6 Facts Baby Boomers Need to Know About Credit

Here are six credit questions all boomers will need to answer.

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From their first gas credit card after high school graduation to a financial world filled with rewards cards and penalty rates, baby boomers have seen the use of credit change dramatically in their lifetimes. And now they wonder how all these changes will affect them as they head into retirement. So let's take a look at six credit questions all boomers will need to answer:

1. How do boomers’ credit scores stack up?

According to Experian's Generational Credit Trends Report, they do pretty well. Boomers’ credit scores were about 4 percent above average. They score higher than average in most categories measured, except they are more likely to have a second mortgage.

2. How did this get on my report?

Credit scores include a lot of different inputs. So it's not unusual for boomers to make financial decisions without recognizing the effect on their credit score. Sometimes the result is a surprising entry on their credit report.

Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com, points to a couple of common situations: "Boomers often find themselves saddled with other people's debts, especially their kid's. This may include cosigning for cars, student loans, or even homes. The big danger is that if the primary borrower can't pay, the cosigner ends up responsible for the debt. Even if the bills are paid on time, the debt will usually be included on their credit reports and affect their debt ratios and credit scores."

3. Could my credit score get sick?

Just as a sudden illness is more likely to strike as you get older, the same holds true for boomer credit scores. That's because medical bills can seriously affect boomers' finances. According to Detweiler, if a medical bill goes to collection, expect a big hit on your score. "One study found that medical bills accounted for about half of all collection accounts on credit reports," she says.

4. Can I have too much credit?

Many boomers find that they don't need much of the credit that they have built up over the years and that is still available to them. Naturally, they wonder if their credit score would improve if they cancelled some available credit.

Detweiler believes that's not necessary. "Those big credit lines don't hurt,” she says. “If you get your credit reports and see open available credit lines totaling tens of thousands of dollars, you may be tempted to close some, thinking all that available credit makes you a greater credit risk. But that's not the case with most scoring models, which are more concerned with the debt you are carrying than your available credit. So you're usually best off just leaving them alone."

5. Will being close to retirement hurt my credit score?

Actually, the opposite is true. Detweiler explains: "The fact that you have been using credit for many years helps your credit scores. Most scoring models take into account the average age of your accounts, as well as the age of your oldest account. So be glad you have all that experience under your belt. It's something you can't fake."

And a lower retirement income level does not affect your score. So while a drop in income might make paying bills more challenging, that alone won't hurt your credit score. But it is a good warning about debt. Ideally you'll have houses, cars, and credit cards paid off prior to retirement.

6. I don't need to borrow money anymore. Why should I care what my score is?

Tempting as this is, you probably don't want to blow off your credit score. Credit scores are used for much more than just issuing credit.

For instance, you may be a boomer who chooses to work for a few more years. Don't be surprised if a potential employer checks your score. If you have an auto or homeowners insurance policy, there's better than a 50/50 chance that the insurer will consider your credit score in determining rates and discounts.

As boomers head into retirement, they may be able to leave the daily grind behind them, but they'll still need to monitor and manage their credit to avoid unpleasant outcomes.

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who founded TheDollarStretcher.com. He's written on many personal finance topics, including an article on baby boomers and credit scores.