Don’t close accounts; pay off debt instead

Dear Liz: I’m 22 and a graduate student with only one year left before I enter the “real world.” I have four credit cards — one store card, two Visa cards and one MasterCard — only one of which carries a balance. I want to make the best decisions regarding my financial health. Which would be better for my credit: closing the account that’s the oldest (opened when I was 18) but that will no longer be used because of its small credit limit and high interest rate, or leaving the line open?

Answer: Closing accounts can’t help your credit scores and may hurt them. If you had a long credit history and many accounts, the impact of closing a low-limit account shouldn’t be that great. With such a short history and relatively few accounts, though, you could be doing unnecessary damage to your scores.

The best thing you can do for your financial health, now and in the future, is to pay off your credit card balance. Credit cards should be used as a convenience, not as a way to live beyond your means. Resolve to charge no more than you can pay off in full each and every month. You’ll save yourself a fortune in interest and help protect yourself against bankruptcy.

You don’t have to be in debt to have good scores

Dear Liz: How deep in debt must a person get before he or she is able to get a mortgage on a home? My grandson, age 26, has been steadily employed by the same company for nearly six years. He rents a place he can afford, buys used cars for cash, has a nice savings account and basically avoids debt by not buying things he can’t afford with cash. Now he would like to begin investing in a home. When applying, however, all he hears is that because he doesn’t have a credit rating, he can’t get a loan. Does he really have to create debt in order to get a loan?

Answer: The idea that you have to be in debt to have a good credit score is a persistent and destructive myth. It’s just as wrong as the idea that all you have to do to have good scores is manage your finances responsibly.

To have good credit scores, you must have and use credit accounts. This does not mean you have to be in debt or carry credit card balances. Simply using a couple of credit cards lightly but regularly and paying them off in full is enough to build good scores over time.

Your grandson may need to start by getting a secured card, which offers a line of credit equal to the amount of cash the applicant deposits at the issuing bank. Websites such as NerdWallet, CreditCards.com, CardRatings.com and LowCards.com highlight current secured card deals.

He also could consider “piggybacking” onto someone else’s good credit by being added as an authorized user to that person’s credit card. In some cases, the other person’s history with the card can be imported to your grandson’s credit bureau files. The person considering adding your grandson should check with the issuer to see whether such an import is possible.

Will surcharges kill rewards cards?

credit card detailed 1More gas stations in Los Angeles seem to be charging a premium to use a credit card. One 76 station near my home charges 20 cents more per gallon, to be precise.

I only noticed the difference after I swiped my card and was about to press the key to start the pump. I checked the station’s signage, and noticed the display advertising the “cash” price was a lot bigger than the one showing the “credit” price.

Technically, California has a law that’s supposed to prevent surcharges for plastic. But as my buddy David Lazarus has pointed out in his column, Section 1748.1 of the California Civil Code has some big fat loopholes. Gas stations get away with double pricing because they’re supposedly offering a discount for cash, not a surcharge for plastic.

Now that retailers elsewhere in the country can add surcharges to Visa and MasterCard transactions, the question is: will they?

Those of us who love our credit card rewards programs—including the rewards card ninjas I highlighted in my column this week—hope the answer is no. It wouldn’t take much of a surcharge to wipe out the value most people get from their rewards cards.

Brian Kelly, the founder of The Points Guy, says retailers who add surcharges could be shooting themselves in the foot.

“High-end consumers love their rewards,” Kelly said. Retailers who don’t add surcharges will have a competitive advantage, which could make attempts to impose the fees short-lived.

I know that I’ll vote with my feet. Once I noticed I was about to pay $4.09 cents a gallon, rather than the $3.89 I expected, I hung up the nozzle. I didn’t have to drive far to find a Mobil station that charged $3.89, cash or credit. Guess where I’ll be gassing up in the future?

 

 

Huge debts? Where to find help

Dear Liz: My husband and I are in a huge amount of debt. I understand that there are nonprofit agencies that can sit down with us and help us develop repayment plans and strategies. How do I find a reputable one?

Answer: Contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at (800) 388-2227 for a referral to a legitimate, accredited, nonprofit credit counseling agency in your area. A counselor can review your financial situation, help you with budgeting and see whether you’re a candidate for a debt management plan, which would allow you to pay off your credit card debt over time, perhaps at a lower interest rate.

You also should consider making an appointment with an experienced bankruptcy attorney. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org. A credit counselor may try to steer you away from bankruptcy, whereas an attorney can let you know if it might be a better option.

Unfortunately, many people wait too long before they contact a credit counselor. They may be approved for a debt management plan but find themselves unable to stick with the plan long enough to pay off their debt. In other words, they continue to struggle with debt that they ultimately can’t pay. Understanding all your options, including bankruptcy, can help you make a better choice about what to do next.

How to get off credit card marketing lists

Dear Liz: Where can I sign up to have my name removed from the mailing lists for credit card offers?

Answer: You can remove yourself from marketing lists provided by credit bureaus to credit card and insurance companies by calling (888) 5-OPT-OUT (567-8688) or visiting www.optoutprescreen.com. You should see a significant reduction over time in the offers you receive, although you may still get unsolicited offers from other sources.

Don’t use your 401(k) to pay debt

Dear Liz: I will be 61 in December. I have $15,000 in credit card debt at 9.9% and $41,000 in a certificate of deposit earning 3% per year. I have $590,000 in my 401(k) account. I want to pay off the credit card balance to redirect my income to paying off my $26,000 mortgage by the end of 2013. Which near-term option for paying off the credit card is better: close the CD and buy a new, lower-paying CD with the balance after paying the card off, or take a 401(k) distribution, leaving the $41,000 emergency fund untouched?

Answer: Since you’re older than 591/2, you would not have to pay penalties on any withdrawal from your 401(k). But a withdrawal would still be a bad idea for a number of reasons.

The most obvious is that you would have to pay taxes on any amount you take out. Typically 20% is withheld from any distribution, but your bill could well be higher depending on your federal and state tax brackets. In the 25% federal and 8% state brackets, you’d owe $3,750 in federal and $1,200 in state taxes on a $15,000 withdrawal. So even without penalties, you’d lose one-third of a withdrawal to taxes.

The money you take out also wouldn’t be able to earn any future tax-deferred returns for you. At 60, you have a life expectancy of a couple more decades. The money you plan to withdraw potentially could grow to more than $70,000, assuming 8% average annual returns, if you leave it alone.

So using 401(k) money to pay debt is almost as dumb for you as it would be for a younger person who would pay penalties and incur an even bigger potential loss of future tax-deferred money.

Use the CD money instead, and change your spending habits so you don’t incur any future credit card debt.

How to help a friend with big debts

Dear Liz: I have a friend who owes $30,000 in credit card debt. I suggested he see a financial advisor who can help him to get out of this situation, but he never finds the time to do it. He pays all his bills on time, but only the minimum required, and there’s nothing left for him to save for his old age. He has a good-paying job but still struggles financially. How can we help him?

Answer: If your friend can pay only the minimum on his debt and can’t save for retirement, he’s in a deeper hole than he probably realizes. Many people in his situation wind up filing for bankruptcy, often after years of throwing money at impossible-to-pay debt.

Your friend should make two appointments: one with a legitimate credit counselor (referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org) and another with an experienced bankruptcy attorney (referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org).

The credit counselor will review his financial situation and see whether he qualifies for a low-interest repayment program that would allow him to pay off his debt within five years. The bankruptcy attorney will let him know whether bankruptcy might be the better option.

As a friend, you can pass these suggestions along to him, and even offer to go with him to one or both appointments if he’s comfortable with that idea. But you can’t force him to face reality or take any action until he’s ready to do so. One thing you definitely shouldn’t do is lend him money. He’s not managing the debt he has, and you don’t want your loan winding up with the rest of his bills in Bankruptcy Court.

Botched remodel holding up refinancing

Dear Liz: My husband and I are wondering whether it is time to file for bankruptcy. We have about $20,000 in credit card debt, largely because of a home addition and remodeling project my husband began five years ago. It has been much more costly and time consuming than he anticipated and is not even close to being finished. That prevents us from being able to refinance, which would free up money to pay our debt.

A mortgage broker recently suggested we apply for a home equity line to get enough cash for materials and labor to finish this project. We pay our mortgage and two car loans on time and make at least minimum payments on the cards.

My husband’s health has been declining, making it very difficult for him to do physical work on this project, and one of our kids has had two surgeries in the last few years, so there have been a lot of medical bills as well. How should we proceed?

Answer: You’re having trouble managing the debt you already have, so it’s definitely risky take on more. On the other hand, if you have enough home equity to get a line of credit, that could be a path out of this mess.

First, though, make an appointment with an experienced bankruptcy attorney (you can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org). A credit card balance of $20,000 isn’t by itself insurmountable, depending on your income, but the fact that you’re not paying much more than the minimums on your cards is a huge red flag — as are those medical bills.

The lawyer can review your situation and let you know whether bankruptcy is even a reasonable option. Each state’s laws differ, so you need to consult an expert.

If you decide instead to take out the home equity line, make sure you hire a competent and well-recommended contractor to finish what your husband started. The last thing you need is for someone else to botch the job.

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