Sunday, March 23, 2008

Ten Things You Can Do to Save Money This Year: One

1. Don't apply for new credit. Every time a creditor checks your credit, it damages your credit score. It's an ignorant, unfair system that doesn't allow for sensible choices on your part, but since this IS the system, you must choose wisely and act accordingly.

Why shouldn't you apply for new credit? Because it damages your credit score, which means that you'll wind up paying higher interest rates on car loans, mortgages, credit cards--or any other form of loan--which means, in the end, you lose money. The difference between a half a percentage point (or more) on a mortgage, for instance, can result in tens of thousands of dollars lost over the course of the loan--or hundreds of dollars each month. Think I'm exaggerating? Check out these numbers:

If your credit score is in the top range (720+) you'll qualify for the best interest rates. On a three-year car loan, for instance, let's say you got 7%. If you had a credit score in the lowest range (500-579) you're looking at a rate of something closer to 15%. Think that's not so bad? Think again. You'd lose an extra $75 or so each month for three years, which means you'd lose $2700 over the course of the loan. (Numbers from Suze Orman's The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, & Broke, p.24)

Think this is just a scare tactic? Unfortunately, I know of what I speak. My credit score dropped with one (major) credit reporting agency by 40 points in one year. I had reduced my debt by 20%, paid all my bills on time, and earned another year of perfect credit post-bankruptcy and yet my score really dropped! The reason? I had applied for too much new credit. Each time had a good explanation and if evaluated on its own by a human being wouldn't affect my credit poorly, but for the algorithm that creates our scores, it is only seen as bad.

In my case, one credit inquiry was for my new car. My old car died and I had no choice. I chose a car that was in my budget, that is reliable, under warranty, and saved me two hundred dollars a year in insurance, and yet, FICO dinged me for this. Another credit inquiry was from Macy's. I was spending several hundred dollars on interview clothes for a high-paying job I eventually got. When the salesgirl offered me the chance to save 20% by opening a Macy's card, I said, "yes," thinking only of the immediate savings. Another credit score ding.

Another inquiry came because I applied for an LL Bean VISA. I order from LL Bean frequently and with their VISA, I can earn useful points toward future purchases, get free monogramming, and most importantly, get free shipping. Also the rate being offered was lower than the average rate on my other cards. The annual savings would be substantial, so it's a sound financial choice to apply for the card--but to FICO, it makes me seem unstable. Another ding.

The other two credit inquiries were when I applied for low-interest cards so that I could transfer my balances and pay off the cards more quickly (and lose less money to interest payments). Again, a sound financial choice. But to FICO...not so much.

So, even though I made responsible choices in all of these credit situations, my credit score dropped by 40 whole points. To make matters worse, because my score had dropped, after my car loan was approved, I wasn't approved for any of the money-saving cards I applied for, so my score dropped and there was no upside.

This year, I am shopping for houses, so its especially important for me to have the highest credit score possible. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that even despite reducing my debt by 20% and paying all my bills on time in the last twelve months, my score had not risen--it had dropped--by a lot.

In a nutshell: always say "no" when the cashier asks you if you want to "save" by opening a store credit card. The interest rates are always high, and the inquiry on your credit isn't worth the damage. Don't apply for more than one new card per year. You are probably better off living with whatever rate you have than applying for lower-rate cards and watching your credit drop.

The good news: Your credit is not damaged when non-lenders check it. If you check your score, or if a landlord or employer checks your score, you shouldn't experience a hit. There is also a special exception (I think) for mortgage shopping. I believe you get a two-week grace period. So, if you are ready to buy a home, do all your mortgage shopping within a two-week period and all of those hits will only count as one, no matter how many lenders check your credit. (Please double-check this before acting on it...just in case the rules have changed since I researched this.)

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