Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of “Help! I Can’t Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). She writes “To Her Credit,” a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.
I recently filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and my debts have been discharged. I’d like to start rebuilding my credit. Can I be added as an authorized user on someone’s credit card to help build my score? But I don’t want to cause any problem for their credit card. I will not actually use the card. – Candy
You can ask someone to add you to their card, and if the card has a history of on-time payments and responsible use, being on the card may very well help your credit, as long as you ask the right person.
Sometimes adding an authorized user to a card, commonly called “piggybacking,” can be just the thing to jump-start a credit history. It can be especially effective, for example, if a parent wants to add a teen-age child to start building a credit history, or if a wife wants to help bring up her husband’s score. I’m more wary of using it in other circumstances, however. Before you look for someone to add you to his card, beware of a few pitfalls of credit card piggybacking.
First, piggybacking does not work in all cases. FICO scores, the most widely used credit scores, now allow only legitimate authorized users to benefit from the credit history of accounts to which they are added. There was a time when people were adding other people – even strangers – to their cards for the sole purpose of increasing the credit scores of the authorized users. Some people even charged for the service! The credit scoring companies got wise to that. While adding family members to accounts is usually OK, the bureaus now look for patterns to determine whether a new authorized user is a relative or a stranger. If the account is categorized as illegitimate, then the account won’t be added to the authorized user’s credit history.
Another problem with becoming an authorized user is that you get your own card. You say you won’t touch the card, but if you get in a financial bind, could you ever be tempted to use it? What happens if the primary cardholder doesn’t recognize a charge on the card, and assumes you bought something? And even if the primary account holder keeps your authorized user card, just because you don’t have the plastic in hand doesn’t prove you didn’t find a way to use the account. I hear from so many readers on both sides of the authorized user scenario that I’m becoming very skeptical of the whole practice. Unless you share finances with someone, you should generally avoid financial entanglements. You’ll save a lot of financial and relationship trouble by doing so.
Also, becoming an authorized user won’t improve your score if the account you’re added to doesn’t have as pristine a record as you thought. If the primary cardholder has missed a few payments, being added as an authorized user can do your credit history a lot more harm than good. If that happens, you can have yourself removed from the card and your credit history should clear up quickly.
The most important reason I would avoid piggybacking on someone else’s card is that you can build your credit history without it. As someone who has recently filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you are in a surprisingly good position to start getting credit again. After all, the banks know you won’t be able to file for bankruptcy again for eight years.
You will probably need to get a secured card at first, which means you’ll need to keep an account with the card-issuing bank equal to the amount of your credit limit. Look for an account with no annual fee, and make your payments without fail. Eventually, you can apply for an unsecured card with a low credit limit.
Use your card regularly, but pay the entire balance every month. You can prove to the credit scoring companies – and yourself – that you are a responsible credit risk, based on your own track record, not someone else’s.
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