The recent Financial Literacy Survey commissioned by the NFCC and the Network of Branded Prepaid Card Association (NBPCA) revealed that 80 percent of consumers admitted they would benefit from answers to everyday financial questions from a professional. This number reflects a four percent increase from 2011.
In the same survey, 44 percent of respondents gave themselves a grade of C, D or F in their knowledge of personal finance skills. Considering the complexity of today’s economic environment, it is not surprising that an increasing number of people are hungry for concrete answers to their financial concerns.
To help consumers stay on solid financial ground, the NFCC offers the following answers to five frequently asked questions:
Q: What is the best way to build or rebuild credit? Start slowly, as applying for too much credit at once can send the wrong signal to lenders. Gas cards and department store cards can be easier to obtain, as they typically offer a relatively low line of credit. However, these types of cards may come with a higher interest rate than a general purpose card. Also, consider getting a co-signer on a loan, becoming an authorized user on another person’s account, or obtaining a secured credit card. When reported to the credit bureau, each of these options will help build a credit file, and if handled responsibly, additional credit will likely be granted.
Q: How can a credit score be raised? There are multiple credit scores, but most models place the highest weights on two elements: bills being paid on time and the percentage of available credit that is utilized. There are no silver bullets to raise a score overnight, but absent any seriously damaging marks, paying at least the minimum amount required by the due date and not using more than 30 percent of available credit should increase the score.
Q: Is it possible to save when on a tight budget? Living without a well-funded savings account is living without a financial safety net, as it’s not a matter of if the unplanned expense will occur, but when. Having one month’s income socked away should sustain people through most short-term emergencies. To find money to devote to savings, try reducing each spending category by $10 per month. This amount won’t be missed, yet will yield enough to provide a cushion for emergencies. Having 10 percent automatically deducted from the paycheck is also an effective way to fund a savings account without dramatically lowering disposable income.
Q: With multiple debts, which should be paid first? When paying off a large amount of debt, staying the course is a key to success. To remain motivated, it is important to select the debt repayment plan that complements a person’s personality type. Numbers people are aware of the destructive impact a high interest rate can have, and will be better served by power-paying the card with the highest APR. For these people, seeing the balance come down significantly each month is enough incentive to stay in the game. However, people who land on the instant gratification side are more likely to remain motivated by paying off small balance debt first, then moving the money that had been dedicated to that payment to the next smallest balance.
Q: Can a prepaid debit card be used like a debit card attached to a checking account? Prepaid cards branded with the American Express, Discover, MasterCard, or Visa logos can be used anywhere these cards are accepted, just like debit cards attached to bank accounts. They can be used for everyday expenses such as buying groceries, paying bills, and traveling. Some cards even come with savings programs. The cards also include the brand’s zero liability protections against fraudulent charges and lost or stolen cards and other consumer protections to safeguard funds.
Although asking questions is a good first step, equally important is the source of the answer.
Unscrupulous credit counseling agencies are often more interested in their bottom line than the consumer’s, making it critical to reach out to a legitimate agency for help.
With more than 2,300 certified credit counselors and close to 750 locations across the country and Puerto Rico, the NFCC Member Agencies are well-positioned to assist consumers with their financial concerns around budgeting, debt, housing or bankruptcy. The services are either free or low cost. To find the agency closest to you, call (800) 388-2227, or go online to www.DebtAdvice.org. For assistance in Spanish, dial (800) 682-9832.
Gail Cunningham is Vice President of Membership & Public Relations with the NFCC.
Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.