Editors' pick: Originally published Oct. 25.
Need yet another reason to improve your credit score? In some states, it's the difference between negligible auto insurance premiums and a huge bill.
A new report by insurance rate information and comparison site insuranceQuotes, notes that drivers with poor credit often pay double, or even triple, depending on where they live. Using a hypothetical 45-year-old, married female driver with a bachelor's degree and no prior claims or lapses in coverage, insuranceQuotes found that even if you have fair credit, you'll pay an average of 28% more for car insurance than a driver with excellent credit (up from 24% in 2013). And if you have poor credit, your premium doubles, increasing your rate by 104% (up from 91% in 2013) on average.
"What's really concerning is that 42% of Americans aren't aware that there's a relationship between credit and insurance rates," said Laura Adams, senior insurance analyst at insuranceQuotes. "Over 95% of U.S. insurance companies use credit to set auto premiums in every state except California, Hawaii and Massachusetts, where the practice is not allowed."
Thanks to the credit-based insurance score (CBIS), which is completely separate from your credit score, insurers have a tool to determine how likely you are to get into an accident or run into some other mishap and file a claim. Ranging from 100 to 999, the CBIS is used exclusively by insurance companies and is derived from a variety of factors in your consumer credit report. Actuaries claim that the higher your CBIS, the less likely you are to file a claim. Therefore, the higher your CBIS the lower your car insurance rate.
For example, if you've engaged in some reckless credit behavior -- maxing out accounts, paying the bare minimum or not making payments to your credit accounts at all -- the consequences for your insurance rate can be dire. If your credit status plummets from excellent to poor, Oklahoma will charge you 201% more for your insurance than it did when you had a decent ratio of available credit to debt and were paying down your balance each month.
Other states aren't afraid to drop that hammer, either, as Nebraska (where rates jump 206% when credit slips from excellent to poor), Nevada (213%), New Jersey (216%) and Arizona (226%) have no issues tripling your rate. Even "lenient" states like North Carolina (51% hike for poor credit), Virginia (75%), Wyoming (76%), New York (77%) and Connecticut (86%) will punish you with higher auto insurance rates for having sloppy credit. That said, you aren't exactly powerless to avoid that rate hike.
"What helps boost your consumer credit — paying credit obligations on time and not maxing out credit accounts—also helps increase your CBIS and keeps your auto insurance rate down," says Adams.
Your CBIS is based on more than two dozen bits of financial data collected by the major credit bureaus. They might include outstanding debt, length of credit history, late payments, collections, bankruptcies or new applications for credit, but about 40% of your CBIS boils down to paying bills on time. Another 30% is based on how much credit card and loan debt you have vs. how much you're allowed to borrow (your credit-to-debt ratio).
If you weren't aware that carrying huge balances could hurt your credit -- never mind your auto insurance rate -- you aren't alone. Bankrate conducted a survey that discovered that 77% of people in the U.S. have no idea that accounts with high outstanding balances hurt their credit score, even if they pay the bills on time. Also, 55% labor under the misconception that they have to carry a credit card balance to increase their credit score, despite myriad attempts to convince them otherwise.
However, Americans aren't all that great about monitoring their credit to begin with. A LendingTree survey found that 21.2% of Millennials said they do not know their current credit score, and another 11% said they have never even checked their credit score. Their elders are far worse. Bankrate says that, overall, 70% of Americans don't know that limiting themselves to just one credit account has a negative impact. And more than half of Millennials don't know that having a short credit history can potentially delay major life milestones such as buying a home. Most disconcertingly, 37% of U.S. adults have no idea that if they make a credit card payment more than 30 days late, it will show up as a negative account on their credit report even if the bill is later paid in full.
If you folks were more aware of any of the above, you'd already know how to repair your credit and avoid rate hikes. The FICO score, used by credit bureaus to determine the health of one's credit, values on-time payment and low balances above all else -- yes, much like the CBIS. In fact, the combination of a spotless payment history (35% of a FICO score) and the amount of debt a cardholder carries in relation to their credit limit -- or their credit utilization (30%) -- account for nearly two-thirds of a person's overall credit score. Your mix of credit accounts (10% of your FICO score) also matters. This all affects your ability to lease a car, rent an apartment, obtain a mortgage, open a low interest credit card or do just about anything else that require sterling credit -- including obtaining low car insurance rates.
We've spoken with folks throughout the financial services industry about this topic more times than we'd care to mention and have four easy ways for you to scrub your credit and give auto insurers a reason to drop your rates:
1. Fix the errors: Please, just get a free copy of your credit report directly from the credit reporting agencies themselves. Review the status of your account, your credit limits and your personal information and dispute any errors immediately.
2. Beg for forgiveness: If you've been a longtime account holder or a frequent customer and have a late payment on your record, you may be able to talk your creditors into working with you on repayment and, afterward, on removing the offending mark from your record.
"Negotiate paying an old debt if the creditor will mark your account 'paid as agreed,'" says Curt VanderZanden, a loan officer with Mortgage Express in Portland, Ore. "For a late payment on a long-held account, write the creditor, acknowledge your otherwise good history and ask for a goodwill adjustment that will wipe it from your credit report."
3. Pay off the right accounts: If you have cards or accounts with high interest rates, you're going to want to hit those first. Pay them down as much as possible to help dig yourself out from under a pile of interest, and transfer balances to cards with lower rates when possible.
"Timing is everything when it comes to balance transfers," said Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com's senior industry analyst. "It's absolutely critical that you not wait to transfer your balance to your new card, but it's even more important that you pay that whole balance off before the introductory period ends."
A CreditCards.com survey found that who fall behind in credit card payments face an average penalty rate of 28.45%. However, if you're lucky enough to be approved for another card and transfer a remaining balance, the savings can be significant.
Let's say you have $5,000 outstanding on one of your existing credit cards. A 0% balance transfer offer (assuming a 3% balance transfer fee and a 12-month 0% introductory APR) would let you pay that off within a year for $5,150. That's not as great as a straight $5,000, but someone paying a 28.45% penalty rate would have to pay $5,803 over 12 months to pay off that same $5,000 -- or $653 more. Even if you're carrying a standard 15% APR, it would cost $5,415.48 to pay off that balance. That's still $265 more than the 0% offer.
Also, attempt to keep that balance low. Kevin Murphy, senior financial services consultant at McGraw-Hill Employees Federal Credit Union in East Windsor, N.J., notes that a client who never misses a payment, but uses $9,500 of their $10,000 credit limit is still doing considerable harm to their credit. He advises keeping balances should at zero when possible, but says they absolutely must be kept below 30% of a cardholder's total credit limit to avoid trouble. If you have a $10,000 credit limit and still maintain a $5,000 balance, that 50% credit utilization will come back to haunt you.
4. Increase your credit: This is more of a way to game the credit ratio than anything, but if you're usng up $2,500 of your $5,000 available credit, but can somehow open an account with another $5,000 in available credit, you'll trim your credit utilization score from 50% to 25%. The key, however, is not to use any of that newfound credit until you've paid off that old debt.
Cut up your credit cards, tuck them away, but keep them open and, no matter what you do, don't go applying for a whole bunch at once.
"Another fiction is that the more credit cards you have, the better," says Joe O'Boyle, a financial advisor with Voya Financial Advisors in Beverly Hills, Calif. "If you open a bunch of credit cards at once, that can negatively impact your credit score. Get your credit increased later."