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Why you need a credit score even if you don’t like debt

Fingers hold Visa credit cards
Credit scores aren’t meant to gauge how well you manage money. They’re meant to gauge how well you handle credit.
(Associated Press)

Dear Liz: As I counsel my teenage kids about their personal finances, I am wondering if they can live without a credit score. It is puzzling that to get a good credit score, you need to have debt, or at least a credit card. Wouldn’t living debt free be best? With FICO scores becoming de rigueur, is it reasonable for anyone to get away with no credit score at all, especially if the only debt they would consider is a mortgage someday? Also, the credit reporting companies now have some adjunct services that provide reporting based on payments for rent and utilities that might be helpful. How effective are those reports?

Answer: Credit scores aren’t meant to gauge how well you manage money. They’re meant to gauge how well you handle credit. If you don’t have and use credit, you won’t have scores, and lenders will be reluctant to extend you credit when you want or need it.

You also may have to pay higher deposits for utilities, miss out on the best cellphone deals and have trouble renting an apartment. In most states, credit information helps determine property insurance premiums as well. In fact, your credit may matter more than your driving record in determining auto insurance premiums.

It’s a myth that you must be in debt to have good credit scores. You just need to have and lightly use a credit card, and you should pay it in full every month. Another option is a credit builder loan, through which the money you borrow is placed in a savings account or certificate of deposit for you to claim when you’ve finished making 12 monthly payments.

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There are services that will add rent and utility payments to your credit reports. The most commonly used versions of the FICO score, however, don’t include that information in calculating scores.

A South L.A. woman was told the limit on a credit card she’s held for 36 years was reduced because she didn’t use it enough during the pandemic.

Survivor benefits and marital status

Dear Liz: My boyfriend’s ex-wife passed away last year. Can he file for her Social Security benefits at age 48 even if she was remarried at time of her death?

Answer: The ex’s marital status doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not your boyfriend was married to her for at least 10 years.

If the marriage lasted at least that long, then your boyfriend would be eligible for survivor benefits at age 60, assuming he hasn’t remarried by then. If he is disabled, he could apply at age 50. And if he is caring for his ex-wife’s children who are under 16 or disabled, then he can apply at any age.

Recipients of survivor benefits can marry at age 60 or later without losing those benefits. (Note that this marriage clause applies only to survivor benefits. People receiving spousal benefits based on a living ex’s work record cannot remarry without losing those benefits.)

You’ve probably received calls that your car warranty is expiring or has expired. They’re almost never from dealers or manufacturers.

Medicare Advantage plan downsides

Dear Liz: You recently wrote about Medicare Advantage plans, which often cover things like dental care, hearing and vision that traditional Medicare does not. You mentioned that the plans have networks of providers, but people should know that those networks don’t always include the experts they may need if they develop serious health issues. The plans themselves can have copays that make it expensive to get sick. If people want to switch to traditional Medicare and get a supplemental Medigap policy, they may face medical underwriting that could increase their costs.

Answer: Medicare Advantage plans are sold by private insurers as an all-in-one alternative to traditional Medicare. The plans are certainly popular — the percentage of Medicare beneficiaries who sign up for Medicare Advantage has been steadily increasing over the years, in part because these private plans seem to cover more. But the plans can vary widely in the breadth of their networks and how they share costs with beneficiaries.

Once you’ve signed up for Medicare Advantage, switching to traditional Medicare can be problematic, as you noted. Insurers aren’t required to cover you the way they are when you first enroll. Some may decline to offer you a Medigap policy or may charge you more, based on your health.

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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