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3 Very Big Questions (And Answers) About Personal Finances

young woman looking at credit cardPersonal finances are a bit like your health. You need to keep an eye on them just as you need to watch what happens to you physically. If you’re smart you’ll have a physical exam once a year just as you should give your personal finances the occasional checkup. And you probably have questions about your finances just as you have questions about your health. Recent college graduates were surveyed regarding their questions about personal finances and here are the three that came up most often.

Why not have just a debit card?

Since credit cards can be very dangerous why have one? Why not just use a debit card instead? Yes, credit cards can be troublesome. However, they do come with some benefits. If you have a credit card and use it responsibly, this will help your credit score. Second, merchants sometimes require a credit card rather than a debit card. If your identity is stolen, undoing the damage from a stolen credit card can be easier than with a debit card. If you run into a dispute with a merchant, it’s often better to have used a credit card as your credit card issuer will help you settle the dispute. Plus, almost every credit card now comes with rewards that can be beneficial – assuming you don’t go into debt or end up having to pay high interest.

The cons of debit cards

The money comes out of your account immediately when you use a debit card. In comparison, with a credit card you get a short-term free loan and your money stays in the bank earning a return. In fact, with most credit cards you would get at least a 27-day free loan every month. Given today’s historically low interest rates this may not amount to much but interest rates will go up eventually.

Is it better to have no credit or bad credit?

The problem with bad credit is that it’s very hard to fix. If you have bad credit the first thing you must stop running up more debt. You will need to create an emergency account and a budget that will require you to do and buy only what your income will cover. In addition, you will need to pay all your bills on time and in full, and pay down your debt. This includes everything even any accounts you have that were charged off. As you can imagine, this will require a lot of discipline and commitment – no matter why it was that you developed bad credit in the first place. If you have no credit it’s fairly easy to establish good credit. The reason why you want to do this is so that you will have it when you need it to get a home, a new car or for some other major purchase. You need to responsibly handle your savings and checking account and should get a debit card with no over-limit protection and maybe a secured credit card. If you have a secured credit card and use it responsibly then after six months you should be able to get an unsecured car with a low credit limit and no over limit protection. Of course, while you’re doing this you will have to pay all of your bills on time.

Girl looking worriedWhat’s the best way to pay off credit card debts?

The first thing you need to do is create an emergency savings account to make sure that if something happens you don’t fall into more debt. You also need an honest and realistic budget so you can see what you spend your money on and whether it is a wish, a want, a luxury or a convenience that you could do without. Once you have done these things the next step is to get to work and pay off those credit card debts as quickly as you can. There are several schools of thought as to the best way to do this. The financial guru, Dave Ramsey, recommends what he calls the snowball method of paying off credit card debts. What this amounts to putting your debts in order from the one with the lowest balance down to the one with the largest. You then focus all of your efforts on paying off the one with the lowest balance while continuing to make the minimum monthly payments on your other credit card debts. When you get that first debt paid off you will have extra money you can use to pay off the credit card with the next lowest balance and so on. Dave calls this the snowball method because like a snowball rolling downhill you will pick up more and more momentum as you pay off each debt. However there are other financial experts that believe it’s best to put your credit card debts in order from the one with the highest interest rate down to the one with the lowest. You then concentrate on paying off the one with the highest interest rate first as this will save you the most money. Which of these two methods would be best for you? It really boils down to a matter of personal choice. The important thing is to pick one and then stick to it.

How it used to be

Until very recently it was easy to understand how to handle credit cards to keep from having them negatively affect your credit score. All you had to do was… • Make every one of your payments – at least the minimums due – on time every month • Be sure to keep your balances below 30% of your credit cards’ credit limits. Of course, it’s better to have an even lower percentage but the difference that 10% or 20% make to your score is really very minimal when compared to 30%. • Make sure that you apply for a new credit card only when you need it. Your credit score can be negatively affected if you have a lot of recently opened accounts.

A new factor in credit scoring

But now there’s a new factor in credit scoring as the three credit bureaus are now using the amount by which you pay down your cards each month in calculating your score. It’s likely that other bureaus and scoring companies will soon follow suit. What’s the purpose of this? It’s to differentiate between people who pay down their balances in full each month (“transacters”) and people called “revolvers,” who carry forward their balances from one month to the next. The theory behind this is that people who pay off their balances each month are likely to be more credit worthy and so deserve higher scores. A spokesperson for FICO, the company that invented credit scoring, has said that it is still studying the data and hasn’t yet changed its systems. In addition to having invented credit scoring, FICO is the company whose credit scores are used in more than 90% of all lending decisions made in the US.

How this could affect you

If companies in the credit-reference industry and FICO begin to differentiate between “revolvers” and “transacters,” the “revolvers” could see their scores being downgraded even if they always make the minimum or higher payments on their credit cards on time every month. And this could lead to a significant change in how people view their credit cards and there could soon be fewer “revolvers.”

Bad news for the credit card issuers

In turn, this could be bad news for the credit card companies. Would you use your cards to borrow if you knew that this would probably make your home, auto and other loans more expensive? For that matter, the interest that credit card companies garner from those that roll forward their balances every month is an important revenue stream. One of the best-kept secrets of the credit card business is that people that always pay their balances on time are referred to as “deadbeats,” because they generate little or no profit for the credit card companies.

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