Settle the Score

Can you believe it’s March 1st already?! I can. It’s inevitable. Time keeps tick, tick, ticking away, but as you age, at a seeming accelerated rate. “Is my clock broken? It’s already 11pm on a Tuesday!” I exclaimed to my wife last night while nestled on the couch after a rare evening out with a friend. It’s an anomaly for us to see such an hour, especially on a school night. We’re old and only getting older. Our bedtime ranges anywhere from 7:30 to 9pm on any given night of the week, even on our coveted weekends. When we crash all depends on the ratio of food in our bellies and which creepy little lullaby is meandering in the background of whatever true crime program happens to be on at the time. As the monotone narrator drones on about how Suzanne found herself alone in some dark alley and later discovered in a shallow grave, dictating which direction our dreams are weaved.

I just turned 44 a few weeks ago and have long since settled into the idea that my days of late night bar dwelling are behind me. I wake up before the sun does for crying out loud! I’m an adult now with a wife, a mortgage, and a career crunching numbers from home, sipping, err…guzzling down my third cup of coffee in Cookie Monster pajamas and a Slayer shirt. You know, full grown adult shit! How this High School Dropout wound up here, I’ll never know. Well, maybe that’s a lie. I worked hard, changed habits and started caring about things more. I’m responsible, with the future in mind. After all, 44 ain’t that old! I have scores of years ahead of me I need to prepare for and to this point, I’d say I’ve done a pretty good job of it.

I don’t mean to brag, but I have a pretty darn good credit score! (Strange flex, bro! But okay…) According to Experian, I’m one of the 21% of consumers that fall within the “Exceptional FICO Credit Scores” ranging from 800-850. At the time of writing this my credit score is an astounding 824, which actually descended from an all-time high of 831, more on that later. This is something I’m proud of considering my past. I wasn’t always as astute with my finances as I am today. Just a couple decades ago, (God, I’m old!), I had such bad credit from unpaid medical bills and a lack of other forms of credit, that I couldn’t even get a $500 starter loan to try to build credit. Banks and credit unions wouldn’t trust me and it hurt! If I was to have any hope of making any major purchases like cars or houses in the future, I had to do something to fix my dilemma.

At that time I had no intentions of paying off those old medical bills because paying them off would do little to nothing to change that. I don’t typically condone evading your financial obligations, but to me the whole healthcare and insurance industry is a total scam, so I scammed back. I learned paying them off would do little to nothing to change my score after several trips to my local library. I was on a mission to absorb as much as I could about finances, credit and how to fix it. At this point it seemed wiser for me to dispute the charges or wait out the clock for them to drop off my credit report, then try again to obtain new lines of credit. I read that many times when you challenge that you actually owe an old debt that has been bought and sold by numerous collection agencies, that in many instances the current agency can’t provide proof to validate that it is indeed yours or that you hadn’t paid it off earlier, and that shit worked!

One by one, those pesky red marks would fall off and in time, I built trust with the banks and got the credit train rolling! My first debt was a $500 loan I took out to for the sole purpose of building credit. It was a first step towards paving a strong foundation for my new found fiscal future. What I didn’t understand was it takes longevity for those numbers to increase. I was in such a hurry to improve my score that I paid that 12 month loan off in a quarter of the time. Paying it back early would save me money on interest and it felt like a huge win to swiftly chop it down nine months early. That quick win in turn resulted in feeling like a loss after discovering it did nothing to improve my score. Banks want you to pay them back, but it turns out it’s frowned upon to pay early. They don’t like it when you deprive them from their earnings.

So here I am twenty plus years later with a near perfect score. 850 is the highest you can achieve and it’s damn near impossible to reach that number. As of January 31, 2023, a mere 1.6% of the population have achieved that score. I worked hard, built credit, paid on time, never late. I own both my cars free and clear and the only debt I’m carrying is my mortgage, which over the past few years we’ve been actively paying down faster with additional principal payments. Being the perfectionist I am and my thirst for fiscal responsibility, I want that 850, damn it! I want to be in that elite 1.6% club too. I’m diligent about paying my bills. My credit reports are immaculate, so what gives?! What is keeping me from hitting that milestone? What does a brother have to do to capture those precious final 26 points? I’ve searched and the answer is unclear.

What I do know is it’s not about paying off your debts. In fact, I saw that first hand this morning while checking my credit score. I don’t typically have debt beyond our mortgage. I do have credit cards and have one that I mainly use for all purchases since I earn cashback reward points for using it. I pay all my bills and make all my purchases with the one card and do a monthly reconciliation to pay it off in full so I never pay interest or fees. Depending on when that payment goes through dictates what my balance is when they report to the credit agencies. This month I submitted payment on the 27th and had a zero balance during their reporting. Logically, that seems like a good thing and should in turn kick my score up a few notches, right? Quite the contrary. My score actually tumbled 6 points.

Credit scores are really hard concept to grasp. In many cases it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. In order to have good credit, you have to have incurred debt. But not too much debt, because too much debt is bad, right? To keep the ball rolling you must pay on time, but not too early. If you want to bulk it up some more you need to increase your available lines of credit, but not too many lines of credit. Because when you do open up new lines of credit they double ding you. One for hard inquiries and opening up new credit. But then you don’t want to have too many lines of credit, because that makes you look needy. But if you decide to close any, that also pushes those numbers down again because it affects how long you’ve managed your credit. But if you don’t use all of your lines of credit, the lender will close your account due to inactivity. I feel pretty perplexed and, well…damned.

I guess the moral of the story is don’t go chasing waterfalls or a 850 credit score and pay your bills on time, but not early. A score in the 800’s is a stellar accomplishment and nothing to balk at. Those 26 points aren’t worth the stress and confusion to place upon my already weary head. It’s okay to settle the score. Lenders like you to be in control of your finances so they get paid back, but they’d prefer you to live a little beyond your means so they make money at your expense. They literally and figuratively bank on you defaulting and when you don’t, then you’re useless.

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