. Your scores are likely to return to their previous levels once the high balances are paid off and you return to your normal spending habits.

Many people are surprised by how dramatically credit scoring formulas react to the amount of available credit they’re using. But this knowledge can help you the next time you’re planning to get a major loan.

For example, you could throttle back your credit card usage starting a couple of months before your application. Alternatively, you could make weekly payments instead of monthly ones to ensure the balances reported to the credit bureaus, and used in your scores, are as low as possible.

Another approach is to pay off your balance a few days before the statement closing date, since the balance on that date is the one that’s typically reported to the bureaus. (If any charges show up after you’ve paid off the balance, you’ll need to make a second payment before the due date to avoid late fees.)

Q&A: Credit rating after mortgage payoff

Dear Liz: We are recently retired and will own our home free and clear in about six months. Will not having regular mortgage payments dent our credit ratings? If so, what can be done as a good substitute?

Answer: Your credit scores may dip after you pay off your mortgage, particularly if you don’t have another installment loan such as a vehicle or personal loan. To get and keep the highest credit scores, you typically need both installment loans and revolving accounts, such as credit cards.

The good news: You don’t need the highest credit scores to get the best rates and terms from lenders. Using credit cards lightly but regularly can help you maintain good scores without taking on debt.