When it’s okay to close credit cards

Dear Liz: We have four credit cards that generate airline miles, each of which has a yearly fee. We also have a Capital One card with no fee that we use for travel to avoid currency conversion fees. We pay all cards off every month. Since it is getting so hard to use miles, we are thinking of closing all but the Capital One account, which also accrues points toward air travel. I have read that closing credit cards is not a good thing to do. I am 73, my husband 79, so I doubt we will need to incur debt in the future.

Answer: You may want to preserve your good credit scores even if you don’t anticipate taking out any loans. Insurers in many states use credit information to set premiums (although not in California).

If you do still care about your scores, you could consider asking your credit card issuers if you could switch to one of their no-fee cards. The closures of your current accounts may still affect your scores, but having several open, active accounts probably will offset the damage over time.

Or you could just take your chances and close card accounts rather than pay unnecessary fees. But consider having at least one additional credit card, in case your Capital One card is compromised or lost and you need a temporary backup.

Will the new credit score change your life?

YCS4 coverIn case you missed them, here are some of the issues I’ve been writing about recently:

A much-heralded new version of the VantageScore could offer big benefits to consumers, but only if lenders actually start to use it. Read all about it in “New credit score could change lives.”

HSAs still aren’t a household acronym, but more companies are offering these health care accounts–and yours might be next. For the right people, HSAs can be a way to supercharge your retirement savings since they allow you to invest unused cash contributions in stocks. But you also run the risk of having the market wipe out your health care funds right when you need them. Read “Should you invest health care funds?” for more.

Divorce doesn’t necessarily separate your credit obligations, and a vengeful or oblivious ex can really mess up your credit. Learn what you should know before and after your split in “Don’t let your ex trash your credit.”

Are you giving identity thieves the clues they need to hack into your life? If you use social media, the answer may be yes. Read “Secrets you should yank off Facebook now.”

Should you pay to boost your credit scores?

Dear Liz: I’ve seen advertisements for services that promise to help you raise your credit score by the exact number of points you need to qualify for a good mortgage rate. Are these services worth the money?

Answer: There’s one thing you need to know about these services: They don’t have access to the actual FICO formula, which is proprietary. So what they’re doing is essentially guesswork.

They may suggest that you can raise your score a certain number of points in a certain time frame, but the FICO formula isn’t that predictable. Any given action can have different results, depending on the details of your individual credit reports.

Rather than pay money to a firm making such promises, use that cash to pay down any credit card debt you have. Widening the gap between your available credit and your balances can really boost your scores. Other steps you should take include paying your bills on time, disputing serious errors on your credit reports and refraining from opening or closing accounts.

My book is out! Get it for free.

DWYD cover2013Deal with Your Debt” is now available, and I’m giving away five copies this week.

To enter to win, leave a comment here on my blog (not my Facebook page).

Click on the tab above the post that says “comments.” Make sure to include your email address, which won’t show up with your comment, but I’ll be able to see it.

If you haven’t commented before, it may take a little while for your comment to show up since comments are moderated.

The winners will be chosen at random Friday night. Over the weekend, please check your email (including your spam filter). If I don’t hear from a winner by noon Pacific time on Monday, his or her prize will be forfeited and I’ll pick another winner.

Also, check back here often for other giveaways.

The deadline to enter is midnight Pacific time on Friday. So–comment away!

Roommate may be not be telling the truth about his credit

Dear Liz: I have a roommate who has truly bad credit. He has been turned down from getting a checking account at banks because his mom bounced checks on his account when he was 18 (he is now 31). What is the best way to rehab his credit? He can’t get a secured credit card because he doesn’t have a checking account. Is there a way around this?

Answer: You may not be getting the full story from your roommate. If his mom misused his checking account when he was 18, it shouldn’t still be affecting his ability to establish a bank account. Reports to Chexsystems, the bureau that tells banks about people who have mishandled their bank accounts, typically remain on file for only five years.

Your roommate should first request a free annual report from Chexsystems at http://www.consumerdebit.com and dispute any errors or old information. Even if he’s still listed in Chexsystems, he could get a so-called “second chance” checking account from several major banks, including Wells Fargo, Chase and PNC Bank. Responsible use of those accounts should allow him to graduate to a regular checking account. Then he can start the process of rehabilitating his credit.

Does paying down installment loans help your credit?

Dear Liz: I know a high balance on a credit card hurts your credit score and that it’s best to keep balances low and pay them off each month. But does the same theory hold true for installment borrowing such as auto or student loans, which obviously have a higher balance in the beginning of the loan repayment period?

Answer: Paying down installment loans will help your credit score, but typically not as dramatically as paying down balances on revolving debt such as credit cards.

The leading FICO credit scoring formula is much more sensitive to balances on revolving accounts. The wider the gap between your available credit and the amount you’re using, the better.

So is it pointless to try to fix credit report errors?

Credit Check 1Dear Liz: I watched 60 Minutes last night regarding the 3 credit bureaus and was amazed at what I learned.  I was hoping to spend time trying to repair our credit score, but according to the report last evening, it sounds like a total waste of time as the three credit bureaus basically are not accountable to anyone and they very rarely take action in your defense.  Was this a one-sided view?

Answer: The credit bureaus would tell you yes, but the answer is way more complicated than that.

The show reported that 40 million Americans have errors on their credit reports. That’s about one in five U.S. adults covered by the credit bureau industry. About half (one in 10) have errors serious enough to hurt their credit scores.

(Update: A Federal Trade Commission report released today said one in four had at least one “potentially material error” on at least one of their three credit reports and that one in 20 consumers had significant errors on their credit reports that could cause them to pay more loans.)

That’s a pretty high error rate, but an even bigger problem is that the process to fix mistakes is almost completely automated and structured to favor the data provider (the banks, lenders and others supplying information) over the consumer. Here’s how the Ohio attorney general described it:

“The federal law says that if you believe that there is a mistake, you can go to them and they have an obligation to do a reasonable investigation. They’re not doing a reasonable investigation. They’re not doing an investigation at all.”

The show interviewed former bureau employees in Chile who confirmed what others have reported: that their jobs were to assign two-digit codes to the complaints. That’s it. Then the complaints are forwarded to the lenders and other data providers for response.

People can and do get errors fixed if the data provider acknowledges the error or simply fails to respond to the credit bureaus’ queries. If the data provider continues to insist it’s right, however, it’s pretty tough (if not impossible) to get the bureaus to step in.

That’s how people get caught in seemingly endless cycles of disputing mistakes only to have them reappear, or never disappear, from their reports.

The credit bureaus, which apparently turned down opportunities to respond on camera, now point to a study by the Policy and Economic Research Council that found 95% of consumers were satisfied with the outcome of their disputes. The study was paid for by a grant from the Consumer Data Industry Association, which represents the credit bureaus.

It’s not exactly pointless try to fix errors. The FTC report said four out of five people who dispute errors get results. You should still try, and you may well find it’s possible, but you should plan to be tenacious if your initial efforts are rebuffed. (You should get your free credit reports directly from www.annualcreditreport.com. Don’t go to other, lookalike sites, some of which are owned by the credit bureaus but that aren’t the federally-mandated site that gets you your free reports.)

You should also support efforts by regulators and consumer advocates to require the credit bureaus to put a more responsive system in place.

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.