Tips for saving and minding your credit rating

The Baltimore Sun

Of the hundreds of reader e-mails and calls received this year, here are tips on topics that readers seemed to care about most:


With wide ownership of mobile phones, traditional landline phones have become optional for many people. Dropping house-based service eliminates a utility bill for some households.

Even those who prefer to have a phone associated with a house, rather than a person, have options. They include bundled packages with their phone or cable TV company, which combine phone service with television service and Internet access.

Also available is voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, which uses your high-speed Internet connection as a phone line. Vonage is one of the best-known brands for VoIP, although traditional phone companies offer VoIP service, too. Bundles and VoIP can both save money over subscribing to a traditional landline.

A relatively new product that can save money is a matchbox-size device called MagicJack, which plugs into your computer. A regular phone line connects to the other end to give you phone service, including unlimited long-distance calls, for about $20 a year, plus another $20 for the device.

When it comes to wireless service, many people should be using pay-as-you-go prepaid phones rather than the traditional monthly contract plans. If you use 400 minutes or less each month, choose prepaid, which involves adding minutes to a phone as you need them. Reception and call quality are as good as with traditional carriers.

Prepaid carrier Tracfone and sister company Net10, along with Virgin Mobile and T-Mobile, rank high in customer satisfaction, according to J.D. Power and Associates.

If you use a lot of monthly minutes and are a heavy text-message and data user, a monthly contract plan is probably best. is one of the better comparison Web sites to help you choose a wireless provider.

Digital television

Starting in February, consumers who receive their TV signals with an antenna and have an older analog television will have to use a converter box.

More information and a $40 coupon for buying a box are available at

But those who have an HDTV with an ATSC tuner, which all recent models have, can receive digital and high-definition broadcasts for free over the air. You just need a normal set-top or roof antenna. The picture quality will be better than you can find from cable or satellite providers because over-the-air signals are not as compressed.

To choose an appropriate antenna, go online to and click, "Choose an antenna." Once set up, you'll pull in broadcast stations only, such as PBS, Fox and NBC, not cable stations.

If you can't receive good antenna reception, you can subscribe to the most minimal non-HD cable TV package and use your HDTV's QAM tuner to get digital and high-definition broadcast channels, which cable companies are required to provide.


Paying attention to your credit rating can save big bucks on loans and determine whether you receive a loan at all. The most fundamental task is to go to the free site and check your credit reports for errors. You can obtain one report from each of the three credit bureaus once a year. If it's a routine check, pull one of your three reports. Then four months later pull another and check it. And so on. This way, you can frequently monitor your credit for free.

(Marylanders can get a free report annually under state law, too.)

If you'll be applying for an important loan soon, it's a good idea to access your FICO score, which is not free. The easiest way to obtain scores is to pay to retrieve them at You don't have to sign up for monthly credit monitoring to obtain "free" scores. You can get free unofficial, non-FICO scores from such Web sites as, and These scores will give you a general idea of what your FICO score might be.

If you're especially concerned about identity theft, you can freeze your credit file. Methods and fees for freezing your credit vary by state. For more information, see, operated by Consumers Union.

E-mail Gregory Karp at

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