Insurance Companies & Debt Free Living

Mary writes in:

My husband and I have been debt free for seven years. Hooray! We cancelled all of our credit cards in 2001 and paid off our home mortgage in 2002.

A few weeks ago, our homeowners insurance premium went up substantially. I called our agent to ask why and he told me that our premium was automatically raised because our credit score was low.

I got worried and checked our credit report at annualcreditreport.com (as you suggested before) and found nothing at all on our credit report. So, I called our agent back and told him the story. He did some follow-up and found that because we didn’t have any outstanding credit of any kind on our credit report, they couldn’t verify that we were responsible payers, thus we were placed into a higher risk category.

This seems nonsensical! I am shopping around for new insurance but I wanted to know what you thought of this policy.

Obviously, on an individual level, this is nonsensical. A person with no debt at all and a long history of never having debt is the type of person that ought to be considered a great client for an insurance company. I can’t think of anything that screams “stable and reliable” than a person without any debt.

Yet, if you step back and look at the broader view of society, this policy does somewhat make sense.

First of all, the insurance company has to have standard rules and practices for setting their rates. They have to know cold the risks associated with different factors, from the color of the car to the reliability of the driver. When they know these risks, then they can calculate the exact rate to charge to simultaneously be competitive with other companies and earn a profit for themselves.

Hand in hand with that is a society that lives and thrives on personal debt. Between automobile loans, student loans, consumer loans, mortgages, and credit card debt, the vast majority of Americans possess some form of debt in their lives. Given that as a baseline, it’s reasonable to argue that a person who pays their debts in a timely fashion is more reliable – and thus less of a risk – than a person who does not.

That information is packaged up nicely in our credit reports and usually calculated down to a single number that represents how efficient we are at paying our debts – our credit score. Insurance companies will often take this score and run with it, using it as a basis for determining our premiums.

Unfortunately, a person’s credit score is higher if they have small, reasonable debts and always make their payments instead of having no debt at all.

The next question, obviously, is how can a debt-free person improve their credit score without getting into additional debt? There is no easy answer to that question.

The simplest solution is to simply use credit for the most routine of purchases – groceries, gas, and so forth – and to pay off that debt in full each and every month. One way to do this – to keep things under control – is to simply get a credit card at your preferred gas station, use that card just to fill up on gas and nothing else, and then pay off the card each month. So, for example, you might have a BP card, and you would only use that card at BP.

A second option would be to stop by your local credit union and talk to a loan officer. They may be able to develop some form of no-risk personal loan for you based on using some of the assets you have as collateral. You then just leave the money at the credit union in an account and have all payments for your loan deducted from that account. If you have such assets, the actual cost of this would be minimal.

Yes, society has stacked the deck a bit against people with no debt, as there are many financial incentives to carry debt. With a little clever thinking, though, such risks can be pushed back.