After graduating from college, killing off my student loans and credit card debt were my top priorities. I was aggressive with my repayment, sending every extra dollar towards the balances. I obsessively monitored my credit report and credit score, and after two years of bringing down my debt and never missing a payment, I was thrilled when my credit score hit 785. It wasn’t perfect—that magical 850 eluded me for some time—but according to most credit score evaluations, my score put me in the “excellent” category, qualifying me for the most competitive interest rates on car loans and ensuring I never owed extra premiums when signing a lease for an apartment. I took a ridiculous amount of pride in that score; it was more important to me than my SAT score or GPA had ever been.
Then one day, I checked my credit score. I was secretly hoping it had crept closer to 800, so I was shocked when I saw it had plummeted. Overnight, it had gone down 90 points, and my credit was at 695. Convinced I had been the victim of identity theft, I called the three credit unions—Experian, Equifax and TransUnion—and placed credit freezes on my accounts and demanded copies of my credit report to see what crazy charges some thief had made in my name.
As I poured over the paperwork, I was flabbergasted. There were no new accounts, no weird purchases. Everything looked normal. On a second read, I saw something I missed the first time around: a $26 unpaid fee owed to a collections agency that was several years old. I had no idea what it could be from, but I reached out to the collections agency to try to rectify it, assuming it was a mistake.
It wasn’t. A book I had borrowed and lost in high school (and do not remember ever reading) had been reported to collections. Apparently, it was the Bucks County Library’s new policy that patrons with over $25 accrued in fines get turned over to collections. On top of the charge, the collections agency added penalties and fees. I ended up going back and forth with them, negotiating not just to pay the debt off, but to get it removed from my credit history. When it was all over, I ended up spending nearly $200 to eliminate it from my report. I hope that book was awesome.
Even after it was cleared from my credit history, it took me two more years of regular payments and meticulous record-keeping to rebuild my score. Lesson learned: even ridiculous little things can hurt your credit.
Weird Ways Your Credit Can Be Affected
While you know missing payments and racking up debt can hurt your credit, there are other ways your credit score can be damaged. Besides library books—and yes, this is actually a common library policy and not just limited to my location—there are other, little-known ways your credit can be affected:
- Tolls: With electronic toll systems, it’s easy to breeze through the toll booth. If it doesn’t register or your account is short on funds, you’ll get dinged for unpaid fees. Most states have the option to pay for missed tolls online, so if you think you were not charged, go ahead and make the payment. If you are out of state or somehow miss the mailed charge notice, it can be sent to collections and show up on your credit report.
- Parking tickets: If you got a ticket for parking in a tow-away zone, take action immediately by either paying the fine or contesting it right away. If you put it off with the intention of getting to it later, it can end up with a debt collector.
- Utilities: Even if you always pay your utility bills on time, they can still creep up on you. When you move to another place, the last service bill can easily slip through the cracks. The utility company can then turn over your late payment to the credit bureaus and give your account to a collections agency. If you’re moving, make sure your account is completely closed and paid for in full.
- Gym memberships: Gym memberships are notoriously tricky to end. Most accounts are linked to credit cards or bank accounts and your fee is automatically deducted. While you may think telling the manager that you quit and canceling the payments are enough, you still can end up in a pickle. Gyms often have very complex and specific information on how to cancel accounts in your contract; some require a letter sent by certified mail—not regular post—to the headquarters, while some require you call a hotline that is just for closures. If you don’t do exactly as what is stated in the contract, you’re still responsible for membership fees. Read the fine print and make sure you follow each step to end the membership completely.
Your credit score is very important, affecting everything from getting approved to lease a new home to getting a good interest rate on a new car. While limiting your debt burden and timely payments are essential, it’s also a good idea to review your credit report each year to make sure everything is in good standing. Small, odd charges can pop up that can hurt your credit history and take time and money to correct.