Q&A: This guy still sends checks through the mail. How that could mess up his credit score

Dear Liz: My husband has a lower credit score than I. He gives me a check every month from his personal checking account, which I deposit in our family account so I can pay our credit cards. He thinks that he needs to pay some of the cards directly in order to improve his score. He likes to send checks by mail, the old fashioned way (which drives me crazy!). Do you think this practice will improve his score?

Answer: The short answer is no. Credit scoring formulas don’t care who pays the bills, as long as the bills get paid on time.

Perhaps explaining some credit scoring basics would help.

People don’t have one credit score. They have many, because there are many different scoring formulas in use.

The most commonly used credit score is currently the FICO 8. There are many other versions of the FICO scoring formula, including some that are tweaked for different industries such as credit cards and auto loans. In addition, there are VantageScores, a rival formula created by the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Credit scores are based on the information in your credit reports at those bureaus, which are private companies that typically don’t share information. Because information can vary from bureau to bureau, your credit scores from each bureau may differ as well.

There’s no such thing as a joint credit report or a joint credit score, so couples typically will have different scores even if they have some joint accounts. How long a person has had credit, how many credit accounts the person has and the mix of credit types can be different, resulting in different scores.

Your husband may have lower scores than yours currently, but that’s not in itself a problem that needs to be fixed. If his scores are generally above 760 on the typical 300-to-850 scale, he’ll get the best rate and terms when applying for credit.

If his scores need improving, he should start by checking his credit reports from each of the three bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com. (These reports used to be free just once a year, but you can now get them for free every week until April 2022.) He should dispute any information that’s inaccurate such as accounts that aren’t his or accounts showing missed payments if all payments were made on time.

He may be able to improve his scores by lowering how much of his available credit he’s using or adding an account or two. Opening accounts may temporarily ding his scores, but typically the new account will add points over time if used responsibly.

And do try to persuade him to stop sending checks in the mail. A check that goes astray can result in a missed payment that can knock 100 points or more off credit scores. Electronic payments are far more secure and efficient.

Q&A: Seller financing and credit reporting

Dear Liz: I bought a home and the seller financed the sale. I have made all payments on time, but that’s not reflected on my reports at the three credit bureaus. What can I do to get my mortgage payments acknowledged on my credit reports?

Answer: One of the advantages of seller financing — where the person selling the home is your lender — is that getting a mortgage can be easier than if you were to apply to a bank or business. Individuals, however, typically can’t report payments to the credit bureaus, so your payments won’t show up on credit reports.

If you’re trying to improve troubled credit, you can use other methods such as being added as an authorized user to someone’s credit card, getting a secured credit card or applying for a credit-builder loan from a credit bureau or online lender. If you were a renter, you also could subscribe to a rent-reporting service that would transmit your rent payment history to the bureaus for inclusion in your credit reports.

Q&A: Boosting Credit Scores

Dear Liz: I’m frustrated with my FICO scores. At one point they were well into the 800s and now they languish in the 720 to 730 range. I have no debt — no mortgage or car loan — and fully pay off two credit cards monthly. I have millions (fact, not bragging) in assets with no liabilities. I don’t anticipate taking any loans but it is so odd to me. Why is this?

Answer: You likely had at least one installment loan, such as a mortgage or car loan, when your scores were near the top of FICO’s typical 300-to-850 scale. You can still have good scores without an installment loan — and you do — but the highest scores require you to have a mix of credit types.

You might be able to add a few points to your scores by paying attention to your credit utilization — the less of your credit limit you use, the better. Adding another card or two may ding your scores in the short run but also could add points long term.

Or you can just be happy as you are. As long as you continue to use your cards responsibly, you’ll continue to have scores that are “pretty enough for all normal purposes” — in other words, that will get you good rates and terms should you decide to apply for additional credit.

Q&A: When credit scores are fine

Dear Liz: I was once told that the reason my credit score wasn’t higher was an insufficient credit history. Now I am doing what you have recommended by charging a monthly security alarm service to one credit card, a weekly church donation to another and satellite TV to a third. All are paid off each month. I checked my credit score recently and read that the reason my score isn’t higher is that I now have too many cards with balances. My score is around 860 but the comment concerns me. Should it?

Answer: Most credit scores are on a 300 to 850 scale. If your score is at or near the top of that range, you’re doing fine. Scores over 760 or so generally get the best rates and terms from lenders (the cutoff is often 740 for mortgage lenders). Higher scores just get you bragging rights.

The services that provide you with credit scores often give you automated reasons why your scores aren’t higher. Those messages can be helpful when you’re trying to build or rebuild credit. The higher your scores, though, the less helpful those messages seem to be. Even if you could fix the “problem” they’re pointing out, there’s no guarantee your scores would increase.

Q&A: A bill shows up twice in a credit report. Now what?

Dear Liz: I have been doing everything to raise my credit scores, which were horrible. I see some medical bills on my credit reports that seem identical. Should I try to dispute them or just let them go? I heard that if you try to dispute them, it allows the creditor to restart the clock on paying them, potentially keeping them on your report for seven more years.

Answer: You heard wrong, fortunately. Disputes don’t extend the limit on how long negative information can be reported.

You may be confusing the seven-year credit reporting time limit, which is part of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act and restricts how long negative information stays on a credit report, with state statutes of limitation.

Statutes of limitation are supposed to limit how long a creditor may sue you over a debt. (The key phrase is “supposed to.” Collectors do file lawsuits on debts that are too old, hoping that the debtor won’t show up in court to point that out.)

Statutes of limitation can range from two to 15 years, depending on the state and the type of debt. In some states, it’s possible to restart the statute of limitations by making a payment on a debt, or even acknowledging that the debt is yours. (In California, the statute of limitations is four years for most debts.)

You’ll want to avoid either until you’re sure the bills are correct. You can start by disputing the bills with the credit bureaus.

If that doesn’t remove the duplicates, you can contact each collection agency in writing. Ask them to validate that the unpaid bill actually belongs to you and that they have the right to collect. Mention that if they cannot validate the debt, you want the bill removed from your credit reports. Also ask the collector to respond to your letter within 30 days.

Removing any duplicates may help your scores. Actually paying the collections typically won’t. It’s up to you whether you want to try settling the debts and risk reviving the statute of limitations, or simply wait until the debts fall off your credit reports after the seven-year mark.

Q&A: When paying debt hurts credit score

Dear Liz: You recently answered someone whose credit scores dropped more than 30 points after they paid off a mortgage. You mentioned that the big drop was probably because the mortgage was the person’s only installment loan. Credit scores like to see active use of both types of credit, installment loans and credit cards. Because this person’s scores were so high, they almost certainly were still actively using credit cards. But you should remind people that if they stop using credit, eventually they won’t have any credit scores at all.

Answer: Consider them reminded. There’s no need to carry balances; just using credit cards regularly is enough.

A few other readers wrote in suggesting the letter writer get a personal loan as a way of increasing their scores. Although personal loans can be a great help to people building credit, there’s really no point in increasing scores once they’re above about 760 on a 300-to-850 scale. Higher scores only get you bragging rights, and it would be a little silly to pay a lender unnecessary interest to get those.

Q&A: Weekly free credit reports

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you wrote that credit reports are now available weekly from AnnualCreditReport.com. Most people understand that they are entitled to a free credit report once a year via that site. Please explain what is meant by “now available weekly?” By signing up for a paid service from one or more of the credit reporting agencies, or for free, or what?

Answer: AnnualCreditReport.com was created to provide free annual reports, but now you can get your free reports every week.

If you navigate to AnnualCreditReport.com, you’ll see an announcement from the three credit bureaus that the site will provide free credit reports weekly until April 2021.

Free means free. You don’t have to pay or provide credit card information, although the bureaus may try to sell you credit monitoring or other services.

Q&A: When credit scores take a pandemic dive, how to figure out what caused it

Dear Liz: My VantageScores as reported by TransUnion were in the 780 to 790 range until around February, when they all dropped 40 points for no discernible reason. My FICO 8 and 9 credit scores remained unchanged around 760 and still continue to increase. What would cause that?

Answer: VantageScores tend to react more than FICO scores when you apply for new credit, but 40 points is a pretty big drop. The other usual culprit when good scores fall is higher credit utilization, or using more of your available credit, but typically your FICO scores would have dropped as well.

Most credit monitoring services will offer you some kind of explanation for why your scores changed, so that would be the first place to look for clues. You also should check your credit reports, which are now available weekly from AnnualCreditReport.com.

Q&A: The bottom line on getting your credit scores in better shape

Dear Liz: I want to write a letter of explanation to be included on my credit reports to explain a negative posting. How much impact will the letter have on my credit scores?

Answer: Credit scoring formulas can’t read, so letters of explanation won’t help your scores.

You do have a federal right to demand the credit bureaus include your explanation, which is also known as a consumer statement, in your credit reports. Theoretically, the statement could help a lender understand why you have the negative mark — but only if a human being actually examines your credit report and uses the information in evaluating your creditworthiness.

Because lending is largely automated, however, there’s no guarantee your statement will be read, let alone factored into a lending decision. Many of the other details of your credit report are converted to standardized codes used to calculate credit scores, but not consumer statements.

If the negative information in your reports isn’t accurate, you can dispute it with the credit bureaus. If the information is accurate, you can work to offset the effect on your scores.

Paying your credit accounts on time, all the time, will help rebuild credit. So will using less than 10% of your limits on credit cards.

If you don’t have a credit card, consider getting a secured card — where the credit limit typically is equal to the amount you deposit with the issuing bank. Credit builder loans, available at many credit unions, also can help add positive information to your credit reports.

Don’t close accounts, because that could hurt your scores and won’t get rid of any associated negative information.

People with only a few credit accounts also can help their scores by being added as an authorized user to a responsible person’s credit card. The responsible person doesn’t need to grant access to the actual card. Before taking this step, though, ask the credit card issuer whether authorized user information will be imported to your credit reports because issuers’ policies vary.

Q&A: Helping a son with horrible credit scores

Dear Liz: My 33-year-old son has horrible credit scores. If I added his name to my credit card, would it have a positive effect on his score without any negative ramifications to mine? Could any of his creditors come after me?

Answer: Adding someone to your credit card as an authorized user can have a positive effect on their credit scores without negatively affecting your own or obligating you to pay their other debts. You would be responsible for any debt your authorized user incurred on the card.

In your son’s case, though, being added as an authorized user probably won’t help much.

When someone has fallen behind on their bills, the effect on their scores depends on three main factors: recency (how recently did a late payment occur?), severity (how far behind are they — 30 days, 60 days, 90 days or more?) and frequency (how many accounts have late payments?).

One skipped payment can knock 100 points or more off good scores but won’t result in “horrible” credit. Truly bad credit typically requires someone to be well behind on a number of accounts in the recent past. The fact that you’re worried about his creditors indicates that he may not have resolved his financial problems enough to start rebuilding his credit.

What he should do now depends on his circumstances.

If he still has a job, he may be able to arrange a payment plan or settle debts with collectors. If his income has dropped or he’s otherwise unable to pay, he may need to consider bankruptcy.

Once his past debts are resolved — either paid, settled or legally erased — he can take steps to improve his credit, one of which could include being added to your card. A credit builder loan, offered by many credit unions, also could help, as could a secured credit card, which requires a deposit.

It’s crucial that he be able to make all his payments on time, however. If he falls behind again, he’ll offset any progress that’s been made.