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.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Smart money moves when cash is tighter than time. Also in the news: A new episode of the SmartMoney podcast on losing your health insurance and setting financial goals, how a gap year might haunt you financially, and how to boost your credit score with on-time Netflix payments.

Smart Money Moves When Cash Is Tighter Than Time
A lot of extra time on our hands, but not extra cash.

Smart Money Podcast: Losing Your Health Insurance, and Setting Financial Goals
Putting your health first.

How a Gap Year Might Haunt You Financially
It could cost you up to $90K in the long run.

Boost Your Credit Score With On-Time Netflix Payments
Your binge watching could boost your credit score.

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.

Q&A: I get different credit scores from my bank and card companies. What gives?

Dear Liz: I have three financial providers that supply regular, free credit scores: my bank and two credit card issuers. My credit score from the bank is always a “perfect score” while the two card companies are consistently 17 points lower, both exactly the same for two years now. I always pay off most or all of the outstanding balance on time or early. Any clue as to why there is this consistent difference?

Answer: The companies probably are using different credit scoring formulas or different credit bureaus, or both.

You don’t have one credit score. You have many. FICO is the dominant scoring formula, but lenders also use VantageScores and the credit bureaus sometimes provide their own, proprietary scores.

The formulas have been updated over the years. The FICO 8 is the most commonly used score, but the FICO 9 is the latest version and FICO 10 will be introduced this summer. Some scoring formulas are modified to suit different industries, such as auto lending or credit cards, plus each score is calculated from data at one of the three credit bureaus.

So one institution may provide its customers a FICO Score 9 from Experian, another might offer a FICO 8 Bankcard score from Equifax and a third might give you a VantageScore 3.0 from TransUnion. Even if all three were using the same type of score, they probably would use different credit bureaus, or vice versa. To make things even more confusing, your credit scores are constantly changing as your credit bureau information changes.

Furthermore, you typically can’t predict which score or scores a lender will use to evaluate your application for credit. Rather than worry about which number is “right” — they all are — use the free scores as a general indicator of your credit health.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Is it okay to never have a credit card? Also in the news: How to organize important documents simply and safely, can a credit card company lower your credit limit, and how to try and prevent your eviction.

Is It OK to Never Have a Credit Card?
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How to Organize Important Documents Simply and Safely
What you should keep and for how long.

Can a Credit Card Company Lower My Credit Limit?
Cardholders are seeing an increase in reductions.

How to Try and Prevent Your Eviction
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Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: People with COVID-19 payment accommodations are finding mistakes in their credit files. Also in the news: 6 tips to teach your kids lifelong money lessons during the pandemic, Americans lost $77 million to Covid-19 fraud, and what to do if you can’t pay your taxes next week.

People with COVID-19 payment accommodations are finding mistakes in their credit files
One mistake could lower your credit score by nearly one hundred points.

Use these 6 tips to teach your kids lifelong money lessons during the pandemic
A unique opportunity.

Americans lost $77 million to Covid-19 fraud — and that’s just the ‘tip of the iceberg’
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What to do if you can’t pay your taxes next week
You have a few options.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 3 ways to skip your bank’s long phone lines. Also in the news: Keeping your credit in shape, even if you don’t have debt and don’t plan to borrow, 25 ways to save yourself from your debt disaster, and how to set up a 60/40 budget.

3 Ways to Skip Your Bank’s Long Phone Lines
When phone wait times are long, try to reach your bank via live chat, Twitter or message instead.

Keep your credit in shape, even if you don’t have debt and don’t plan to borrow
Good credit is important year-round.

25 Ways To Save Yourself From Your Debt Disaster
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How to Set Up a 60/40 Budget
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Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Is identity theft protection worth it? Also in the news: The perks of cutting spending, why good credit matters even if you don’t plan to borrow, and how to get a replacement economic impact payment card.

Is identity theft protection worth it?
Valuing your online privacy.

The perks of cutting spending
It doesn’t have to hurt.

Why Good Credit Matters — Even if You Don’t Plan to Borrow
Prepare for the unexpected.

How to Get a Replacement Economic Impact Payment Card
That random card you threw out might have been your stimulus payment.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Why good credit matters even if you don’t plan to borrow. Also in the news: An expert weighs in on how to travel safely, 4 options if you’re undecided about college this fall, and how to amend a tax return online.

Why Good Credit Matters — Even if You Don’t Plan to Borrow
Good credit provides a safety net in a crisis, and it can reduce bills and make you look better on applications.

Ask an Expert: Is Any Travel Safe?
Can we safely beat our cabin fever?

Still Undecided About College This Fall? Know These 4 Options
Things will look a bit different.

How to Amend a Tax Return Online
You no longer need to mail in corrections.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Credit score drop? How to diagnose why and what to do next. Also in the news: A new episode of the SmartMoney podcast on the safety of Bitcoin, what to do if you’re struggling with IRS delays, and what to do about your FSA contributions if your child care is closed.

Credit Score Drop? How to Diagnose Why, and What to Do Next
Time to check your credit report.

SmartMoney Podcast: ‘Is Bitcoin Safe?’
A look at the popular cryptocurrency.

Try these workarounds if you’re struggling with IRS delays
Tips on how to get help.

What to Do About Your FSA Contributions if Your Child Care Is Closed
The IRS has made some changes.