If you are like most people, you have only a vague understanding of how credit is granted, obtained, recorded, and maintained. In fact, even if you have vast knowledge of the financial industry, you know that our credit system is not, in any way, based on an exact science. Our credit system and the related tracking of it is based largely on the subjectivity of individual decision making, variable credit scoring formulas, and the further variability of changing objectives amongst the financial institutions granting the credit.
So, whether or not you are credit wise, there is always more information to gather and insight to gain. Here are three things you can do to increase your credit knowledge:
1.Clarify any misconceptions
2.Establish what you know and what you don’t know
3.Identify steps that you can take to improve your financial standing
Once you have completed these steps, you will immediately start to see more money in your pocket and in your accounts in the form of lower monthly payments, better cash flow, and lower borrowing rates. I guarantee it!
There are all kinds of misconceptions regarding credit and there are many opportunities for them to flourish given the overall lack of credit knowledge that exists relative to the complexity of the system. I have included five of the more common misconceptions below.
I am better off not knowing my financial status.
Don’t be a credit ostrich and bury your head in the sand. While ostriches don’t actually bury their head in the sand, they do duck their head low to the ground when they sense danger in the hope that their problem will go away. This describes the credit strategy of many, many individuals. When you ignore or otherwise choose not to know or understand the state of your finances, it costs you money. You will pay NSF fees because you don’t know how much money you have in your checking account. You will pay late fees because you don’t pay attention to the due date on your bills. Ultimately, your financial standing will suffer.
My credit score does not matter.
Yes, credit scoring is an imperfect, somewhat confusing system, but if you want to buy a house, finance the purchase of a car, obtain a credit card or complete virtually any other type of credit transaction, the first thing any financial institution will do upon receiving your request is run your credit report. Some will take the time to understand all the issues and perhaps even get to know you a little bit better in order to weigh all the factors, but most lenders will flat out reject credit requests of any kind from a person with impaired credit, regardless of any extenuating circumstances. A poor credit score can actually prevent you from buying a house or financing a car. Perhaps worse yet, today’s lending environment will still allow some individuals with poor credit scores to purchase a home or finance an automobile purchase, but force them to pay dearly for the privilege. This so-called “predatory” lending practice clearly perpetuates bad habits and can make tenuous financial situations even more prone to deterioration due to extraordinarily high interest rates and the associated monthly loan payments.
I always pay my bills = My credit is great.
Regularly paying your bills on time is a great start, but people are often surprised to find that their ability to obtain credit is impaired even when they have a strong payment record. Several factors other than your timeliness can add or subtract from your credit standing, including the amount of debt that you carry relative to your income, the frequency with which your credit report is run, and the amount of existing credit you already do or don’t have.
I thought it was acceptable as long as I paid the fee.
Many people are under the mistaken belief that if they pay an NSF fee, for instance, it is okay to bounce checks; or, if they are willing to pay a fee associated with making a late loan payment, the practice of paying late is acceptable. The fact is that many fees are established in order to discourage a certain behavior from occurring. Often times, fees are a precursor to a negative mark on your credit report.
I have a steady job so I can spend as much as I want
What about tomorrow or the next day? Life is full of unforeseen circumstances. Fortunately, some are of the positive variety, but for the negative type, such as losing your job, unforeseen circumstances spell immediate trouble for someone who has not made any contingency plans. In this situation, assets and income go away in a hurry, but liabilities and debt not only stick around, they grow disproportionately as your inability to meet your responsibilities continues. Your hard earned, good credit standing can change dramatically within a matter of 30 days if you ever allow your debt obligations to outpace your ability to meet those obligations…and, it only takes one occurrence before your credit rating is impacted negatively.
Establish What You Know and Don’t Know
There are three major credit bureaus (I have included their contact information at the end of this article), each of which has a different name for your credit score, and each of which utilizes a slightly different formula for calculating your score. Contact all three and obtain a copy of your credit report from each of them. Alternatively, there are several businesses that will do this for you and present you with a tri-merge report combining all of the information from the three bureaus into one report. If you have not obtained or read your credit report before, I strongly suggest that you sit down with a financial professional who is familiar with the credit reporting format and go through any questions or concerns you might have. There are several aspects of the credit report that are important for you to know and understand.
Your credit score can vary greatly from bureau to bureau for a number of reasons. It is common, however, for lenders to zero in on your middle score as reported by the three credit bureaus. Credit scores generally range from 380 on the very low end to about 850 on the high end. If your score is 730 or above, you are usually considered an A+ credit risk. Or, in other words, you are deemed to be the lowest risk borrower and will therefore be afforded the best interest rates available for the transaction you are requesting. If your score is between 600 and 699, you are generally considered credit worthy. You will qualify for financing in most cases. If, however, your credit score falls below 600, your credit is impaired and you will struggle to qualify for conventional financing programs and their corresponding interest rates. If your credit score is in this category, you are typically referred to as a sub-prime or high-risk borrower and if you do qualify for financing, you will typically pay high rates of interest as part of the loan agreement.
Just about every business you have or will obtain credit from will report to a credit bureau. When you are reviewing your report, note the creditors listed and whether or not a balance owed is indicated. The credit report will also indicate the last time that each creditor reported information on you. Double check the information on your credit report with your own records and recollections to ensure accuracy.
Type of Account
Each account reported on your credit report will include a code that indicates what type of account it is. Examples include whether it is an individual or joint account and whether it is a revolving or fixed term debt. Credit card balances are considered revolving debt; mortgage balances are an example of fixed term debt. Again, double check the information against your own records to ensure accuracy.
This is shown as a numeric indicator. If you have an 01 rating next to the creditor and type of account, you are considered current with that debtor. Any rating higher than an 01 indicates that you are currently past due with that creditor. If you have an 02 rating, for example, you are 30 days past due with that creditor according to the report. An 03 rating indicates that you are 60 days past due and so on. An 09 rating indicates that the creditor has charged-off the balance that you owe them, which obviously has a further adverse impact on your credit score.
The balance owed indicates another factor that determines your status. The total balance owed to the creditor along with the current monthly payment and any amounts overdue are all reflected on the report.
There are also numeric indications as to your payment history for as long as each account and creditor has been reporting to the credit bureau. If your history on a particular account goes back four years, for instance, you will be able to determine how many of your 48 monthly payments were made on time, how many were 30 days late, etc. You will also be able to determine the date the loan originated, the high balance owed on the loan, and the minimum or regular monthly payment amount.
Note: Creditors can only report you as past due if your payment is late by 30 days or more. While I am not advocating that paying your bills up to 29 days late is acceptable, I think it is helpful to know that there is some latitude available to you, relative to your credit rating, should something unforeseen arise.
Judgments and Liens
There is a section on your credit report that highlights any civil judgments that have been entered against you; tax liens levied by government agencies, as well as bankruptcy filings. As a rule of thumb, bankruptcies stay on your credit report for up to seven years and judgments stick around for up to nine years and are renewable in certain circumstances.
This section identifies every entity that has run your credit in recent history (usually the last two to three years) and the date they ran the report.
Credit reports also contain the telephone number and address for every creditor listed on your report.
Improve Your Financial Standing
Have any or all of your misconceptions been addressed? Have you figured out what you know and don’t know about your credit? Now, what can you do?
- Ensure that your credit report is accurate. If you are disputing certain balances or claims, make sure that you have registered your dispute (in writing) with the creditor and the credit bureau.
- Make your payments on time.
- Minimize the number of times you request credit. Be selective about the lenders and creditors with whom you do business. Try to establish longer term relationships with them.
- If you experience unforeseen circumstances, work with your creditors on the front end. Do not procrastinate and hope they won’t notice you are late.
- Manage your debt load, especially revolving, unsecured debt such as credit cards and personal loans.
- Protect all of your personal information and minimize use of that information in open forums in order to effectively guard against identity theft.
- Do not hesitate to seek out a financial advisor or confidant for assistance.
- Regularly read your account statements, balance your checkbook, and remain alert with regard to your finances.
- Read and understand everything that has your signature on it.
You can begin to improve your financial standing today. If you have finished reading this article, you are well on your way. The rest is up to you. Here is that contact information:
Trans Union www.Transunion.com
This article is part of Scott Arney's educational series, entitled The Serial Decision Maker.