Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

creditImproving your credit score, making the economy work for you, and how that video you just posted on Facebook could come back to haunt you.

How Can I Build My Credit Score?
Ten steps to better credit.

Buying a House? Don’t Make These Mistakes
Don’t be sidetracked by fixable mistakes.

7 Smart Money Moves in an Improving Economy
How to make the improving economy work for your money.

Don’t Let Your Social Media Footprint Kill Your Job Prospects
What you post on Facebook today could keep you unemployed tomorrow.

The Pros & Cons Of Cell Phone Insurance
Having insurance on a fragile smartphone sounds like a good idea. But does it make financial sense?

The best place to get your credit reports, scores

Dear Liz: I want to see all three of my credit reports with scores and fix some things on there that could be in error. What site do you recommend to get all three with scores?

Answer: You have a federally mandated right to see your credit reports once a year, and you can access those reports at http://www.annualcreditreport.com. That is the one and only federally authorized site. There are plenty of look-alikes, so make sure you get to the right place. Each of your three reports will include links that will allow you to dispute errors.

When you access your reports, you may be offered credit scores either for a fee or as an inducement to sign up for credit monitoring. Typically, these scores are not the FICO scores that most lenders use. If the word “FICO” is not in the name of the credit score being offered, it’s not an actual FICO score.

To get your FICOs, you’ll need to go to MyFico.com. Currently, you can buy two of your three FICOs — the ones from Equifax and TransUnion — for $19.95 each. Experian has announced it will soon offer FICOs through MyFico.com as well.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Here are some important money stories to check out today:Education savings

Should the Government Mandate Free Credit Scores?

Despite an abundance of free credit score offers, consumers still lack easy access to their FICO and Vantage scores, often the determining factor in credit approval.

Applying Sage Graduation Advice to Your Financial Life

Oh, the places you and your money will go!

Maximize Rewards Offered by Your Credit Cards

A new website shows how to get the most from your reward points based on how you spend.

What Can You Afford: House, Car or Vacation?

A guide to what you can and cannot afford during the summer spending season.

 

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

YCS4 coverGood credit, stolen credit and ways to save on travel to the vacation home you should have purchased when mortgage rates were historically low.

Five Reasons Why You Can’t Ignore Your Credit

While living debt free is a good thing, living credit free can have unforeseen and expensive consequences.

Here’s Everything We Know About The Rakuten/Buy.com Credit Card Breaches

If you’ve shopped at the online marketplace recently, you should pay very close attention to your statements.

26 Secrets to Save on Travel

Flying on a Saturday afternoon may not sound like fun, but it could save you big bucks.

Farewell 3% Mortgage Rates

Job gains and an improving economy signal the end of historically low mortgage rates.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

collegeHere are some of the top money stories around the Web:

How to Pay Student Loans You Can’t Afford

With interest rates on federal Stafford Loans set to double on July 1st, Credit.com’s Gerri Detweiler breaks down the four main income-based repayment programs.

The Surprising Downside of Cutting Up Your Credit Cards

While it may curb your spending, cutting those credit cards in half could hurt your credit score.

Banks Lag on Consumer-Friendly Checking Practices

After surveying 36 of 50 of the country’s largest banks, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Safe Checking in the Electronic Age project discovered that not a single one met all of the recommended practices.

Are You Paying the iTunes Tax?

The days of tax free internet purchases could soon be over.

Don’t sweat the small (FICO) stuff

Dear Liz: Over the last couple of years I have managed to pay off my credit cards. I know that closing those accounts will hurt my credit so I kept them open. When I checked my credit report, I found that my rating had gone down and was told that I had to actually use the credit cards and pay them off to keep my score up. I’ve been doing that over the last year or so and my credit score responded well. This past month my credit score went down again by a few points and I learned that it was because the credit card companies had rewarded my diligence by raising my credit limit. This apparently hurt my score. What’s up with this? Is there any way not to get dinged by the reporting agencies?

Answer: Higher credit limits would reduce the percentage of available credit you are using, and that should help your credit scores, rather than hurt them. So the score you’re seeing either isn’t a FICO score, which is the score used by most lenders, or you are being given questionable information about what affects your scores. Many score monitoring systems are set up to give you explanations for any change in your numbers, but those explanations might be vague or might not accurately depict what’s truly influencing your scores.

Your FICO credit scores change all the time, based on the ever-changing information in your credit reports. Variations of a few points shouldn’t be a cause of concern. Continue to use your cards lightly but regularly, paying the balances off in full each month. Over time, the variations will smooth out into higher scores.

Split credit accounts when you split with a spouse

Dear Liz: I just finished paying off my last credit card and checked my credit report as I am now separated from my wife. I found we had one joint account that she had not been paying. There are two stretches of five months each of no payment.

I immediately called up the creditor and paid off the balance and the creditor closed the account due to the lack of payments. This one account killed my credit score. I also found two old accounts on my credit report that are both still active but I have not used them for years. Both accounts are in good standing.

I was thinking that if I started using the accounts again, paying them off each month, it would boost my credit score faster. I am looking to buy a house this summer and would have an easier time with a better score. Do you think using the old accounts would help improve my score faster or do you think my score would be better if I closed those accounts?

Answer: Closing accounts can’t help your credit scores and may hurt them. You should avoid closing any credit account when you’re trying to improve your credit rating.

Your experience shows why it’s so important to separate financial accounts when you’re separating from a spouse. Failure to pay any joint account can hurt both parties’ scores. This would be true even if you were divorced and had a divorce decree making her responsible for the debt. Your creditors don’t have to pay attention to such agreements.

Lightly using a few credit cards can help you recover from missteps like this one. “Lightly” means charging 10% or less of their credit limits, and you should pay the balances in full each month, since carrying credit card debt doesn’t help your scores. You shouldn’t expect your scores to bounce back overnight, however. If you had good scores before this incident, it may take you a few years to recover completely.

Experian to offer FICOs to consumers again

YCS4 coverExperian stopped offering FICO scores to consumers a few years ago, even though it continued to sell the scores to lenders. This refusal made it tough for consumers to know what rates they should expect from mortgage lenders, which typically take the middle of your three FICO scores (one from each bureau). You could still get your TransUnion and Equifax FICOs from MyFico.com, but not your Experian FICO.

That’s apparently about to change. Buried in a press release today was an announcement that Experian will once again “make FICO Scores available to consumers through myFICO.com and through third parties.”

“This is great news for consumers,” said credit scoring expert John Ulzheimer, the president of consumer education for SmartCredit.com who tipped me off to this important development.
After withdrawing from its partnership with MyFico.com, Experian continued to sell credit scores to consumers–but they weren’t the same scores lenders typically used. One score Experian sells, the PLUS score, isn’t used by lenders, while the VantageScore is used by about 10% of lenders. FICOs, on the other hand, are the leading score, so being able to get them again from Experian is a real boon.

How credit scores are like cats

Cute cat enjoying himself outdoorsWhen people complain that credit scoring formulas aren’t fair or consumer friendly, I think of my Great Auntie M.

Great Auntie M. was a lovely older woman, and she was besotted with her cat. Great Auntie M. once told me that if she died first, she wanted the cat euthanized since he “couldn’t possibly live” without her.

Just as Great Auntie M. misunderstood the fundamental nature of cats, so many people misunderstand the fundamental nature of credit scores. There are more than a few parallels between the two, so let me explain:

They’re finicky. Your cat may turn up its nose as its food bowl, or kick litter out of a box that’s not perfectly clean. Credit scores are similarly fussy about certain things: paying bills on time, not using too much of your available credit limits, not applying for new credit too often.

They hold grudges. When my husband moved in with his sister years ago, her cat was not amused by the presence of a new person. The cat expressed himself by depositing a single turd in the exact middle of hubby’s bed. One of our own cats once stalked up behind her brother, lifted up her paw like a prizefighter and smashed his head with it. There was no immediate provocation to this act of vengeance, so we can only speculate what he did earlier to tick her off. Credit scores don’t quickly forgive infractions, either, especially big ones. A single skipped payment can affect your scores for up to three years, a foreclosure for up to seven years, a bankruptcy for up to 10 years. (The impact decreases over time if you use credit responsibly, but it can still persist.)

They have their own agenda. Cats can be cuddly, playful, affectionate. (I have one sitting on my lap right now, monitoring my typing.) But cats typically are independent. They can withdraw affection in an instant, stalk away and regard you with indifference. Cats feel no obligation to oblige, conform or bend to the will of another. They are, in other words, the polar opposite of the dog now sleeping at my feet, a desperate-to-please golden retriever whose primary need is reassurance that yes, he is still part of the pack.

Like cats, credit scoring formulas don’t particularly care what you think. Credit scores were constructed for lenders, not consumers. In fact, originally you were never supposed to know that credit scores even existed, let alone what yours were. Credit scores have their own, internal logic that they follow, regardless of its impact on you.

Here’s another similarity: credit scores, like cats, can reward you if you figure out what they like and don’t like. With both, the effort is worthwhile.

Forgotten credit card trashes scores

Dear Liz: My husband and I are in the process of refinancing our mortgage. I just received my credit report in the mail, and my score was 724. The report indicated that a delinquency resulted in my less-than-stellar score. When I went to the credit bureau site to see where the problem was, I saw that I had a $34 charge on a Visa last year. I rarely use that card, so I did not realize that I had a balance. As a result, I had a delinquent balance for five months last year. I am sick about this, as I always pay my bills on time. To think that my credit score was affected by something so insignificant is really bumming me out. Is there anything I can do to fix this?

Answer: You can try, but creditors are often reluctant to delete true negative information from your credit files. That’s why it’s so important to monitor all of your credit accounts, and to consider signing up for automatic payments so that this doesn’t happen again.

You should know that your mortgage lender won’t look at just one credit score when evaluating your application. Typically, mortgage lenders would request FICO credit scores from each of the three bureaus for both you and your husband, then use the lower of the two middle scores to determine your rate. Even if 724 did turn out to be the lowest of the six scores, you should still get a decent rate, since that’s considered a good score.