Some credit mistakes are a lot worse than others. Little ones, like paying a credit card bill a day late, may cost you a penalty fee, but that’s a relatively minor irritation — it’s not going to stand between you and a mortgage. Other seemingly small slip-ups can lead to full-fledged disasters.
What makes a credit mistake haunt you?
Some things can be reversed quickly. Running up credit card bills can tank your credit score, for instance, because the portion of your credit limits you’re using is weighed heavily in credit scoring. But when you pay down the debt, the damage disappears as lower balances get reported to the three major credit bureaus, Equifax EFX, -0.60%, Experian EXPGY, -0.39% and TransUnion. TRU, +1.27%
Mistakes that have long-running ripple effects hurt the most, says credit expert John Ulzheimer. A late payment, for example, can get sent to a collection agency, then perhaps grow into a repossession or bankruptcy. Those batter your credit and stay on your credit record for years. Likewise, cosigning a loan for someone who is later unable to pay can hamstring your finances for a long time.
Common mistakes that can hurt your finances
Missing a payment: A payment that’s a little late might cost you a penalty fee, but your credit score won’t suffer because creditors can’t report your account as delinquent until it’s 30 days past due. If you have a high score, going 30 days late can knock as much as 100 points off your score — and it stays on your credit report for seven years. The damage gets worse if you let the account slide to 60 days past due, 90 days past due or more. Your score can recover, but it will take time. Catching up on that account, and keeping all other payments up-to-date and balances low, can help.
Raiding retirement funds to pay debt: Most people don’t want to file for bankruptcy. Almost half of Americans say they would not file no matter how much credit card debt they had, according to a recent study commissioned by NerdWallet. Bankruptcy attorney Roderick H. Martin of Marietta, Georgia, says some of his clients have tapped — or even emptied — retirement savings in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. That often just delays the inevitable — “then they turn around and file for bankruptcy,” he says. Retirement savings are typically protected in bankruptcy, but money already withdrawn cannot be recovered.
Cosigning a loan: Aaron Smith, a financial planner in Glen Allen, Virginia, says cosigning so a friend or relative can get credit is often a mistake. “My personal and professional opinion is if they can’t get it on their own, there must be a problem,” he says. If the primary borrower doesn’t pay as agreed, it can leave both your relationship and your credit in tatters. Even if the borrower repays as agreed, remaining on the loan can limit your borrowing capacity. Before you cosign, ask if you can be taken off the loan at some point.
Sometimes doing nothing is the mistake
We may think we’re too busy to trouble ourselves with fine print or financial chores. Either can come back to bite us.
Not checking your credit: “I think checking your credit is like going to your dentist for a cleaning,” says Elaine King, a certified financial planner and founder of the Family and Money Matters Institute. “You need to make a habit of doing it. If you wait too long, there can be some rotten stuff there.”
A credit report isn’t exciting reading; it’s a summary of your past handling of credit. But “boring” is what you want — anything you didn’t expect to see is worth investigating in case it’s an error or a sign of fraud. Through April 2021, you can get a free credit report weekly from the three major credit bureaus by using AnnualCreditReport.com. Plan to check at least annually, and more often is better.
Ignoring the details: Not knowing your credit cards’ interest rates or when a 0% interest rate ends can cost you.
Knowing interest rates can tell you which card to use when you’re paying for a new transmission and need to carry that balance for a while, for instance. Knowing when a teaser rate ends can help you ensure you’ve paid off the balance by then. It’s important to read the fine print. Some cards — primarily store cards — charge deferred interest if there is still a balance at the end of the introductory period. That means the “savings” from the teaser rate are added to your balance, wiping out any benefit.
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Bev O’Shea is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @BeverlyOShea.