Reality Check – Credit is Used for More than Just Loans

Cut credit cards from your budget

Put food down on credit cards

The titles of articles such as these are clever, intriguing and seemingly sensible, so why do I have a problem with financial experts (even if he or she is nationally recognized) who preach total abstinence from credit cards across the board?

At a class I taught this past week for individuals going through bankruptcy, I fielded a question that touches upon this very subject. A couple attending the class had been pushed into bankruptcy for several reasons, some of which were somewhat out of their control and others which were within their control. To get a grip on those issues within their control, they had decided to pay $100 to take a financial education course at their church. The creator of these classes preaches life without credit cards.

National Financial Education Center Explains Ups and Downs of Going Cash OnlyAt first glance, the concept seems completely financially responsible: get rid of credit cards, especially if they have been a past temptation to overspend and live above one’s means. So how do you answer someone, like the couple in my class who accepted that principle but are also hoping to purchase a home in the next couple of years, who asks me, “so how can we build our credit without credit cards?”

You see, they want to buy a home in the next few years, and they realize that they’re going to need a decent credit rating in order to qualify for an affordable mortgage. So I ask again, how can they build their credit without credit cards? After all, FICO estimates that about 50,000,000 adults in the US don’t have enough information on their credit reports to generate a credit score.

Here’s my answer, without giving an oversimplified “yes” or “no” answer: you can build your credit rating without credit cards, but you must remember that your credit score is based upon credit-related information on your credit report, and your credit report only contains information relevant to your credit usage and debts. Your credit is NOT based upon your income, your checking or savings account balances, or your debit card usage.

In other words, if you don’t use credit, you won’t have a credit history. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true. You cannot build credit without using credit in some form.

Here are the types of credit that exist:

  1. Revolving Credit: Accounts like credit cards that allow you to make charges, pay some off each month, make more charges, etc. These are the most influential types of credit accounts on your credit report.
  2. Installment Credit: Accounts with fixed pay-off dates and generally fixed monthly payments, such as car loans and student loans.
  3. Mortgage Credit: Accounts that look like installment loans but that are tied to real estate.
  4. Home Equity Credit: Accounts that function like revolving lines of credit but  are tied to real estate, like mortgage credit.
  5. Service Credit: Accounts for services such as electricity, gas, or other utilities where wereceive the service and are then billed for our usage. Note: phone accounts that are paid in advance are not considered service credit accounts. Also, most service credit accounts are not automatically reported to the credit bureaus that keep track of your credit history.

That’s it! If you don’t have any of these accounts listed on your credit report, you have “no file.” That means that FICO can’t find enough information to generate a standard credit score for you.

You have two options:

  1. Build your credit report wisely, starting with retail (think department stores), gas, or tire store cards or lines of credit that are generally easier to qualify for. However, using credit wisely means you pay off any balance IN FULL EVERY MONTH. After a period of time (perhaps 12 months or so), you might consider applying for a major credit card through your bank or credit union. If you’re tempted to use the card inappropriately (not paying it off in full every month), then cut it up.
  2. Ask your potential lender if they subscribe to the FICO Expanded Score. FICO is able to create a “credit score” on a large percentage of those with no traditional FICO score by accessing information on bank accounts, purchase payment plans, and property and public records. However, you will likely find it much more difficult (if not impossible) to qualify for a mortgage loan through most lenders based solely upon the Expanded FICO.

In the end, credit is about personal financial responsibility. Living without credit may be the financially responsible thing to do. However, it leaves no record or proof for potential lenders to convince them that you are likely to repay their loan to you.

And I haven’t even mentioned yet (since each would be a topic for another day) that your credit report and score are used for various reasons other than just qualifying for a loan. Here are some of the more prominent among those who are using your credit score to make decisions:

  • Many auto, home and life insurance companies (your score affects your premium)
  • Property management companies and many landlords
  • More and more employers (during the hiring process)
  • Utility companies (determining your security deposit)
  • Cell phone companies

So while I am, in theory, a fan of the “credit card-less” household, I don’t see it as practical for many if not most households. Since it takes two or three years of responsible credit usage to build a strong credit history, you may particularly want to focus on building your credit if you’re looking at buying a home, applying for a job, getting a cell phone account, or renting a home or apartment any time soon.

Otherwise, by all means, go cash only!

I may be opening up a can a worms, but I’d be happy to hear other opinions on this.

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