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How to Improve Your Credit Score

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Whether you’re working to repair your credit after some financial missteps, or preparing to apply for a new mortgage or loan and want to make sure you get the best interest rate, taking steps to improve your credit score is a smart decision. We’ll walk you through the factors that affect your credit score, seven ways you can improve your credit score and what to consider if you’re thinking about hiring a credit repair company.

Why does a good credit score matter?

When applying for financial products, a higher credit score can literally save you hundreds, even thousands of dollars in interest charges. Whether you’re taking out a mortgage, an auto loan or a personal loan, a good or excellent credit score means you’ll be offered lower interest rates than someone with poor or fair credit.

For example, the FICO Loan Savings Calculator estimates that on a $20,000, 48-month loan in New York for a used automobile, someone with a 590–619 credit score would pay $4,885 in interest over the life of the loan, but someone with a 720–850 credit score would pay just $1,617 in interest. That’s a $3,268 savings.

What’s considered a good credit score?

Your FICO Score — the credit scoring model that’s typically used when lenders are deciding whether to extend you credit — ranges from 300–850. Within that range, scores are separated into five credit bands.

In short, a FICO Score of 670–739 is considered good credit, and above that is very good or excellent.

Your FICO Score is generated from information on your credit reports, which are maintained by the three major consumer credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Note, however, that the bureaus themselves do not create your FICO Score. In addition, under federal law, each bureau is required to provide one free copy of your credit report per year which can be obtained at annualcreditreport.com.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the credit bureaus have been offering free weekly reports.

7 ways to improve your credit score

The factors that impact your FICO Score (the scoring model typically used by lenders) are as follows:

Bearing these factors in mind, here are seven tips for how to improve your credit score.

1. Check your credit reports for errors

It’s smart to check your credit reports from time to time at annualcreditreport.com and look for errors. For instance, if you spot an account you didn’t open, it’s possible your personal information was used fraudulently, or that someone else’s information has become mixed up with yours. In cases like these, you can file a dispute to remove the account.

You’ll want to file a dispute with each of the three credit bureaus, assuming the error shows up on all three of your credit reports. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) provides information on how to initiate disputes for each credit bureau online, by phone or through the mail.

After you’ve filed a dispute, the credit bureau you’ve filed it with has 30 days to investigate your claim.

Note that you can only dispute inaccurate information. If there’s a negative mark on your credit reports for something you actually did, that isn’t grounds to file a dispute.

2. Pay down any credit card debt you have

One of the fastest ways to boost your credit score is to reduce the amount of revolving debt (such as credit cards) you’re carrying.

This can impact the “amounts owed” factor of your FICO Score, due to something called utilization ratio. In short, utilization ratio refers to how much of your available credit you’re using. So, if you have a $500 balance on a credit card with a $1,000 credit limit, that’s 50% utilization.

A good rule of thumb is to keep your utilization at or well below 30% — as such, on that hypothetical credit card with a $1,000 credit limit, avoid letting your balance exceed $300 at any given time. You should also note that utilization is calculated both on a basis of individual accounts and across all your accounts as a whole.

So, what exactly is revolving debt? In addition to credit cards, other examples include personal lines of credit and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs). Revolving accounts allow you to borrow as you need and repay as you go. By contrast, mortgages, auto loans and personal loans are examples of installment credit, where you borrow a set amount and have a set repayment date. Installment credit doesn’t factor into your credit utilization ratio.

If you can, pay off your credit card balances frequently. These balances often get reported to the credit bureaus around the end of the statement period, which is about three weeks before the bill’s due date. Thus, even if you pay your bill in full each month, you could still have high utilization hurting your score.

Finally, if you’re struggling to get a high balance under control, consider using a personal loan to pay off credit card debt. The application will generate a hard inquiry, which will temporarily ding your credit score, but it should rebound and improve over time as you use the loan proceeds to pay off your revolving debt, and the loan won’t count against your utilization.

3. Get a credit card if you don’t have one

It’s true that you don’t need a credit card to build credit. But, if used responsibly, a credit card is a powerful tool to help you improve your credit score — whether it’s already in pretty good shape and you want to reach even greater heights, or if you need to rebuild credit after some missteps.

The primary consideration when looking at a new card is whether your issuer reports the account and payment activity to all three consumer credit bureaus — most do, but not all. If you’re using a card that only reports to one or two credit bureaus, that’s a missed opportunity.

If you have poor or fair credit, consider applying for a secured credit card. With a secured card, you’ll submit a deposit to the issuer in the amount of your desired credit limit, and this protects the issuer in case you don’t pay back what you owe. But in other respects, a secured card functions just like any other credit card and can help add positive information to your credit reports.

And if you have good-to-excellent credit, you’ve got options. A cash back credit card can reward you while you build credit, while a card with a 0% introductory APR period can give you some breathing room if you need to finance a big-ticket purchase or transfer high-interest debt you’re carrying on another credit card.

4. Consider signing up for Experian Boost

Offered by the credit bureau Experian, this free service lets you build credit with payments that normally might not count toward your credit score, like your phone bill, utilities and for eligible streaming services.

The average credit score increase with Experian Boost is 13 points (based on a FICO Score 8 model), according to the credit bureau. It’s worth noting this service will only help your credit score in cases where lenders pull from Experian, but it can still be worthwhile for consumers with limited credit history.

5. Wait for negative items to fall off your credit reports

It’s natural to want to improve your credit score fast, but some things take time. Many negative items can stay on your credit reports for seven years or more. But eventually, they’ll fall off your reports and won’t hurt your credit score anymore. Here’s how long it takes certain types of negative marks to disappear:

  • Chapter 7 bankruptcy: 10 years
  • Chapter 13 bankruptcy: 7 years
  • Collection account: 7 years
  • Late payments: 7 years
  • Hard inquiries: 2 years

6. Apply for new credit sparingly

Though applying for a new credit card can help boost your credit score, it’s important to note that you should limit how often you apply for new credit products. Applications can hurt your situation in a few ways:

  • Generating hard inquiries. When you apply for credit, this typically generates a “hard inquiry,” where the lender pulls one or more of your credit reports to evaluate your creditworthiness. A hard inquiry will typically hurt your credit score by 5 to 10 points, and will stay on your reports for two years (though the negative impact ceases after one year).
  • Reducing your average age of accounts. Length of credit history accounts for 15% of your FICO Score, and part of this is the average age of all your accounts. Opening new accounts reduces that average age, particularly if you’re new to credit and don’t have many other accounts to balance things out.
  • Signaling that you’re desperate. If lenders see a lot of recent inquiries on your credit reports, it might signal that you’re desperate for credit and unlikely to pay back what you borrow — and that means lenders will be more likely to reject your applications going forward.

7. Pay your bills on time, every time

Your payment history accounts for 35% of your FICO Score, making paying on time, every time, the most important thing you can do to build a good credit score.

If you struggle to keep track of payment dates, you may want to set up autopay through either your card issuer or your bank. You may also be able to set email or text message reminders for when a due date is approaching.

It can also help to use a budgeting website or mobile app — especially if you have multiple credit cards, because then you can easily see when charges appear.

The good news is that if you do miss a payment by a day or two, it typically won’t be reported late to the credit bureaus until it’s at least 30 days past due. That said, you may still face a late fee and an increased penalty interest rate, so it’s best to avoid missing your due date even by a little.

Should you hire a credit repair company?

There’s no way to raise your credit score overnight, and any credit repair company that offers fast solutions is likely trying to pull the wool over your eyes. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) even has a webpage dedicated to warning people against credit repair scams.

There are legitimate steps you can do yourself — without having to pay a credit repair company — to repair your credit. These steps include reviewing your credit reports for errors, paying down debt and getting a credit card that reports on-time payment activity to the credit bureaus. In other words, taking steps to fix your credit on your own is likely to be safer and cheaper than looking to a credit repair company.

For those situations where managing your debt and fixing your credit seem impossible on your own, a nonprofit credit counseling agency may be a better choice than a for-profit credit repair company.

When choosing a nonprofit credit counseling agency, check that they’re affiliated with either the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) or the Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA) as a way to ensure they’re legitimate. These agencies can help you assess your financial situation and create a budget that works for you, and may even put you on a debt management plan. For a reasonable monthly fee, you’ll make one monthly payment to the credit counselor, who will then disburse that payment to your creditors. Plus, the counselor may be able to negotiate lower interest rates with your lenders and waived fees.

If you decide to go with a credit repair company rather than fixing your credit yourself or working with a nonprofit credit counseling agency, it’s important to know your protections under the Credit Repair Organization Act (CROA). The law requires these companies to explain the following:

  • Your legal rights in a written contract and the services the company will provide
  • That you have three days to cancel without any charge
  • How long it’ll take for the company to get results for you
  • The total amount you’ll pay the company for credit repair services
  • Any guarantees the company makes to you

And if a credit repair company doesn’t fulfill its obligations, you have options in the courts:

  • Suing the company in federal court for your actual losses or for what you paid them
  • Seeking punitive damages against the company for violating the law
  • Joining other people in a class action lawsuit against the company

Again, it must be emphasized that repairing your credit on your own or with the help of a nonprofit credit counseling agency should be higher on your list of options than hiring a for-profit credit repair company.

Frequently asked questions about credit scores

Does carrying a balance on your credit card help build credit?

No, this is a myth. As long as you’re using your credit card responsibly and the issuer reports the account and payment activity to the credit bureaus, you can improve your credit score without rolling over a balance month to month. Plus, carrying a balance can be expensive due to the interest charges you’ll incur if you’re not in a 0% intro APR period.

Will paying off accounts sent to collections help your credit score?

This depends on the scoring model a lender relies on when checking your score. Older models will weight collections accounts as a negative impact on your score even if you’ve paid off the debt. Newer models disregard paid collections accounts and put less weight on unpaid medical collections, though the latter will still have a negative impact. However, you can’t guarantee that a lender will use a newer scoring model when you apply for credit, as older models are still widely in use.

What is the fastest way to increase your credit score?

One of the fastest ways is to reduce your credit utilization ratio. If you have one or more credit cards close to being maxed out, paying them off (or at least paying to below 30% of your credit limit) is likely to cause your credit score to go up once the issuer reports the lower balance to the bureaus.

 

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