You often hear stories about how having too many credit cards has ruined peoples’ lives. But when I was applying to get my first mortgage at 21, I found out that having no debt was just as bad — maybe even worse — than having too much.
Growing up, money was never a concern in my house. We always had plenty of it. Private schools for my brother and me, luxury cars, fancy dinners, exotic vacations — the works. We never talked about money, except, of course, for the fact that we could spend it. That was all that mattered.
Then, my parents got a divorce.
Our world was flipped upside down. It turned out to be financially devastating. The nice cars got repossessed. Both of my parents had to file for bankruptcy. We went without heat in the winter because oil was too expensive and without air conditioners in the summer.
One day, when my dad was going over his Visa bill, he looked at me and said something that has since shaped my life: “Never ever get a credit card. If you can’t pay for it in cash, you can’t afford it. Period.”
Debt Free Is the Way to Be … Right?
I took that advice to heart. I paid cash for my first car. I worked through college to pay for my tuition. Everything was paid for in cash.
I thought for sure that when I went to get a loan for something big someday that they would pull up my credit history and see that I’ve never needed to use a single credit card or loan and that they would throw money at me. Well, not sure if you know this — I sure didn’t — but having no credit score is apparently even worse than having a bad credit score.
Years later (and still $0 debt from anything, all while living on one income of $11 an hour), my husband and I decided that it was time to start looking for a home. Rent was getting outrageous, and we wanted more kids, so buying seemed right.
In the mortgage lender’s office, everything seemed to be going well. He even seemed like he was ready to sign over $100,000 blank check to us idiots. Fun fact: When the mortgage lender leaves the room to get somebody to come back and look at something on the computer, chances are it’s not good. They had never seen somebody try to apply for a mortgage who didn’t have any credit at all. They both just stood there ogling at the computer screen that was telling them I didn’t exist in the world of credit scores.
More on Mortgage Applications: 19 Reasons Your Mortgage Loan Could Get Rejected
Trying to Turn Things Around
Instead of being a good millennial and Googling how to get a credit score, I listened to some really bad advice from this mortgage lender. I was told to go home, apply for at least five credit cards, put a pack of gum or a tank of gas on each one of those cards every week for the next month. At the end of the month, pay it all off.
When we checked back with the lender the next month, I thought for sure that once they pulled my credit score, I would have a perfect 850 credit score. It had to be, right? Wrong. My score was in the low 600s. I was devastated. I had never used a credit card or gotten into debt or had a student loan or anything my entire life, and yet my credit score was in the “poor” category. Mind you, this was in 2013, shortly after the housing market had bottomed out and mortgage lenders were hesitant (and rightfully so) to give mortgages to people with crappy credit.
Thank You, In-Laws
If I had been trying to get a mortgage by myself, my credit score would have made it impossible. Thankfully, though, I had my husband. His parents had him as a cosigner since age 17 on one of their credit cards, one they carry zero balance on and use only to pay for gas once a month. He had an almost perfect credit score, thanks to his parents.
We got our house.
Now, five years after we bought our home, my credit score is finally getting closer to 800. Yes, even without any consumer debt, student loans or anything similar, it took that long to increase it. Crazy, right?
Honestly, I still don’t like credit cards and, to this day, don’t really use them. It’s just a personal preference. I feel better paying for things that I can afford to come directly from our bank account.
That said, here’s one important thing you can learn from my experience: Being afraid of credit cards is setting yourself up for trouble. Learn about them; don’t fear them. Decide if they’re right for you to use based on your financial goals–and, if you decide to use them, be responsible.
Read More: 5 Best Lenders for Bad Credit Home Loans
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