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Do You Speak Escrow?

10 financial terms to know to help you save big

Ignorance might be bliss, but it can cost you big if you're in the dark about your hard-earned dollars. The current financial crisis is a good reason to get a basic understanding of common financial terms, says investment coach Deborah Owens, author of A Purse of Your Own: An Easy Guide to Financial Security. Here's a cheat sheet to help you walk the talk.

1. Credit utilization

The proportion of your credit limit that you've actually borrowed. This accounts for about 30 percent of your credit score, says Barry Paperno, consumer operations manager at FICO, formerly Fair Isaac Corp., the company that developed the much-used FICO credit score.

In terms of impact on your score, Paperno says, it's the percentage you should focus on — not the dollar amount of debt. For instance, if you owe $100 on a $500 limit, you are 20 percent utilized. If you owe $1,000 on a $5,000 limit, you're still 20 percent utilized. "There's no difference in terms of the score, even though you owe $900 more on the other," explains Paperno.

2. Accrued interest

The amount of money that you are owed, or owe, since the last time an interest payment was made or received. Suppose you have an investment that pays interest twice a year, and you need to sell it before the next interest payment will be made. You'll want to collect your prorated share of the interest when you sell it — that's the accrued interest, says Justin Krane, a Los Angeles-based financial life planner.

3. Subprime borrower

A borrower whom a lender considers to be a high risk. According to Denise Winston, a financial lifestyle expert at the website Money Start Here, when you apply for a loan, the lender uses underwriting guidelines to approve or decline your request and determine terms such as interest rate and duration of the loan. Many factors can put a borrower in a subprime category: low credit rating (generally a credit score below 640), low net worth, high debt-to-income ratio, and unverifiable or irregular income.

Subprime classification can have a big impact on your financial health. If your interest rate is bumped up by just 0.25 percent on a mortgage of $250,000, that will cost you more than $14,000 extra over the life of the loan. It could also affect whether you get a job, because some employers do a background check on job applicants that includes looking at your credit rating.

4. Charge off

When a lender officially gives up on a debt and counts it as money lost. Ken Clark, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Boosting Your Financial IQ, warns that "the biggest misconception is that the debt is forgiven or forgotten about," says Clark. "It's not." The loan is likely to be sold to a collection agency that "will pay pennies on the dollar for the right to hound you."

Few things will damage your credit score like a charge off, says Clark, so if you're in trouble on a loan, do everything you can to work with your creditor to keep paying, perhaps on new terms.

5. Short sale

When a home is sold for less than the amount owed on it. A short sale can happen if the owner is unable to keep up the payments, says Winston. "This process must be approved by your lender and is often an alternative to foreclosure." A short sale is a long, intensive, complex business transaction and can be very stressful, Winston adds.

6. Negative amortization

When your loan balance grows because your payments are too low to cover even all of the interest due. Negative amortization (neg-am for short) is also known as "deferred interest," says Paul Havemann, vice president of HSH.com, a financial publishing company. "If you have a loan with negative amortization, it means that with every payment your loan balance is growing, not shrinking."

Havemann cautions that if you engage in negative amortization, you've got to plan for larger outlays down the road. "That deferred interest must be paid eventually, so be ready for it," he says. During the housing crisis, too many people weren't and got caught on a financial treadmill.

7. Adjustment interval

The period of time between changes in interest rate and payment for an adjustable-rate loan. The most common loans have a 30-year duration, starting with the rate fixed for an initial interval of either three, five, seven or 10 years. "After that first interval," says finance consultant Seth Rabinowitz, "there are adjustments every so often as specified in the loan agreement. Usually the adjustments are done every half year to one year until the 30-year mark is reached in the life of the loan." Rates rise and fall based on prevailing interest conditions in financial markets at the time.

8. Escrow waiver

A loan agreement provision specifying that you will not pay money into an escrow account, which is put aside for future property tax and insurance bills. If you make a down payment of 20 percent or more, you have a better chance of avoiding escrow, says Teresa Dentino, CEO and founder of The Financial 411. But many lenders will charge a fee for waiving it, generally a quarter of a percent of the loan's principal, according to Dentino. Lenders generally like escrow, because it helps ensure that tax and insurance payments on the property remain up to date, and sometimes the lender collects interest that the account generates. So do the math, weigh whether you have the discipline to save on your own for big tax and insurance bills, and decide if no escrow is a smart move for you.

9. Credit report

A report that details your credit history. It includes all credit accounts you ever opened and a history of your payment behavior, a list of the companies that have inquired about your credit recently and public records such as bankruptcies and foreclosures. Anyone lending you money wants to judge your risk factor before granting you the loan, so what's in the report, and how it affects your credit score, is important.

By law you're entitled to a free credit report from each of the nationwide consumer credit-reporting companies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

AnnualCreditReport.com (1-877-322-8228 toll-free) is the only place where you can get a credit report for free with no strings attached. (Other sites may slip in monitoring services that will cost you a monthly fee unless you opt out.)

The credit report does not include your credit score, typically a three-digit number between 300 and 800 that predicts your ability to repay your loans. The best-known type of credit score is the FICO score. You can buy scores from credit agencies or get them as part of monthly credit monitoring services — a score may be free if you're organized enough to cancel the monitoring service right away. And federal law now requires that if your score contributes to you getting turned down for such things as a loan or home rental, you have a right to get the score from the party that turned you down.

10. Credit inquiry

When a potential creditor accesses your credit report or your score on file at a credit bureau. There are two types of inquiries — soft and hard. Soft inquiries are generated by lenders for promotional purposes, preapproved mail offers and account reviews. You have no role in initiating them, so they do not affect your credit score. Hard inquiries are ones that creditors make after you apply for credit or accept an offer for it. Because hard inquiries are the first indicators that you are seeking credit, they figure in your credit score — about 10 percent of it, says Paperno. Credit bureaus may interpret many hard inquiries in a short period as a sign that your credit risk is rising, and lower your score.

Janene Mascarella is a New York-based freelance writer.

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