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When credit scores take a pandemic dive, how to figure out what caused it

A hand holding credit cards.
Using your credit cards more might be one reason for a decline in credit scores.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

Dear Liz: My VantageScores as reported by TransUnion were in the 780 to 790 range until around February, when they all dropped 40 points for no discernible reason. My FICO 8 and 9 credit scores remained unchanged around 760 and still continue to increase. What would cause that?

Answer: VantageScores tend to react more than FICO scores when you apply for new credit, but 40 points is a pretty big drop. The other usual culprit when good scores fall is higher credit utilization, or using more of your available credit, but typically your FICO scores would have dropped as well.

Most credit monitoring services will offer you some kind of explanation for why your scores changed, so that would be the first place to look for clues. You also should check your credit reports, which are now available weekly from AnnualCreditReport.com.

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Learning an expensive car loan lesson

Dear Liz: My grandson bought a new car with a loan that has a 24% interest rate. He owes $17,000, and the car is now worth $5,000. What options does he have to get out of this situation?

Answer: The best solution would be to refinance, but that can happen only if your grandson has some equity in the car or is able to get a lower-rate, unsecured personal loan to pay off the car loan. Your grandson probably would need good credit and steady employment to get a personal loan, as lenders are scrutinizing applications more closely these days.

Otherwise, his best course is to “drive out of the loan,” or keep making payments until he owns the vehicle free and clear. He should be making extra principal payments, if possible, to speed up that day.

You can encourage him to hang on to this car as long as possible after it’s paid off so that he can save up the cash for his next car. If he can learn from this experience to pay cash for cars, or to have at least a 20% down payment, then the expensive lesson may have been worth it.

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Social Security isn’t going broke

Dear Liz: You have addressed Social Security in your column recently and detailed the benefits to waiting until age 70 to take payments. I read that Social Security funds are expected to run out around 2035. At that time I’ll be 76 and would only get six years of benefits versus 13 years if I start at age 62. Do you still think it is wise to wait on benefits as Social Security may go away?

Answer: Social Security isn’t going anywhere. What’s being depleted is its trust fund, which is used to supplement the taxes Social Security collects to pay benefits. This trust fund is scheduled to be out of money in 2031, according to a new Congressional Budget Office estimate that takes into account the effects of the pandemic. Even if the fund is depleted, however, the system will still collect enough in taxes to pay 76% of promised benefits.

So benefits won’t stop, and it’s highly unlikely Congress would allow benefits to be cut for retirees and near retirees. Social Security is a hugely popular program, and such cuts would be politically unpopular, to say the least, which is why most experts predict that lawmakers will fix the system before that happens.

If you allow yourself to be panicked into starting benefits early, on the other hand, you’re permanently reducing your benefit by 30%. If you’re married and are the higher earner, you’d also be locking in a lower survivor benefit. A lower Social Security benefit can have a huge effect on your standard of living in retirement, so make sure you understand the facts about the system before making a decision you may live to regret.

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Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.


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