Q&A: How to help someone else build credit

Dear Liz: My 30-year-old son lives in Southeast Asia. He has some U.S. bank accounts but no U.S. credit cards. If I add him to my credit card, will that help to establish credit? Or is there another way for him to start getting credit in the U.S.? At some point, he and his wife will move back to the U.S.

Answer: Adding someone to your credit card as an authorized user can be a great way to help them build credit. Your history with the card is typically added to the other person’s credit reports and used in calculating their credit scores. If you can add him to more than one card, even better. As long as you use the cards responsibly — paying the bills on time, using only a fraction of the available credit — his scores should benefit.

You don’t have to give your son access to the cards for this to work. If you do, keep in mind that authorized users aren’t responsible for paying any charges.

Authorized users typically can be added or removed with a phone call to the issuer. You also can add an authorized user online by logging into your credit card account. But removing them may require you to pick up the phone.

Your son can build credit in other ways, including credit builder loans and secured cards, but those may have to wait until he has a U.S. address.

Q&A: Why asking for lower card limits can hurt your credit scores

Dear Liz: My wife and I recently paid off our home mortgage and now have only our two Visa cards, which we pay off in full each month. Depending on our monthly expenses or purchases, those balances rarely exceed a few hundred to possibly as high as a thousand dollars. Each card has a limit of several thousand dollars and would be much higher had we not previously requested lower limits on the accounts.

My credit scores have plummeted from well over 800 to the low 700s. One site that reports credit scores suggested that I open more credit accounts, because lenders supposedly like to see a variety of accounts when assessing creditworthiness.

This makes no sense to me. I have had an excellent credit track record for decades.

I’m concerned that with our current scores we may not qualify for preferred (0%) financing when we make a couple of car purchases in the not-too-distant future. While we could pay for those purchases in cash, my preference would be to take advantage of such a financing option and keep my money in accounts that would continue to increase in value.

Are we stuck with this situation unless we are willing to go into further debt?

Answer: No, but you need to be a little smarter about how you handle your credit.

You didn’t help yourself by asking for lower credit limits. The formulas like to see a big gap between the amount of credit you have and the amount you’re using, even if you pay in full each month. Ideally you would keep your utilization percentage in the single digits.

The closure of your only installment loan likely took a toll on your scores as well. As you were informed, credit scoring formulas favor those who responsibly handle a mix of credit — loans as well as cards. You can have good scores using just credit cards, but you might not achieve the highest possible scores without an installment loan.

Does that mean you won’t get 0% financing when you’re ready to buy a car? Perhaps, but 0% financing is pretty hard to find these days anyway and may not be the deal you think. You typically have to give up manufacturer rebates to get special financing deals and dealerships are often more resistant to negotiating on price. In other words, what you save on interest may be more than offset by a higher price tag for the car. You may find yourself better off using a low-cost auto loan from a credit union or paying cash.

If you do want to finance the cars, start by asking your credit card companies to restore those higher limits. Consider opening another credit card account or two if the first vehicle purchase is six months or more in the future because your credit will need a few months to recover from the temporary ding of the applications.

Another option is to get a small personal loan, which would add an installment loan back to your credit mix. Only you can decide whether paying some interest now is worth the possibility of paying less interest on a future auto loan.

Q&A: How an unexpected credit score drop could signal a serious problem

Dear Liz: I pay off each of my credit card purchases online, usually within a few days. My monthly statement balance is usually $0 even though I use the card frequently. The card is my only open credit account. I saw my credit score recently and it has dipped below 650. It used to be over 800 several years ago. Is my diligence hurting my score? Should I wait to pay off my card until the statement posts? Is there another way to improve my credit?

Answer: A drop that drastic may indicate a more serious problem, such as a late payment or a collection account. Please check your credit reports at all three credit bureaus at AnnualCreditReport.com. (Enter the exact name in your browser as there are many look-alike sites that will try to charge you for what should be free access to your reports. If you’re asked for a credit card number, you’re on the wrong site.) Unexpected credit score drops can be an indication of fraud, so do this as soon as possible.

If you don’t see anything suspicious, then you probably can blame your habit of leaving a zero balance and having only one card. You don’t have to carry credit card debt to have good scores, but a small balance on the statement closing date helps indicate to credit scoring formulas that you are actively using your account. You can and should pay the balance off in full before the due date to avoid interest charges. Adding another credit account or two should further strengthen your scores.

You didn’t mention which score you saw (you have many) or where you got it, but consider monitoring at least one of your scores so you can gauge your progress. Banks and credit card companies often offer free scores. If yours don’t, consider signing up for another service that offers free scores. Discover, for example, offers free FICO scores to everyone, not just its own customers.

Q&A: Are you trying for a perfect credit score? Maybe you don’t need to

Dear Liz: My credit score fluctuates between 799 and 815. It used to be 850. I always pay my bills in full and on time, and keep the credit utilization low. The only comment I can find about why my credit score isn’t higher is that I lack a loan. I don’t owe any money and see no need to get a loan, so is there anything I can do to get the score back closer to 850?

Answer: Possibly, but there’s really no point in having a “perfect” credit score.

Most credit score formulas use a 300-to-850 scale. By the time your scores are in the mid-700 range, you’re typically getting the best rates and terms from lenders. Also, scores change all the time and vary according to the formula used. Even if you could achieve an 850 with one type of score, you might not achieve it with another score or keep that high number for long.

You typically need an installment loan such as a mortgage or car loan to get scores closer to 850. Borrowing money just to improve scores can make sense if you’re just starting out or trying to fix battered credit, but not in your situation.

If you’re determined to get higher scores, consider using even less of your available credit. Top scorers typically use less than 10% of the credit limits on their cards. The balance that matters for credit scoring calculations is typically your statement balance, so one way to reduce utilization can be making a payment right before the statement closes. Just be sure to pay off any remaining balance before the due date so that you don’t incur late fees.

Q&A: Why you need to pay attention to your credit utilization

Dear Liz: Our credit scores are in the low 800s. We always pay all credit card balances off before the next billing period. We are presently charging a cruise for us and our daughter and her husband. We’re worried about using too much of our available credit and thus reducing our credit scores. We’re using one credit card and paying half the balance this billing period and the rest on the next billing period. I’ve never been able to calculate the “credit utilization,” but I’m sure we will exceed it for the next two months even though we will pay the amount charged in full. With this large charge, can you suggest anything else we can do?

Answer: Your credit utilization is simply the amount of available credit that you’re using. If your card has a $10,000 limit and you make $5,000 in charges, your credit utilization ratio is 50%. (If you’re not sure what your credit limit is, you can check your account online or call the number on the back of your card and ask.)

In general, the less of your available credit you use the better.

The balance that matters for credit scoring purposes is the balance that’s reported to the credit bureaus — and that’s typically what you owe as of your statement closing date.

Making a payment right before the statement closes can help reduce your credit utilization. Some people make payments every week, or even more often, to keep their utilization in the single digits.

If you don’t plan to apply for a new credit card or loan, however, you probably don’t need to worry about a temporary ding to your credit scores because they’re already so high. Your scores will probably still be quite good and will rebound once you pay off the balance.

Q&A: Credit use and your scores

Dear Liz: When my credit utilization decreased to 24%, my credit score rose from 675 to 690. My utilization has since decreased to 17% but my score remains 690. Approximately what does my credit utilization have to be to see a credit score over 700?

Answer: Keep in mind that you have many credit scores, not just one, and the formulas used to create these scores can vary considerably. But in general, the less you use your available credit, the better. People with the highest credit scores tend to use less than 10% of their credit limits.

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.