Q: I am a high net-worth person who got by with a debit card for many years, until I realized I had NO credit score and needed a mortgage. So, I got a Visa card through my brokerage, with a 2 percent cash back feature. Now that is being taken over by a different company and I'm looking for advice on what may be better. We never carry a balance, and while we travel frequently, have thousands of accumulated airline miles we can't seem to use. Any advice?
A: You're exactly the kind of customer that credit card companies will fawn over, even though your credit report might not agree. Leverage your brokerage and airline loyalty to find a rewards credit card that will help you build an even stronger credit profile.
I've often heard bankers say that American credit scores measure how good you are at staying in debt, as opposed to how well you manage your money. Lenders really want to know whether you're a high risk for walking away from a mortgage, so they like scoring systems that review your history with other kinds of consumer credit. A really good cash back credit card and a few simple credit score tricks can help you earn one of today's best mortgage deals.
1. Link a cash back rewards card to your brokerage. You're not the only person your brokerage disappointed when they stopped offering that 2 percent cash back card. Fortunately, some alternatives exist. The Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express Card (winner of our 2011 Editor's Choice Award) will match that 2 percent offer and deposit your rebate directly into your brokerage account. Bank of America Merrill Lynch and TD Ameritrade also offer cash back rebate cards for their customers, though you usually have to request details directly from a broker.
2. Monitor your credit utilization. To get the most from this strategy, you want the balance that your credit card reports to the three major credit bureaus to land at about 30 percent of your available credit line. Hitting right into that sweet spot may take a little calculation. You may need to pay off a little of your balance before your statement closes to land that magic number.
3. Pay your balance in full every month. Not only will you collect your cash back rewards, but most of your monthly purchases will fall inside your credit card issuer's interest-free grace period. If you think you'll dial back your credit card usage after you get the mortgage deal you want, try to find a rewards card with a low introductory rate.
And, about those frequent flier miles… Most airline loyalty programs have embraced relationships with retailers and restaurants that will happily convert your miles into gift cards, magazine subscriptions, and merchandise. Your airline may also allow you to float miles on a third-party exchange service that can get you the rewards you really want.
Correction, Jan. 17, 2012: According to John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com and an expert on the FICO score, the ideal percentage of credit utilization is not 30 percent, but from 1 to 10 percent.