Practical Applications: Credit Cards versus Home Equity Line Of Credit

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I got an email raising a lot of issues. Some I'm going to deal with very quickly, others I'm going to spend some effort on, but nothing as in depth as a full article would have. I'm going to keep referring to material found in Credit Reports: What They Are and How They Work

I'm going to take the email in chunks:


Turns out I made the Two-Loan choice myself, independent of your article, a couple years ago. I was motivated to get a conforming first loan (~$322K @ 5.75%), and put the other ~$45K of a prior mortgage into a HELOC (besides, the HELOC rate was lower than the 30-yr fixed at the time!).

Well, times (and HELOC rates) have changed, and I now have ~$65K on my HELOC, and relatively tight budget.

That was 2003. considering that I had 30 year fixed rate loans at 5.375 percent or lower without any points for months and 5.25 for literally zero total cost for about one, you likely paid more than you needed to. There was a period in late August when rates spiked up, but I was calling the same clients back in December and into 2004, asking if they wanted to cut their rate for free. No prepayment penalty, no points. Those would have lowered the rate further.

HELOCs (Home Equity Lines Of Credit) have the disadvantage that they are month to month variable, based upon a rate that is controlled by the bank. On the downside, you're somewhat at their mercy. On the upside, the rate is based upon that lender's Prime Rate plus a margin fixed in your loan papers. They can't change your rate without changing everyone else's also. There is absolutely no legal reason I'm aware of why they can't set prime at twenty-four percent. There are plenty of economic reasons. Unfortunately, given the high demand low supply of money currently, the banks are competing for new business with a better margin, not a lower prime. They didn't cut rates every time Greenspan's Fed did, but they have religiously boosted prime every time the overnight rate has gone up since the Fed started raising it. Banks are making a killing in real historical terms right now with variable rate lending.

Fortunately, in most cases it's pretty easy to refinance a HELOC. Credit Unions are a great place for this; variable rate consumer credit is where they shine. There are some internet based lenders where you can obtain no cost, easy documentation HELOCs at rates right around prime, or even a bit below if you have the credit. Most HELOCs also have interest only options for five or ten years. Brokers really don't do a whole lot for HELOCs except keep lenders honest; there is not enough money in them to make them worth chasing and the lenders won't pay for them the same as for first trust deeds; it's too easy to refinance out of them. (Brokers can beat the stuffing out of credit unions on first trust deeds, however).

Unfortunately, your credit score is a problem now:


I have multiple credit card companies offering me low introductory rates (some 0%, some 2%) for short terms (up-to 1 year).

Why would I NOT want to take them up on their offer?

In truth, I've already done this a number of times in the past 12-18 months, always at 0%. So I've learned the "minimum payment" trade-off (and I wish congress hadn't forced CC companies to raise their minimum payment requirements!) [ last year, one fine bank only made me pay $10/month on their loan of ~$10K! Now I'm seeing minimum payments of 1-3 %]


The difference between cash flow and real cost, and the fact that each time you accept a new credit card thus, it is a MAJOR hit on your credit. Let's say you have two credit cards now that you have had for over five years, and get four new ones. Your FICO score modeling goes from over five years to about a year and a half on your length of credit history (the average of your accounts, except that five years is the maximum you get credit for an account). Open four more six months down the line, and now you have ten, with an average time open of just over a year. Furthermore, since most people move as much as they can into the new credit accounts, this gives major credit hits for being essentially maxed out on a card. Thirty to forty points on your FICO score per card, perhaps more. You say you've been doing this a while. Not to mince any words, I wouldn't want to have your FICO right now.

There are always two concerns when you're looking for the best deal. Minimize your costs, of which interest is far an away the largest, and be able to make your payments. I don't know if you have other payments here, but if so I would do everything I could to live cheaply enough, long enough to use the money I save to make a difference on both of those scores. In your position, I'd sell any cars I still have a payment on, just to get out of the payment. This is a concern I've been telling people about since 2003, when the rates on everything were so cheap. There is more than one way to do things, but you have to be prepared for the consequences of the way you chose. I had some clients up in Los Angeles about July of 2003. They wanted to cut their payments. I gave them the option of a conforming loan (like yours) with a HELOC, and they took it. As soon as the loans funded, the wife called me and said I deceived them about the loan, and they wanted me to pay for another loan. Unfortunately for their contention, I had a piece of paper in the file with their signatures saying exactly what I tell everyone else about this situation, that the rate on the HELOC is month to month variable and subject to change, and that they understood this was a risk and they elected to take it. It looks like you went in with your eyes open, but the risk didn't work out as you hoped. I'm trying to think of other strategies to help you out, but other than "live frugally for a while", it's all little stuff around the edges.


Tonight I'm "running the numbers" on whether a 2% rate (nondeductible) is better than an 8% (tax deductible). And according to my simple calculations (I'm an engineer, not a financial advisor!), it's a no-brainer (go for it!). For the $40K currently on the HELOC (other $25K is already temporarily in 0% accounts), the one-time transfer fee ($50-90/transfer) and lower interest amount (~$70/mo) is ~$200/month less than the deductible interest-only (minimum, ~$435, @ 8%) HELOC payment, AFTER adjusting for the tax deductibility (@ 30% [fed + state], ~$130 on $435).

My plan is that in months when my "income"/cash flow cannot cover all the minimum payments, I'll just use a HELOC check to cover the difference. That is, slowly transfer SOME of the debt back to the HELOC. But in the meantime, my theory goes, I'm paying down my principle faster than if I was just making "extra payments" on the HELOC.


Yes, in most cases you will make more progress, faster, this way, but at such a long-term cost as to make it prohibitive, particularly if you have to leave the credit lines open after you transfer the money out six months down the line. Lots of very silly folks do all kinds of weird and non-remunerative things because it's a deduction, but deductions are never dollar for dollar. If that were the only concern, 2% nondeductible beats 8% deductible by a huge factor. Given what's going on in the background, however, kind of a different story. All these newly opened lines of credit are going to drag you down for years. Make certain to pay it off before the adjustment hits; one month at 24% will kill almost all of your savings. Two months at 18% will more than kill it. Given what your score has likely dropped to, I'd bet that it's closer to the former than the latter.

I also finally had a 0% application turned down, due to "too much credit already, for your income level". So I imagine having all these cards may be hurting my credit score? But I'm not going to re-fi my house (or buy a new car?) anytime soon, so I think I don't care.

I imagine you're going to care. FICO scores require care and tending and time to rise back up. Close off any cards you opened for the zero interest period that you have paid off, and that will mitigate the damage. Keep only a few long standing accounts. But a large amount of damage is already done. When Credit Card companies are saying that, your FICO has dropped big time. Without running your credit, from the foregoing information, I'd guess you are below the territory where I can get a 100% loan, these days, even sub-prime (lower 500s). You might be below 500, where only hard money can lend to you.

Another concern is that HELOCs have "draw periods", usually 5 years, and you're about three years into yours. I'd be very certain to move it all back into the HELOC prior to the expiration of the draw period. Your credit card options are already getting worse, meaning that you're not getting the cards or not getting approved for enough to be useful. The HELOC's rate, by comparison, is set by a margin in an unalterable contract, and you're not going to be able to qualify for a new HELOC that's anywhere near as good while those card accounts are open. Move the money back in at least a couple months before the draw period expires and close the credit cards, and you might be able to get a new HELOC on decent terms.

Your credit is always vitally important. Guarding a very high credit score is something worth stressing about. You never know when you might need to apply for credit. Most credit cards, nowadays, can alter your rate if your score drops or if you make one late payment anywhere, not just on that card. A good credit score saves you money everywhere, from borrowing to insurance. In your situation, I'd be stocking up on pasta and Hamburger Helper while seeing what I could do to increase my income, so I could live cheap enough to pay my bills down enough that I'm not squeezed. It's your life, but that's the way I see it.

Caveat Emptor

(For full disclosure, the original email is below in a body).

Hi Dan,

While using Google to seek the wisdom of others regarding my current financial situation, I came upon an article of yours, and have now read at least a handful of others. In particular, "One Loan Versus Two Loans" caught my attention.

Turns out I made the Two-Loan choice myself, independent of your article, a couple years ago. I was motivated to get a conforming first loan (~$322K @ 5.75%), and put the other ~$45K of a prior mortgage into a HELOC (besides, the HELOC rate was lower than the 30-yr fixed at the time!).

Well, times (and HELOC rates) have changed, and I now have ~$65K on my HELOC, and relatively tight budget.

I have multiple credit card companies offering me low introductory rates (some 0%, some 2%) for short terms (up-to 1 year).

Why would I NOT want to take them up on their offer?

In truth, I've already done this a number of times in the past 12-18 months, always at 0%. So I've learned the "minimum payment" tradeoff (and I wish congress hadn't forced CC companies to raise their minimum payment requirements!) [ last year, one fine bank only made me pay $10/month on their loan of ~$10K! Now I'm seeing minimum payments of 1-3 %]

Tonight I'm "running the numbers" on whether a 2% rate (non-deductible) is better than an 8% (tax deductible). And according to my simple calculations (I'm an engineer, not a financial advisor!), it's a no-brainer (go for it!). For the $40K currently on the HELOC (other $25K is already temporarily in 0% accounts), the one-time transfer fee ($50-90/transfer) and lower interest amount (~$70/mo) is ~$200/month less than the deductible interest-only (minimum, ~$435, @ 8%) HELOC payment, AFTER adjusting for the tax deductibility (@ 30% [fed + state], ~$130 on $435).

My plan is that in months when my "income"/cash flow cannot cover all the minimum payments, I'll just use a HELOC check to cover the difference. That is, slowly transfer SOME of the debt back to the HELOC. But in the meantime, my theory goes, I'm paying down my principle faster than if I was just making "extra payments" on the HELOC.

Seems so obvious when I look at the numbers, that I cannot figure out why more people aren't doing it, or at least talking about it!

Why does a thorough website like yours not say anything about this (that I could find anyway)? Is it just to keep those low-rate credit offers coming? Am I missing something? I am really the only person to ever think of doing this? I also finally had a 0% application turned down, due to "too much credit already, for your income level". So I imagine having all these cards may be hurting my credit score? But I'm not going to re-fi my house (or buy a new car?) anytime soon, so I think I don't care.

Thanks for reading this far. If you post an article on this topic rather than replying, will I get a least a pointer to it in reply?

Again, thanks for considering a comment on my situation!

Identity withheld pending correspondence approval

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