It’s always wise to take financial advice from friends and family with a grain of salt. But sometimes, even people you might consider to be money experts can lead you astray.
A few months ago, a friend of mine reached out to me to double-check some advice his wife received from a mortgage loan officer. The officer said a good way to boost your credit score is to carry a balance on your credit card that’s 50% of the card’s credit limit.
Not only is the suggestion factually wrong, but following it can be dangerous to your financial health. But this isn’t the only money myth going around; others are equally alarming.
To help you avoid getting duped, we’ve put together a list of five money myths, explaining why they’re wrong and what you can do instead.
1. Carrying a balance on your credit card can boost your credit
Your payment history and the amount you owe are the two most influential factors that determine your credit score. But neither of the pieces of advice the loan officer gave my friend’s wife — carrying a balance is good for your credit, and you should target a 50% credit utilization — impacts these two factors in a good way.
The first piece is wrong because FICO and other credit scoring models consider only whether your payment was on time or not.
On the second piece, a 50% credit utilization ratio isn’t ideal because it can hurt your credit score. Many credit experts recommend keeping your utilization below 30% so that it doesn’t damage your credit score, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Ultimately, the lower your utilization, the better it is.
If you do carry a balance with the hope of boosting your credit score, however, you’d be on the hook for interest charges. And if you’re carrying 50% on a card with a high credit limit, that interest could pose a threat to your financial well-being.
What you can do: The best policy for responsible credit card use is to pay off your balance on time and in full every month. Also, keep your credit utilization as low as possible.
2. You’re throwing money away by renting
Homeownership is a big part of the American dream, but according to Sahil Vakil, a certified financial planner and owner of Myra Wealth, the suggestion that you’re throwing money away by renting is relative. Depending on your financial situation and the housing market where you live, owning a home might be unrealistic.
“Yes, there is a huge investment piece to [homeownership],” said Vakil, “but there are also a lot of throwaway components that are a part of the homebuying process.”
For example, closing costs can run between 2% and 5% of the loan amount, and you might not recover that money if you sell the house a few years later. Add maintenance and repair costs, and you could end up spending more out of pocket than you get back from the appreciation in home value.
What you can do: “If we take real numbers and facts and we actually run the data,” said Vakil, “we might see different results on different properties.” Before you decide whether to rent or buy, use an online calculator to do the math. Using the calculator, here’s an example of the rent-versus-buy situation:
3. You don’t need life insurance if you have no dependents
While most people view life insurance as a way to provide income replacement for loved ones they leave behind, but that’s just one of its uses. According to a 2017 report by LIMRA, an insurance market research firm, the top reason people buy life insurance is to cover burial and other final expenses. Whether you have a family of six or you live on your own, someone has to pay those costs.
If you pass away with no insurance coverage, your parents or other family members could be forced to pay those expenses, whether they can afford them or not. Funeral costs alone can range between $7,000 and $10,000 on average, according to Parting.
Another reason for people without dependents to consider buying life insurance is to lock in low premiums. Life insurance rates are based largely on your age and health, so the younger and healthier you are, the cheaper will be the coverage.
I bought a large policy shortly after my wife and I married, long before we had our first child. We have two children now, but that original policy still is enough to cover my family’s needs. And with the health issues I’ve developed in the meantime, I’m paying much less in premiums than I would have if I had waited.
What you can do: Take the time to see if life insurance is right for you based on the reasons above. If you need just enough to cover funeral and other final costs, you can look into a small policy for a few bucks a month.
4. You need to have a lot of money to invest
Financial advisors typically recommend saving at least 10% to 15% of your income toward retirement. But only 27% of Americans do so, according to a 2018 survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Some people might think that saving just a little here and there for the future isn’t worth it. But the longer you wait, the harder it will be to achieve your goal. And if you wait too long, you could end up working long after your friends quit their jobs to enjoy retirement.
“If you think of interest and how accumulative interest works,” said Vakil, “even if you start with small numbers, they can go a pretty long way.” The important thing, according to Vakil, is to develop the habit of saving.
What you can do: Sign up with a micro-investing app such as Acorns and Finhabits, which allows you to invest with just a few dollars at a time, or even less. Also, check out other top investment platforms to see if there are better options for your personal situation.
5. Checking your credit score hurts your credit
Every time you apply for a loan or credit card, the lender checks your credit with a hard inquiry. Depending on the circumstances, this inquiry can knock a few points off of your credit score. That same rule doesn’t apply, however, when you check your own credit score.
To be fair, it’s understandable why many people believe this myth. Until a few years ago, it was almost impossible to get free access to your FICO credit score, so consumers just didn’t have enough information on the subject.
Checking your own credit results in what’s called a soft credit inquiry. The same thing happens when a landlord checks your credit as part of a loan application, an employer checks your credit as part of a job application, or a lender checks your credit to send a preapproved offer. Unlike a hard inquiry, a soft inquiry doesn’t impact your credit score.
Not checking your credit score regularly can prevent you from catching errors or fraud in your accounts. Disputing errors and fraud can take months to resolve, and if the impact is bad enough, it could prevent you from borrowing the next time you need money.
What you can do: Sign up for a service like Discover Credit Scorecard to get free access to your FICO credit score. Check your credit score regularly to make sure it’s error-free and stays on track to where you want it to be.
Vet financial advice to avoid more myths
Some pieces of money advice are bad for everyone, but some are relative. “A lot of topics have a gray area; it’s not always black and white,” said Vakil. “Some situations it might be true for some people, but not for others.”
Before you put a money suggestion into practice, vet it. Ask around, do research online, and seek professional advice. But don’t just stop there. Even if you hear something from someone you trust, verify it with other sources. And don’t do something just because a friend or family member recommended it. The intent might be sincere, but that doesn’t mean it’s good advice.
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