Credit cards and credit scores: It’s complicated

Opening a credit card account these days is ridiculously simple. And quick. But that’s not so with closing an account. For sure, the bank doesn’t want to lose a good customer. But it’s more than that. Closing accounts can mess with your FICO score big time if you’re carrying a pile of debt and if it’s not done strategically.

Dear Mary: I am going to be terminating my checking, savings, investment and credit card accounts with banks that back social issues I strongly oppose. How can I do this without adversely affecting my credit rating? — Valerie

Dear Valerie: Of the types of accounts you mention, only the credit card account could negatively affect your FICO credit score if closed. Closing checking or savings or even investment accounts would not affect your credit score because none of those are credit-related.

To understand how much closing a credit card account will negatively affect your FICO score, you need to understand something called your utilization rate, which weighs heavily in determining your FICO score. This will help you devise a plan to close the accounts strategically — spreading your closures over a period of six months to a year.

Your utilization rate is your credit limit compared to how much of that available credit you are using at any given time, expressed as a percentage.

If you have a credit card with a $1,000 credit limit and a $100 balance owed, you are 10 percent utilized on that card. You can figure the utilization rate by dividing the balance owed on the account by the limit on the card and then multiplying that figure by 100. (For example, dividing $100 by $1,000 equals 0.10. And multiplying 0.10 by 100 equals 10 percent.)

You can figure your aggregate utilization rate by adding together all of your credit card balances, dividing by the total of the credit limits on all of those accounts and multiplying that number by 100. Credit scoring looks at both utilization rates.

The best utilization percentage to have is zero percent because then you have no credit card debt and you’re not paying interest. But since that’s not realistic for everyone, the best percentage is the lowest percentage you can achieve. In fact, according to FICO, consumers who have scores above 760 have an average utilization percentage of 7 percent.

If you intend to close more than one credit card account, do this over a period of time, say, no more than one account every six months. Hope that helps!

Dear Mary: Referring to your recent column “Five Killer Make-Your-Own Cleaning Products,” can I use your granite cleaning formula on my new quartz countertop? Thank you! — Ann

Dear Ann: Yes. However, you have many other options in caring for quartz because unlike granite, quartz is nonporous, much harder and durable. Quartz never requires a sealant, whereas granite counters should be resealed annually to protect their beauty. You can use vinegar or cleaning products that contain ammonia on quartz but not on granite because with repeated use, both will strip away the sealant and damage the surface.

Dear Mary: Can an Instant Pot be used to can meat? — Annette

Dear Annette: The Instant Pot has been approved by the USDA for boiling-water canning, or water-bath canning, at 212 degrees F (for acidic fruits, tomatoes, pickles and jellied products) but not for pressure-canning low-acid vegetables, meat and poultry.

While I’m sure that’s not the answer you were looking for, you just can’t be too careful when it comes to food safety!

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It’s been a few years since that day I turned a stove burner on High and didn’t realize greasy chicken stock had boiled over earlier in the day, filling the catch pan under the cooktop. I turned my back for a few seconds to find a utensil. When I turned back around, small flames were shooting from the burner. My quick thinking told me to smother a grease fire, so I grabbed a pot lid to do that, but it wasn’t airtight and soon the flames were double the size and spreading.

My heart was pounding; the smoke alarm was screaming; and I was in full-on panic mode. Flames were reaching toward the adjacent wood cabinets. It happened so fast! I didn’t have time to run to the pantry to search for baking soda. I had a rip-roaring fire on my hands, and I was in slow motion thinking about how sad it would be to be homeless for Christmas. That’s when I locked eyes with the fire extinguisher that had been sitting on the counter for so long that it blended into the decor.

I’d never engaged a fire extinguisher. I read the instructions once, but that’s about it. Not knowing what to expect, I grabbed that thing, jerked out this red plastic ring (it came out easily), pointed the nozzle and pulled the trigger. It put out the fire with one mighty blast of fine yellow powder so strong and powerful it nearly knocked me off my feet.

My experience not only woke me up but it also sent me into research mode. What I learned is sobering, if not shocking: Each year, fire kills more Americans than all other natural disasters combined. Eighty percent of all fire deaths occur in residences. Where do those residential fires start? In the kitchen!

As grateful as I am, I did not do everything by the book. A fire extinguisher is no substitute for the fire department. One-third of all people injured by fire are hurt while trying to control it. Fire safety professionals tell us to call 911 first. Then, use the extinguisher. The fire department will be on the way in case the fire cannot be controlled.

Next, only use an extinguisher on small fires. Be sure that you can get out fast and that the fire is small and not spreading. Grab that thing, stand back 6 feet and use the P.A.S.S. system: Pull the pin. Aim at the base of the flames. Squeeze the handle. Sweep from side to side.

If the fire does not go out quickly, close the door to the room; get everyone out of the house; and exit the premises promptly. Meet the fire department in front and direct them to the location of the fire.

Not surprisingly, fire extinguishers are on my gift list for everyone in my family. I hope you’ll do the same, starting with yourself. You don’t need big industrial-strength extinguishers. Home models like the highly rated Kidde FA110 Multi Purpose Fire Extinguisher start at less than $20 and are available online or at stores like Home Depot.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mary Hunt is the founder of www.DebtProofLiving. com and author of 18 books, including her latest, “Can I Pay My Credit Card Bill With a Credit Card?” You can email her at mary@everydaycheapskate. com.