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A Chat with the Credit Score Expert

  • Mary Hunt The Cheapskate Monthly
  • 2005 25 Jul
A Chat with the Credit Score Expert

Recently I caught up with Liz Pulliam Weston, syndicated columnist and author of the book, Your Credit Score

CM: Your book is great. Since reading it I feel like I’ve been through Credit Score U. But I have to ask: Why write an entire book about credit scores?

Liz: First of all, thanks for the kind words. I wrote the book because I was getting frustrated by all the bad advice coming from mortgage brokers, loan officers, real estate agents, even the media. The only books available on credit scoring when I started writing were $50 tomes aimed at mortgage industry executives. There was nothing written for consumers.

People need clear information for how credit scores work and what to do to improve them. Otherwise, they could pay tens of thousands of dollars more in interest over their lifetimes than necessary. Here’s an example: A person with a good 750 score might get a rate of around 5 percent for an auto loan, while someone with a 650 would average 10 percent paying literally twice as much in interest over the life of the loan.

CM: If I don’t plan to buy a house or car in the foreseeable future, do I need to be concerned about my credit score? If not, whew! If so, why?

Liz: Credit scoring is seeping into many areas of life. Landlords use credit scores to evaluate applicants, so a poor credit score could make it hard for you to get an apartment. Insurers use a form of credit scoring to set premiums for auto and homeowners’ insurance in many states. Even employers use credit information to decide who gets hired or promoted for certain jobs. Besides, you never know when you might need to borrow money in a hurry. People with good credit scores get the best deals. People with bad or even mediocre scores wind up paying through the nose.

CM: What about the person with only one credit card? Does that pretty much guarantee a low credit score?

Liz: Not necessarily. To get the very best scores, you need both revolving accounts (like credit cards and lines of credit) and installment accounts (like car loans or mortgages). But you don’t need the very best scores to get the very best rates and terms. Typically, as long as your score is over 720 or so, you’re going to get good deals on loans.

CM: What about someone going through a messy divorce or some other "lifequake" that mangles his or her credit score. What can these folks do to hasten score recovery?

Liz: The first step is to check their credit reports to make sure they’re accurate. Your credit score is calculated entirely from the information on your credit report and serious errors can really hurt you.

Next, strive to contain the damage. If an ex is still out there charging on a joint credit card, you need to close that card. If the ex is making late payments on the mortgage that’s still in your name, you may need to take over the payments until the mortgage can be refinanced and your name taken off.

Making payments on time is crucial to rehabilitating a credit score. The scoring formula weighs recent behavior more heavily than past behavior, so you can start to offset the damage from late pay-ments in the past by making sure all your payments are on time, all the time, from now on. Paying down debt is also important to improving your score (and your financial life in general). You don’t want to charge more than 20 percent to 30 percent of your limit on credit cards and other lines of credit, even if you pay your balance off in full each month.

CM: Which is worse for a credit score? Credit Counseling or a "charge off?" Charge off or bankruptcy?

Liz: Bankruptcy is the single worst thing you can do to your score. Charge-offs are pretty bad as well. Credit counseling itself typically won’t hurt your FICO score, the one most used by lenders. The FICO formula treats any mention of enrollment in a counselor’s debt management plan as a "neutral" -- it neither hurts nor helps your score. But that doesn’t mean your credit won’t suffer.

Some lenders retaliate against customers who enroll in credit counseling by reporting their payments as "late" — which can really hurt a credit score. Also, if you tried to get a new loan--particularly a mortgage — your lender might treat credit counseling the same way it would treat a Chapter 13 bankruptcy filing, and that could hurt you. That’s why credit counseling shouldn’t be used lightly or just to get a lower interest rate or payment schedule from a credit card company. But if you’re already behind on your payments and want to try to avoid bankruptcy, it’s an option you can consider.

CM: Okay, we’re suspicious. Isn’t this just a marketing ploy to increase revenues? Unlike credit reports, credit scores are not free.

Liz: It’s true that scores aren’t free. They were developed to help lenders gauge the risk that someone might default. They’ve been in widespread use since the 1970s, and part of most mortgage lending decisions since the mid-1990s. As more lenders used them, more consumers began to hear about them and to demand more information about how they worked. (Before 2000, lenders weren’t even supposed to tell you what your score was, let alone how it worked — and frankly, often the lenders didn’t know what went into a credit score!)

To get the right score make sure you get your FICO score. The bureaus like to market their own "consumer education" scores, which aren’t the same as the FICO scores used by lenders. If you want to see the same scores the lenders see, make sure you’re getting a FICO.

Your Credit Score (Prentice Hall, $17.95) contains a complete action plan for improving your credit score — starting today — plus information that could save you thousands on credit and insurance, even help you get your next job. Your Credit Score explains the rules, explodes the myths. It is insightful, well written and surprisingly interesting.

© 2005 The Cheapskate Monthly. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

  "The Cheapskate Monthly" was founded in 1992 by Mary Hunt.  What began as a newsletter to encourage and empower people to break free from the bondage of consumer debt has grown into a huge community of ordinary people who have achieved remarkable success in their quest to effectively manage their money and stay out of debt.  Today, "The Cheapskate Monthly" is read by close to 100,000 Cheapskates.  Click here to subscribe.