A Common Credit Report Surprise That Will Cost You

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man in suit showing a signboard with the different ranges of the credit score: excellent, good, fair and poor
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By Kelli B. Grant | @kelligrant

Even if you're vigilant about paying bills, a delinquent debt could be dragging down your credit score.

More than a third of consumers -- 35.1 percent, to be exact -- have a debt in collections on their credit file, according to a new report from Urban Institute. The report assessed 2013 data from credit bureau TransUnion.

"It's a surprising finding that debt in collections is that pervasive," said senior fellow Caroline Ratcliffe, an author of the report. "It threads through all communities, and it's particularly high in the South."

Concentrations of delinquent debts tend to be higher in areas that were hit hard in the financial crisis, Ratcliffe said. The average amount in collections is $5,178, and the median, $1,350. (See our slideshow for the states with the highest percentage of residents with a debt in collections.)

But for some people, the fact that a debt collector is hunting for them is a surprise. About 10 percent of consumers in the dataset had a collection out for amounts of less than $125. These were things such as unpaid parking tickets, delinquent gym membership fees and utility bills, among other more trivial debts. Some owed less than $25.

"Even if you think you're very responsible with your bills, it's not hard at all to end up with a collection on your report," said Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com.

Medical debts are a common surprise collection, with billing system problems like a bill not being submitted to the right insurance or a bill that's in dispute by you, the provider or the insurer, she said.

There are also so-called last bills. "That's when you move, and there's a last utility or phone bill, but you don't get it because it doesn't come to your new address," said Detweiler.

Expected or not, a debt in collections can make a dent in your credit score. Depending on other aspects of your score, such a black mark could knock off 50 points or more, Detweiler said. Consumers with better scores otherwise, or a more recent collection account, would see bigger damage.

Spotting a delinquent debt is easy. Federal law entitles consumers to one free credit report listing open and recent accounts, from each of the three big credit reporting bureaus every 12 months. Access them at AnnualCreditReport.com.

Handling a debt in collections can be a little tougher. If it's an outright mistake to the tune of, "I paid that bill ages ago!" you'll need to dispute the error with the credit bureau. Paying the debt doesn't necessarily remove a collection from your report, and such black marks can stay on your report for seven years, said Ratcliffe. Some credit score calculations don't weigh a paid collection account any differently than one that's outstanding, either.

"The time to negotiate is before you've paid it," Detweiler said. Ask if the collection agency will arrange to remove the debt once paid -- many will, particularly if it's an unexpected debt you weren't aware of.

A Common Credit Report Surprise That Will Cost You
If you've been making mortgage payments for a while now, it may have become just another task you do automatically each month. But it's time to start thinking about your end game. When will your house officially be paid in full, and how will that date intersect with your other plans? Do you need to adjust anything to make your "mortgage freedom" date align with the rest of your life? For example: Do you want to have your house paid off by the time your kids leave for college? If so, start scrutinizing the timing, so you can figure out if you need to make extra payments.
The average student graduating in 2014 emerged with $29,000 in student loan debt. There's no predicting what that number will be once your children are ready to don a cap and gown. But you don't want your kids to be saddled with tens of thousands in debt as they begin their adult lives (or potentially live in your basement well into their 30s because of that debt).

While your children should absolutely apply for every scholarship they can, you can't count on them getting what they'll need. So. there's no time like the present to start seriously building up their college funds. If you're not quite sure about the best ways for you to do that (529 plans are great, but they're not the only good choise), a fee-only financial adviser can walk you through your options.
Are you putting aside enough for retirement? Aim to replace 70 percent to 85 percent of your current income, or save 25 times your current annual expenses. Once you have that final number in mind, use an online retirement calculator or sit down with a financial adviser to come up with a plan for how much you'll need to save each year to reach it. If you haven't already done this, don't delay another day. Future You will thank you.
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Make debt payoff a top priority. Try an aggressive method like the "debt snowball," where you throw every extra dime you can at your smallest balance until you've decimated that bill. Then move to the next one on the list and continue amassing "victories" until you're done with every debt. Where can you find the money to accelerate your debt payoff? Reduce your  expenses or take a temporary second job, if necessary. The sooner you free yourself from debt, the better.
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Just like life insurance, disability insurance is a wise investment. (And, just like life insurance, the longer you wait to get it, the higher your monthly payments will be.) Should you fall ill or get injured and be unable to work for a period of time, disability insurance can pay out 50 percent to 70 percent of your income. Hopefully, you'll never need to use it -- but you never want to be in a spot where you do need it and you don't have it.
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