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Does Your Spending Personality Match Your Credit Cards?

It’s easy to get caught up in credit card incentives, such as cash back, travel perks and sign-up bonuses. But if your credit cards don’t match your spending personality, you might not get the rewards you expect, or you might end up paying too much in fees.

One in five consumers carries a card that “has fees or rewards not aligned with their actual purchase habits,” according to J.D. Power’s 2016 U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction study.

And circumstances change. Even a credit card that was once compatible with your spending habits might no longer be the best fit. Identify your spending personality to determine whether the cards in your wallet are offering you the most value right now.

The jetsetter

If you travel in style often and want big rewards for your spending, a premium credit card will go further than a regular travel card. Some premium cards offer credits for airlines, hotels or airport security screening programs, as well as airport lounge access. They come with a large annual fee, but you likely spend enough to earn it back in the form of perks and a generous sign-up bonus.

The explorer

Travel is your hobby, but you’re not loyal to airline brands; you’re loyal to the best deals. General travel credit cards offer flexibility in reward redemption. Some charge annual fees, but you can often make up the cost in rewards, and the best cards don’t charge foreign transaction fees. However, travel rewards might lose value if you redeem them for anything other than travel.

The cash-back connoisseur

You like knowing the exact value of your rewards in cash, and you use plastic at every opportunity to earn more. Tiered and bonus-category cash-back credit cards offer higher rates on certain purchases and 1% on everything else. You could get more value by pairing one of these with a flat-rate cash-back card that pays 2% for all purchases. Minimalists should consider a single flat-rate cash-back card.

The balance carrier

Your paychecks aren’t always steady, so sometimes you lean on a credit card, and it’s not always possible for you to pay the balance in full every month. Still, you make sure you never miss a payment. Cash-back credit cards are tempting, but their high interest charges will outweigh your rewards. A low-interest credit card is more likely to save you money over time.

The self-starter

If you have bad credit or no credit, you probably have limited credit card options. Secured credit cards offer an opportunity for credit building. They require a security deposit that you get back after closing the account or upgrading to a regular, unsecured card. The credit limit is often relatively low, equal to the security deposit.

The survivor

You’re struggling to pay off debt, but if you have good or excellent credit, a balance transfer credit card can provide a way out. It allows you to transfer a balance from an existing credit card to take advantage of a lower interest rate. A card with a low balance transfer fee and a 0% annual percentage rate period can give you time to catch up on payments.

The optimizer

You’ll go to great lengths to get a good deal, including managing multiple credit card bills. Mixing and matching cards can be worth it as long as you save money. Just watch out for annual fees or interest.

If your credit card is no longer a match, it might be time to move on. But unless it charges an annual fee, don’t rush to close the account, because that could impact the length of your credit history — and your credit score.

Keep current cards active with the occasional, small purchase and use a new credit card to swipe your way toward your goals.

Melissa Lambarena is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: mlambarena@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @LissaLambarena.

How One Engineer Made His Hobby Pay Off

For years, Jacques Hopkins wanted to make money online with a flexible side gig. Now the former electrical engineer has found a niche that has become his career: teaching people to play modern songs on the piano in 21 days, all over the internet.

Hopkins didn’t make the transition overnight. He and his wife had been saving for years before he started his own business. Here’s how they did it — and how you can turn a hobby into your main hustle.

From engineer to entrepreneur

Piano teaching wasn’t Hopkins’s first entrepreneurial idea. He tried a few that didn’t take off, including an invention that turned regular desks into standing desks. He learned from that experience that he didn’t want to sell physical products.

But he could sell lessons online, from anywhere. So he developed a more accessible and efficient method of teaching piano than the formal lessons he took from ages 5 to 17.

And so began his side business, Piano In 21 Days. The company’s tagline says it all: “I help regular people learn to play modern songs on the piano in as little time as possible.” What started as YouTube videos of Hopkins playing pop songs became a 21-day online course.

Hopkins knew the project would be more successful if he could devote more time to it — so he quit his day job. “The website took off once I was focusing on it eight hours a day,” he says.

Saving for the jump

Before Hopkins quit his engineering job, he and his wife, Niki, prepared to lose that income. The first step: paying off their mortgage. Then, Hopkins says, “the money we were putting toward the mortgage started going to a savings account.” Niki also received a pension from a previous job, which helped them build savings.

The family amassed enough to live on for a year, frugally, without much support from the piano business. “We wanted to make sure we had enough savings so that if this failed miserably, we would still be able to have money to live on and time for me to find another job if I needed to,” Hopkins says.

Building a ‘security blanket’

In the event that Piano in 21 Days did fail miserably, and Hopkins couldn’t find work, the family had a backup: a $20,000 emergency fund. “That was sort of a security blanket that was just sitting there,” he says.

Hopkins had started the fund years before. He had very little debt and was able to contribute about $500 per month. After two years, he saved about $12,000. Once he and Niki got married, they gradually increased the fund to about $20,000.

“You just attack it,” he says of building the fund. “Five, six, seven hundred dollars a month — whatever you have.”

The benefits of working online

Hopkins, his wife, who is expecting, and their toddler daughter are based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but Hopkins can live and work from anywhere. Most of his work involves talking with prospective customers on the phone, as well as marketing and growing the business. He occasionally posts a new YouTube video, tweaks the website and posts on social media. He outsources other tasks.

Hopkins and his family take advantage of his flexibility by traveling often. For example, last summer they spent three months in France. “We’re having a blast,”  he says. But even when Hopkins is on vacation, he talks with prospective customers. “I’m not going to stop taking those phone calls,” he says.

Lucrative earnings and European vacations are far from the only benefits of Hopkins’s work. He loves that he’s helping people all over the world. “When I worked a real job I was hardly able to see my impact, but now I get feedback daily from people thanking me for helping them learn to play piano,” he says. “That’s really what keeps me going.”

Inspiration for others

Want to make money online like Hopkins? Start by exploring his favorite resources. He says he was most influenced by Tim Ferriss’s “The 4-Hour Work Week,” which inspired him to pursue a side gig when he was still in college. He also recommends Jeff Walker’s “Launch,” which is specific to building an online business.

“I wish I would have known sooner that running your business purely on the internet was possible,” Hopkins says.

Laura McMullen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: lmcmullen@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @lauraemcmullen.

How to Gift Stock to a New Grad

Graduation season is in full swing and for many Americans that means one thing: It’s time to head to the ATM.

Cash is expected to be the go-to gift again this year for new grads, followed by greeting cards and gift cards, according to survey results released this month by the National Retail Federation. The appeal is obvious: The recipient can spend the money how she pleases, there’s no hassle with receipts or returns and minimal effort is required of the giver.

If you like the idea of giving cash but want something with more oomph, consider stock. It potentially has a longer shelf life and higher returns. A gift of stock also helps a recipient learn how to invest.

There are some considerations unique to gifting stock, however, including understanding the intended recipient’s immediate financial needs. Here are four questions to consider before you give stock.

1. Are stocks the right gift?

It’s generous to help someone invest for the future, but be cognizant of the recipient’s pressing needs. Does the new grad have high-interest credit card debt? Is he facing uncertain job prospects? Does she have forthcoming expenses (moving to a new city, for example) that could push her into debt?

If “yes” is the answer to any of the scenarios above, the gift of investments may not be practical. Even worse, a cash-strapped new grad could be tempted to sell the stocks and forgo the long-term benefits while also triggering taxes.

If the gift is for a minor, there are ways to limit when or how she’ll access that investment. By setting up a custodial account, you’ll manage the account on her behalf until she’s of age (generally 18 or 21 years old, though some states allow you to specify an older age). At that point, she’ll be free to do with it as she pleases.

» MORE: Give your child the gift of stocks

2. To transfer or to buy?

There are two basic ways to give stocks: transferring shares you already own or buying new ones. Deciding which is best will depend on your current holdings and the tax implications for the recipient.

Since the gift is being made with the recipient’s best interest in mind, you should know that transferring shares to them means you’re also transferring any capital gains tax burden for those shares. When it comes time to sell, they’ll face realized capital gains based on the stock’s value when you first bought it.

For example, if you’re gifting 100 shares of a company that you bought at $25 a share and the recipient sells when the stock’s trading at $40 a share, they’ll pay taxes on a capital gain of $1,500. If instead you were to buy and gift new shares of that same stock when it was trading at $35 per share and they sold it at $40, they would only pay capital gains on $500.

If you still want to transfer shares of an existing holding, the process varies depending on how you hold the stock — in a paper certificate, with a brokerage or through direct registration with the company. Contact the institution that oversees your holdings to find out what steps and paperwork are needed to complete the transfer.

In general, you’ll need the following: a description of the securities you’re gifting (company name, ticker symbol and number of shares), your account number and your contact information, as well as the recipient’s full name, Social Security number, contact information and the account where the investment should be transferred.

If the recipient is a newbie to the world of investing and doesn’t have a brokerage account, you may be able to transfer stocks through the Direct Registration System. This will put the recipient on the books as an investor with the company.

If you’re looking to give a stock you don’t currently own (or you don’t want to part with your own shares), you have choices. Much like a transfer, you’ll need to direct this purchase to an account in the recipient’s name by buying shares directly through the issuing company or a brokerage.

Several websites cater to people who want to give stock, including GiveAshare.com, SparkGift.com and Stockpile.com, but there can be a premium for novelty. Buying one share of a company and having the certificate framed could cost as much as twice the stock’s current trading price on GiveAshare, for example. For any of these sites, be sure to check fees, which may be higher than a traditional brokerage.

» MORE: How to buy stocks

3. How generous do you want to be?

Whether you’re transferring shares or buying new ones to kickstart a new grad’s investment portfolio, there are likely limits to your generosity. The IRS agrees.

You can give annual gifts up to $14,000 (which includes the value of stocks) to any number of recipients and you’ll be exempt from paying federal gift taxes. Go above that amount and you’ll owe.

Your altruism has other tax implications, as well. You get a tax benefit when transferring stock by avoiding capital gains taxes on that investment, but as noted above, the recipient assumes that burden. For new investments, there’s no capital-gains tax benefit for the giver and the cost basis for the recipient is the value of the investment at the time of purchase.

4. What lessons do you want to impart?

Cash may be king at graduation, but it’s also here today, gone tomorrow. Stock gifts can be memorable and meaningful beyond the potential for financial gains, as Alex Whitehouse’s story shows. As a toddler, he received 10 shares in a utility company from his grandfather.

“At first I was just excited to receive something in the mail with my name on it, but later on it sparked an interest in the stock market and an appreciation for the impact of reinvested dividends,” says Whitehouse, who is now president of Whitehouse Wealth Management in Vancouver, Washington. “That gift had a huge impact on me. It led me on the path to becoming a financial advisor.”

Now, Whitehouse helps his clients pay this forward, recommending grandparents gift stock to their grandchildren, particularly shares of companies that will resonate with the younger generation.

Stock gifts require more planning than stuffing money into a greeting card. But by making that effort, perhaps you’ll spark an early interest in investing or help the recipient plan for the future — and it’s impossible to predict where that may lead.

Anna-Louise Jackson is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: ajackson@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @aljax7.

If at First You Miss a Financial Goal, Try, Try Again

Setting a short-term financial goal is good, and achieving one is even better. But what should you do if you miss a goal you set for yourself?

Don’t get discouraged if your plan to buy a car, take a vacation or save money didn’t quite go as planned. Life happens. Here’s how to get back on track.

Embrace failure

Mindset is a huge part of financial health.

First, find the bright side. Even if you didn’t save as much money as you had hoped, imagine if you hadn’t set that goal at all. You’d still be back where you started — with the same amount in the bank. So kudos on making progress and getting serious about your finances.

Then, look at the setback as a learning opportunity. Rather than simply extending a goal’s deadline when the original timeline doesn’t pan out — or worse, taking on debt to finance the rest — diagnose where your savings plan went awry.

“Once you’ve reached that goal, or more importantly not reached that goal, I really think it’s important to look back at the spending habits and trends over the time and compare it to the budget you set up,” says Robert P. Finley, a chartered financial analyst, certified financial planner and the principal of Virtue Asset Management in Illinois.

You can do this by asking yourself a series of questions, Finley says, including:

The answers will help you determine if your goal was feasible. You can’t avoid paying a fixed amount for some things, like your mortgage or rent, but other spending categories, like eating out, have more wiggle room.

» MORE: Short-term or long-term, budget and save for your goals

Make adjustments

Based on your self-audit, make some adjustments to your savings strategy. If you’ve already cut your budget as much as possible, it might be time to find a way to make more money — at least until you reach your goal.

If you have your heart set on a vacation, for instance, you may be willing to take on a weekend job, babysit or work a side hustle to make ends meet, says Stephanie Genkin, CFP, the founder of My Financial Planner LLC in New York.

Or, you could make compromises to reach your goal sooner rather than later. “We’re looking at something that’s similar, yet maybe a little more affordable,” says Tony Madsen, CFP, the founder of NewLeaf Financial Guidance LLC in Minnesota. “Instead of going to Maui, is there a different trip that you can do altogether that becomes affordable for you?”

Whatever route you choose, avoid taking on debt to achieve a goal that’s not an absolute necessity. “The worst scenario is to charge it and then add 15% debt interest to your overall net worth,” says Finley.

Be your own cheerleader

As you pursue your goal for a second time, monitor your progress regularly. Madsen recommends setting check-ins at a cadence that’s comfortable for you. The goal is to analyze and adjust as you go.

Be sure to celebrate each milestone you hit along the way, too. Like most things in life, financial goals don’t have to be executed to perfection.

“If you ride a horse, you are sometimes going to fall off,” says Norman M. Boone, CFP, the founder and president of Mosaic Financial Partners Inc. in California, in an email. “The key to success is getting back on, resetting your goal and continuing to move forward.”

Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: courtney@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @courtneynerd.

Forgotten lottery ticket worth $24 million found days before deadline

A lottery player’s luck almost ran out this week after a ticket worth more than $24 million was nearly forgotten in their home.

An anonymous individual with a Lotto ticket came forward to claim the winnings two days before their ticket was set to expire.

News coverage of the unclaimed Lottery prize escalated in the days leading up the deadline, causing the individual to check their house, where they discovered the winning ticket in a pile of other old tickets, the New York Lottery said.

The individual went to a lottery office in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday. The ticket was set to expire Thursday.

>> Read more trending news

Lottery rules allow winners to claim their prize up to a year after a drawing.

“We are thrilled that this lucky winner was able to locate this life-changing ticket,” said Gweneth Dean, director of the Commission’s Division of the Lottery. “We look forward to introducing this multimillionaire who came forward in the nick of time.”

The New York Lottery said they will reveal the identity of the winner after a security background check review.

The winning numbers were 05-12-13-22-25-35 and the bonus number was 51.

3 Reasons Most Stock Pickers Don’t Beat the Market

It’s always been tough to be a successful stock picker on Wall Street.

It’s not that mutual fund managers can’t beat the market, but it’s very difficult to do so year in and year out: Large-cap stocks have delivered long-term, annual realized returns of about 7% after inflation during the past 100-plus years. For the 15-year stretch through December 2016, 92% of U.S. large-cap, actively managed equity funds underperformed the S&P 500, according to data collected by S&P Dow Indices.

Even during April, the 25th best month of performance in the past 26 years for such large-cap managers, only 63% of mutual funds beat their respective benchmarks, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

And the pressure on stock pickers is mounting because of exchange-traded funds, which feature lower trading costs and returns that are often competitive with or better than those of professionally managed funds.

Debating investing in individual equities or actively managed funds versus passive vehicles, such as ETFs? Here’s why it’s so difficult to pick a winner.

The fee hurdle

Before ETFs became so popular, mutual fund managers faced a simpler task: Pick stocks that performed better than the overall market, ideally better than the stocks their competitors picked. But with more investment choices comes more pressure. Active managers must now outperform by enough to make up for their funds’ higher costs relative to ETFs.

That additional burden can be significant. Equity mutual funds charged an average of 1.28% in annual administrative expenses — or what’s called an expense ratio — in 2016, compared with the 0.52% charged by the average equity ETF, according to data from the Investment Company Institute.

To match investors’ expectations from ETF returns, some portfolio managers create funds that mimic an index without completely duplicating it — what’s known as closet indexing. That can result in bloated or overly diversified portfolios that get dragged down by less-than-stellar picks. In addition, mutual fund managers often impose high redemption fees to discourage short-term trading, typically defined as holding shares for less than a year.

But costs alone don’t explain why stock pickers face such a challenge. Dynamics within the market also are partly to blame.

» MORE: Investing in ETFs vs. mutual funds

Market correlation

When unrelated assets move in lock-step — what’s known as correlation — it’s that much harder for stock pickers to find the ones that will go up even more than the average.

The past seven years have been tough in this regard. Among the 11 sectors of the S&P 500, the average correlation to the broader index ranged from 70% to 95% between 2009 and 2016, before dipping to as low as 57% in February and March, according to figures compiled by Convergex, a U.S. brokerage firm.

This has provided “some oxygen for active managers to outperform,” wrote Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at Convergex, in an April report. Even Goldman Sachs has proclaimed the current market conditions —  notably rising return dispersion — as a potential boon to skillful stock pickers.

The problem is, if analysts are right, these dynamics are likely temporary, which puts the longer-term fate of stock picking at peril. And remember, in addition to beating the market, active managers must also provide better returns than a comparable ETF to make up for their higher fees.

» MORE: How to buy stocks

‘An inherent disadvantage’

One theory got some buzz earlier this year: The odds are stacked in favor of indexes, and it’s not a fair fight for stock pickers.

Returns for a particular index are heavily skewed to a few of its biggest winners, so a portfolio manager generally must invest in these stocks just to keep up with the index’s performance. Picking a subset of stocks increases the odds those picks will underperform versus the index, according to a 2015 paper written by J.B. Heaton, Nick Polson and Jan Hendrik Witte, with a February update by Hendrik Bessembinder of Arizona State University.

“Active managers do not start out on an even playing field with passive investing. Rather, active managers must overcome an inherent disadvantage,” the authors concluded. And Bessembinder notes that compounding only increases that disadvantage over time.

» MORE: What is an ETF?

What’s an investor to do?

There are many advantages of index-based funds and ETFs for individual investors. But that doesn’t mean you should dump all of your individual equities or actively managed funds and convert to just any passive vehicle. Not all index funds and ETFs are created alike. There are even some actively managed ETFs which come with higher fees.

Still, the explosion of these assets has given investors more options. If you’re dissatisfied with the longer-term performance of your mutual funds, consider making the switch. Do your homework first, paying attention to fees, commissions and the assets included in the ETFs you’re considering.

If you think you can beat the odds stacked against professional stock pickers, tread with caution. Don’t invest with money you’ll need for short-term expenses or put your entire retirement nest egg at stake.

Anna-Louise Jackson is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: ajackson@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @aljax7.

Help Your Teen Use Summer Job Earnings Wisely

Teens with summer jobs might be earning their own money for the first time — but it won’t be the last. The money habits they learn now could last for decades.

Here’s how to help your teen make the most of a job and those paychecks.

Encourage goal-setting

Susan Beacham, founder and CEO of financial education company Money Savvy Generation and co-author of the “O.M.G. Official Money Guide for Teenagers,” suggests teens ask themselves a few questions — perhaps with parental prompting — before job searching: Why do they want to work, and what needs or wants will the job address?

This helps them determine the kind of job to pursue, Beacham says. For example, your child might want hourly work in a potential career field, or maybe he or she wants to make money to contribute toward family finances.

And ideally, goal-oriented teenagers are more thoughtful come payday. Bailey Steger, a 17-year-old working at a restaurant in Half Moon Bay, California, just learned that she’ll be responsible for paying for most of her college expenses besides tuition. She’s now saving more of her earnings.

As an example, Steger mentions recently wanting to buy a cute — but pricey — shirt. Her mom reminded her that she’d have to dip into the paycheck she’d just received to buy it. And, just like that, Steger says, “that shirt wasn’t that cute anymore.”

Teens who know why they’re working also tend to be more focused employees. A camp counselor wrangling kids in 90-degree heat might feel more positive if he plans to pursue a career in early childhood education. And a teen saving for a car might view her eight-hour shift as eight hours’ worth of pay going toward new wheels.

Discuss investing opportunities

Saving for goals isn’t the only smart step teens can take with their summer earnings. Beth Kobliner, author of “Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even if You’re Not),” suggests teens invest part of their earnings in a Roth IRA if they can. Workers invest post-tax income in these individual retirement accounts. They can withdraw contributions without penalties at any time, but they must pay taxes and fees to tap interest earnings before age 59 1/2.

Investors can contribute no more than they earn in a year to a Roth IRA, up to $5,500 per year. If your child earns $1,000 at her job this year, she can only contribute that much to her IRA.

Roths help young workers bank toward retirement and teach the power of compound interest. Say an 18-year-old invests $500 of his earnings this summer. If he invests $1,000 more each year with a 6% return until he’s 65, he’ll end up with $47,500 in contributions and $215,798 in earnings for a total of $263,298. If he’d waited until he was 28 to invest $500 and contributed the same amount each year at 6%, he’d have earned only about $138,000 at age 65.

Contributing to a Roth also encourages the savings habit. Automatic transfers from a checking account to an IRA can make contributing effortless, Kobliner says. Young investors can have a certain amount transferred every payday. The extra money for a cute — or not that cute — top just won’t be in the checking account to spend.

Building this investing habit might benefit teens later, Kobliner says. When they’re on their own and possibly cash-strapped, they’ll likely be capable of finding extra money to invest. “It’s like flossing,” Kobliner says. “It’s a good routine that sticks if you learn it early.”

Make the abstract concrete

Beacham points out that teenagers are more likely to absorb and use money concepts when they aren’t abstract.

When your child learns the pay rate and hours for her new job, get out the calculator to determine how much she’ll earn over the summer. This will give her a realistic expectation of her earnings and perhaps prompt her to think about what she’ll do with it.

Printing paychecks or receiving physical copies also solidifies how much your teen has earned — and can thus save or invest. With direct deposit alone, that money might seem easier to spend. And when it comes to explaining that IRA, point your child toward a compound interest calculator. That way, he can input hypothetical timelines and contributions and see that money multiply.

Whether it’s handing teens a calculator or asking why they’re working, parents can help them be more thoughtful with their earnings — now and in the future.

Laura McMullen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: lmcmullen@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @lauraemcmullen.

How Costly Is Bad Credit? Many Don’t Know, Survey Shows

It’s 2017: Do you know what your credit score is?

Good credit is important for many reasons beyond qualifying for the best loan rates. And the very first step in building it is knowing your starting point. But a NerdWallet survey finds that while more than a quarter of Americans (26%) check their credit scores monthly or more often, nearly 1 in 8 (12%) have never checked their scores.

In an online survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults, commissioned by NerdWallet and conducted by Harris Poll in April 2017, we asked Americans what they knew about the impact of bad credit, as well as factors that do and don’t affect credit scores. Here’s what we learned:

  • About half of Americans (49%) don’t know that having bad credit can limit a person’s options for cell phone service. There are ways to get a cell phone without a credit check, but consumers with poor credit have fewer options.
  • Almost a quarter of Americans (23%) think a person has just one credit score. Most consumers have many scores, and they can vary based on the information used to calculate them. The score provider and score model your lender will consult depends on the reason you’re looking for credit: there are auto-specific and mortgage-specific scores, for instance.
  • More than 2 in 5 Americans (41%) think carrying a small balance on a credit card month to month can help improve a person’s credit scores. This is a common misconception. To avoid interest charges, pay off credit cards each month.
What you don’t know about credit can cost you

About 40 million Americans have a FICO credit score lower than 600 [1], and many might not understand the impact it can have on their everyday lives, even if they’re not applying for loans or saddled with high-interest debt.

The everyday effects of bad credit

Having bad credit is expensive, and not just because of the high interest rates lenders charge. More than 2 in 5 Americans (43%) don’t know that having bad credit can negatively impact the price of car insurance, and more than half (52%) don’t know that it can negatively impact the cost of utility deposits. These expenses are often cheaper or nonexistent for those with excellent credit, even though they don’t involve borrowing money.

Bad credit can even limit housing opportunities. Many landlords check applicants’ credit reports, but almost a quarter of Americans (23%) don’t know that having bad credit can negatively impact a person’s ability to rent an apartment. And almost half (49%) don’t know that bad credit can limit the ability to get a cell phone. Consumers with bad credit might be restricted to prepaid phones and miss out on carriers’ best plans. It might even be challenging to get certain jobs with poor credit.

Bad credit means fewer credit card choices

More than 1 in 5 Americans (21%) believe that a person with a credit score above 600 will qualify for any credit card he or she wants. Another 40% aren’t sure if a score above 600 qualifies a person for any credit card. In fact, 600 is a below average score and won’t give consumers access to most of the cards on the market.

Consumers with excellent credit have almost eight times as many credit card options as consumers with bad credit do. [2] Those with bad credit miss out on the cards with the best rewards and lowest interest rates, as well as the best purchase protections and travel benefits.

Misconceptions surround credit scores

Why do so many Americans have bad credit? Here’s one possibility: Increases in the cost of living have outpaced income growth for the past 13 years, according to NerdWallet’s annual household debt study. Many consumers might be maxing out credit cards to bridge the gap and then falling behind on payments or defaulting.

Another theory is that Americans simply don’t understand how credit works. Our survey found many misconceptions about credit scores, including the number of scores people have and the factors that go into them.

What’s a credit score?

A credit score is a three-digit number, usually on a scale of 300 to 850, that estimates how likely someone is to repay borrowed money. If you make regular payments to a lender — on a credit card or auto loan, for example — you probably have credit scores.

More than 1 in 10 Americans (11%) think everyone starts out with a perfect credit score. Actually, you must build your scores from scratch — but they don’t start from zero. Want to measure your progress? Your scores won’t necessarily be listed on your credit report, although almost two-thirds of Americans (64%) think they are. The free credit reports available once per year from AnnualCreditReport.com don’t include scores. However, you can get free scores from various sources, including NerdWallet.

The components of a credit score

Five basic factors go into most credit scores: payment history, credit utilization, length of credit history, types of credit in use and new credit.

Payment history: One of the best things you can do for your credit scores is to make payments on time, 100% of the time. You’re best off paying your entire credit card balance, but at least pay the minimum by the due date. Creditors won’t report payments that are only a few days late to credit bureaus, but pay 30 days or more late and you can tank your scores.

Credit utilization: This refers to the proportion of your available credit you’re using at any given time. Between 1% and 30% is ideal, but people misunderstand these numbers.

Possibly because using credit helps your scores more than not using it at all, more than 2 in 5 Americans (41%) think carrying a small balance from month to month can help improve a person’s scores, while one-fifth (20%) think it can hurt it. In fact, whether someone carries a small balance probably doesn’t affect his or her scores at all.

“The idea that you have to carry debt to have good credit is a dangerous, expensive myth that needs to die,” says NerdWallet columnist Liz Weston, author of the book “Your Credit Score.” Carrying a balance will mean you pay interest, but it probably won’t have any impact on your credit — just your wallet.

Length of credit history: This includes the total time you’ve had credit — starting from your first credit card or loan — and the average age of all your credit accounts. It’s a good idea to keep your oldest account open and avoid closing other older, unused accounts unless you have a good reason, like they charge annual fees or you need to shed a joint account. If you do choose to close other accounts, keep length of credit history in mind to limit the negative effect on your scores.

Mix of credit accounts: Having a mix of account types doesn’t have a large impact on credit scores, but it might be helpful to have both revolving accounts, such as credit cards and lines of credit, and installment loans, such as mortgages, auto loans or student loans. You can build and maintain good credit with just one type of account.

New credit: The final factor concerns the number of new accounts you’ve opened or applied to open. When you apply for a credit card or loan, a “hard” inquiry appears on your credit file. Checking your own scores results in a “soft” inquiry that won’t hurt your credit. But hard inquiries aren’t great for your scores, so you’ll want to limit the number of applications you submit.

The exception is when you’re “rate shopping” for a mortgage or auto loan. In these cases, it’s smart to apply at several different lenders to get the best rate. The credit bureaus count multiple inquiries as a single inquiry as long as they’re made within a certain time frame, usually a few weeks.

How to improve bad credit

Improving your credit means working on the five factors above. However, you also might be able to improve your credit by catching mistakes on your credit reports. Most consumers have one at each of the main credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. You can obtain each of these reports for free once per year.

Once you receive your reports, read each one closely and dispute any errors. Incorrect information could hurt your credit, denying you access to low loan rates, superior credit products and other benefits of good credit.

People trying to build credit commonly run into a catch-22: They need a loan or credit card to increase their scores, but they can’t get approved for a loan or credit card because their scores are low or nonexistent. For example, it’s hard to find good credit cards for bad credit.

Those with poor credit have a few options:

Credit-builder loans: These loans typically have low interest rates, regardless of your credit scores. But there’s a catch: You don’t receive the money from the loan until you pay it off. These loans exist solely for the purpose of building credit. The lender puts the money into a savings account, and you can claim it once you’ve paid the balance in full. The bank will report your payments to the credit bureaus, which should help your scores, provided you’ve made all the payments on time.

Secured credit cards: With a secured card, you put down a security deposit that’s usually equal to the card’s credit limit, but sometimes is less. This reduces the issuer’s risk. Not everyone who applies for a secured card gets approved, but they’re still a good option for those with bad credit.

Secured cards aren’t prepaid, so it’s critical that you pay off your charges each month. After “graduating” to an unsecured card or closing the account in good standing, you’ll get your deposit back.

Secured personal loans: If you want to build credit but also need a loan, a secured personal loan might be the way to go. These allow you to borrow against a car, savings account or other assets, including such things as a recreational vehicle or furniture. The rate will likely be higher than it would be on a credit-builder loan, but you’ll have access to the loan money.

“You don’t need to carry credit card debt to have great credit scores,” Weston says. “But you do need to have credit accounts and use them responsibly.”

Methodology

This survey was conducted online within the U.S. by Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from April 6-10, 2017, among 2,250 adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample, and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables, please contact cc-studies@nerdwallet.com.

Footnotes

[1] According to Ethan Dornhelm, principal scientist at FICO, there are about 40 million U.S. consumers with credit scores below 600. There are an additional 53 million Americans who can’t be scored because they have too little information on their credit file or no credit file at all.

[2] According to the NerdWallet database of more than 1,200 cards, there are 7.7 times as many cards available to those with excellent credit compared to those with poor/bad credit.

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