Even though it's more important than ever to be familiar with your credit score and what affects that crucial number, experts say a lot of Americans don't know nearly as much as they should about what they do that can impact their score. WalletPop got on the phone with John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at Credit.com to find out more. We also caught up with Barry Paperno, consumer operations manager for FICO, via email to ask him to spill some credit score secrets.
For instance, many people think that if they pay their bills on time, their credit score must be good. Right? Wrong, say our experts. Even if you always pay on time, if your cards are close to being maxed out, your score isn't going to be as high as it could be, since borrowing up to the hilt looks like a risk factor to the credit bureaus. Surprised? Read on to find out five more credit secrets that can help you get the credit score you deserve.
1. Pay off revolving debt first. There are two different kinds of debt most of us carry: installment debts, which are generally secured by collateral (such as a car loan), and revolving debt, such as credit card balances. Since credit card balances are unsecured -- the company can't repossess the spoils of your last shopping spree if you don't pay up -- they're viewed as much riskier in the FICO equation. As a result, paying off revolving debt boosts your credit score more than paying off a comparable amount of installment debt. "Paying off installment debt has such a small impact on your score," says Ulzheimer. "Last year, I paid off a $284,000 mortgage and my score went up four points." In other words, put that overtime check, bonus or tax refund toward credit card bills if you want the most bang for your high-score buck.
2. Payments to collection agencies don't boost your score. By the time a debt goes to a third-party collection firm, the original lender (your credit card company, for instance) has already written off the loan as a loss and noted that delinquency on your report. While there are a host of good reasons -- such as not getting sued and not being pestered with phone calls at all hours -- to pay the bill once a third party collector has it, those payments won't count toward your FICO score and won't erase the notation of delinquency.
Likewise, if you get dinged with an insufficient funds fee at your bank and "retaliate" by closing the account or not putting any more money into it, you can get slapped with a collection action by your bank that will negatively impact your score. "In addition to bank account debt, such collection accounts can also arise from utility bills, parking tickets, and even library fines – and can often impact your score as much as unpaid credit card or loan debt," Paperno warns. Bottom line: Pay those bills before they're sent to a collection agency if you want to preserve your score.
3. Accentuate the positive. While you obviously want to make sure that black marks like missed payments don't stay on your report any longer than necessary, it's perfectly okay and even desirable to have old accounts that were in good standing still listed. For instance, say you paid off a car loan and never made a late payment on it. While you could lobby the bureaus to take that information off your report, it's more beneficial to leave it on, says Ulzheimer. "This is a great example of when less is more. Don't ask them to take it off if it's in good standing."
4. Opening and closing accounts can lower your score. "FICO's research has found that opening a new account is predictive of increased risk, and opening any type of credit account or loan action can lower one's score," explains Paperno. The good news, he adds, is that your score will rise back to its original level within a few months if you keep the balance low and make your payments on time.
Closing cards can ding you because it skews your credit utilization ratio -- that is, how much of your available credit you've used -- when that line of credit suddenly vanishes. For this reason, experts say to use all your cards at least occasionally. An unused card does you no good if the issuer cancels it due to inactivity.
5. Borrowing more to pay down your debt is dicey. Despite the fact that Americans are often pitched offers of "consolidation" loans by their bank or mortgage lender, taking on more debt to eliminate your credit card bills is a risky proposition. "You're borrowing from Peter to pay Paul," says Ulzheimer. Since most consolidation loans are home equity loans backed by your house, failure to get a handle on your spending and pay off your debts as intended could have catastrophic consequences, he points out. "If you miss these payments, the down side is much more significant." There's also the fact, as we pointed out above, that opening new accounts can at least temporarily lower your score.
However, taking out an installment loan to pay off your credit card bills could prove beneficial -- with one significant caveat. As Paperno points out, installment debt doesn't drag down your score the way a bunch of maxed out credit cards can, so if -- and this is the big "if" -- you have the discipline to pay off your cards with that new loan money and stop using the cards until the installment loan is paid off, you could raise your score. But as Paperno points out, it takes a super-sized helping of discipline in order to make this tactic successful.
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