Americans seem to have trouble identifying major life events that have the potential to ruin their credit.
That's the conclusion drawn from a study by TransUnion that shows younger Americans, in particular, unable to see divorce or death of a spouse, for example, as harbingers to bad credit scores.
"It's important for all people to understand the effect of life milestones on their credit so they can put themselves in a position to reach personal and financial goals," says Ken Chaplin, senior vice president at TransUnion. "This survey reveals that many people, especially younger adults, may not be prepared for how certain events, such as marriage, buying a home or getting a car could alter their credit scores."
The TransUnion report says Americans "of all ages are generally unprepared for life events from a credit perspective, because they don't check their scores before or after the life event." Alarmingly, only 49% of U.S. adults check their credit score when hit with a major life event, like losing a job. Even positive life events, like marriage or having a baby, don't trigger credit checks by consumers, even though both can cost a great deal of money and thus will have a big impact on their credit health.
"Many different events - from major life milestones to small incidents - can enhance or damage your creditworthiness," Chaplin adds. "It's worth investing in a credit monitoring service that can keep you informed about how events in your life are altering your score."
Such an event happened to Netiva Heard, a certified credit counselor and owner of MNH Credit Solutions, a Homewood, Ill.-based financial education company.
"I have personally taken a financial hit in the past due to divorce and medical expenses and what assisted me more than anything is taking the time to really reflect and regroup," Heard explains. "A major life event has as much of an emotional effect as a financial one."
Reeling from the divorce, Heard took a deep breath and laid out a blueprint for getting back on her feet, financially. "Since my financial situation changed quite a bit, I had to visually see what my income and outgo was so that I could create a realistic debt pay off plan with figures that I knew I could make without creating even more financial duress," she says. "By doing this, I was better prepared when communicating with my creditors when inquiring about hardship programs, setting up payment arrangements, and agreeing on settlement agreements."
Individuals are often shocked by negative life impactors, like the loss of a job or a divorce - and that's a big part of the problem in keeping good credit intact. "You can never predict the challenges that life may throw at you," notes Katie Ross, education and development manager for American Consumer Credit Counseling, a financial education nonprofit. "Life happens, and when an unexpected illness come your way or your marriage falls apart there is a physical, emotional, and financial strain on your entire life. Therefore it is imperative that you know the ways in which you can face such tensions."
Ross advises consumers facing a big life experience (especially a negative one like divorce) to remain focused on credit scores. "Depending on your financial situation, now is always a good time to build or continue to build good credit by keeping a low utilization ratio, paying bills on time, and not opening a lot of new lines of credit in a short period of time," she adds.
Also, try to focus on two main concerns when dealing with the financial side of a major life event, says Jack Newman, a CFP at Momentus Advisors in Washington, D.C. "You need to fulfilling existing obligations," Newman advises. "In many major life events, especially illnesses, simply remembering to pay or even being able to (physically, not financially) existing obligations can be a struggle. In the case of divorce, joint debts still need to be paid, and especially in the case of unfriendly divorces this is not as simple as it sounds."
You'll also need to fulfill new obligations.
"Major life events can also force those affected to take on additional debt," Newman says. "Major medical expenses, for example, can be outrageously expensive, forcing those involved to take on additional debt."
The best way to "fight back" in these cases is simply to prepare for the unexpected. "Make sure that emergency funds are in place, legal documents are drafted and executed, insurance coverage is adequate, that necessary parties are well informed, and that everything is organized an easily accessible," he adds. "Having a financial professional review your existing situation can help to mitigate the potentially devastating impact that these life events can cause."
Struggling to manage a big life event like a divorce or a medical emergency is tough enough without worrying about money and credit. But you can't ignore either, or a dire life situation can easily turn worse.