If you want to whip your finances into shape, hereâs a good New Yearâs resolution: improving your credit score.
A lot of New Yearâs resolutions fail because theyâre so extreme. Think of all the bonkers weight-loss and money-saving goals that surface at the start of every year.
This resolution is different. No extreme measures are required. But there arenât any shortcuts. Building good credit is a goal you need to commit to 12 months a year.
How to Build Good Credit in 10 Steps
Ready to make 2021 the year you finally prove your creditworthiness? Or are you looking to recover from a 2020 setback? Hereâs how to build good credit in 10 steps.
1. Stay on Top of Your Credit Reports
Itâs essential to monitor your credit reports, especially if you received a hardship agreement from a lender due to COVID-19. Under the CARES Act rules, lenders are supposed to report your account as paid in full while the agreement is in effect, as long as you werenât already delinquent. But mistakes happen. Even in normal times, about 1 in 5 credit reports contained inaccurate information.
Through April 2021, you can get one free credit report per week from each bureau. (Typically, youâre only entitled to one free credit report per year from each bureau.) Make sure you access your reports at AnnualCreditReport.com, rather than one of the many websites that offer âfreeâ credit scores but will make you put down your credit card number to sign up for a trial. File a dispute with the bureaus if you find anything you think is inaccurate or any accounts you donât recognize.
Your credit reports wonât show you your credit score, but you can use a free credit-monitoring service to check your score. (No, checking your own credit doesnât hurt your score.) Many banks and credit card companies also give you your credit scores for free.
If the bureaus agree to remove information from your credit reports, expect to wait about 30 days until your reports are updated.
2. Pay Your Bills. On Time. Every Single Month
Yeah, you knew we were going to say this: Paying your bills on time is the No. 1 thing you can do to build good credit. Your payment history determines 35% of your score, more than any other credit factor.
Set whatever bills you can to autopay for at least the minimums to avoid missing payments. You can always pay extra if you can afford it.
A strong payment history takes time to build. If youâve made late payments, theyâll stay on your credit reports for seven years. The good news is, they do the most damage to your score in the first two years. After that, the impact starts to fade.
3. Establish Credit, Even if Youâve Made Mistakes
You typically need a credit card or loan to build a credit history. (Sorry, but all those on-time rent and utility payments are rarely reported to the credit bureaus, so they wonât help your score.)
But if you have bad credit or youâre a credit newbie, getting approved for a credit card or loan is tough. Look for cards that are specifically marketed to help people start or rebuild credit. Store credit cards, which only let you make purchases at a specific retailer, can also be a good option.
4. Open a Secured Card if You Donât Qualify for a Regular Card
Opening a secured credit card is one of our favorite ways to build a positive history when you canât get approved for a regular credit card or loan. You put down a refundable deposit, and that becomes your line of credit.
After about a year of making your payments on time, youâll typically qualify for an unsecured line of credit. Just make sure the card issuer you choose reports your payments to the credit bureaus. Look for a card with an annual fee of no more than $35. Some secured card options we like (and no, weâre not getting paid to say this):
- Discover it Secured
- OpenSky Secured Visa Card
- Secured Mastercard from Capital One
5. Ask for a Limit Increase. Pretend You Never Got It
Increasing your credit limits helps your score because it decreases your credit utilization ratio. Thatâs credit score speak for the percentage of credit youâre using. The standard recommendation is to keep this number below 30%, but really, the closer to zero the better.
If you have open credit, ask your current creditors for an increase, rather than applying for new credit. That way, youâll avoid lowering your length of credit, which could ding your score.
The downside of a higher credit limit: Youâll have more money to spend that isnât really yours. To get the biggest credit score boost from a limit increase and avoid paying more in interest, make sure you donât add to your balance.
Donât believe the myth that carrying a small credit card balance helps your credit score. Paying off your balance in full each month is best for your score, plus it saves you money on interest.
6. Prioritize Credit Card Debt Over Loans
Tackling credit card debt helps your credit score a lot more than paying down other debts, like a student loan or mortgage. The reason? Your credit utilization ratio is determined exclusively by your lines of credit.
Bonus: Paying off credit card debt first will typically save you money, because credit cards tend to have higher interest rates than other types of debt.
7. Keep Your Old Accounts Active
Provided you arenât paying ridiculous fees, keep your credit card accounts open once youâve paid off the balance. Credit scoring methods reward you for having a long credit history.
Make a purchase at least once every three months on the account, as credit card companies often close inactive accounts. Then pay it off in full.
8. Apply for New Credit Selectively
When you apply for credit, it results in a hard inquiry, which usually drops your score by a few points. So avoid applying frequently for new credit cards, as this can signal financial distress.
But if youâre in the market for a mortgage or loan, donât worry about multiple inquiries. As long as you limit your shopping to a 45-day window, credit bureaus will treat it as a single inquiry, so the impact on your score will be minimal.
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9. Still Overwhelmed? A Debt Consolidation Loan Could Help
If youâre struggling with credit card debt, consolidating your credit card debt with a loan could be a good option. In a nutshell, you take out a loan to wipe out your credit card balances.
Youâll get the simplicity of a single payment, plus youâll typically pay less interest since loan interest rates tend to be lower. (If you canât get a loan that lowers your interest rate, this probably isnât a good option.)
By using a loan to pay off your credit cards, youâll also free up credit and lower your credit utilization ratio.
Many debt consolidation loans require a credit score of about 620. If your score falls below this threshold, work on improving your score for a few months before you apply for one.
10. Keep Your Credit Score in Perspective
All the credit-monitoring tools out there make it easy to obsess about your credit score. While itâs important to build good credit, look at the bigger picture. A few final thoughts:
- Your credit score isnât a report card on the state of your finances. It simply measures how risky of a borrower you are. Having an emergency fund, saving for retirement and earning a decent living are all important to your finances â but these are all things that donât affect your credit score.
- Lenders look at more than your credit score. Having a low debt-to-income ratio, decent down payment and steady paycheck all increase your odds of approval when youâre making a big purchase, even if your credit score is lackluster.
- Donât focus on your score if you canât pay for necessities. If youâre struggling and you have to choose between paying your credit card vs. paying your rent, keeping food on the table or getting medical care, paying your credit card is always the lower priority. Of course, talk to your creditors if you canât afford to pay them, as they may have options.
Focus on your overall financial picture, and youâll probably see your credit score improve, too. Remember, though, that while credit scores matter, you matter more.
Now go crush those goals in 2021 and beyond.
Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder. She writes the Dear Penny personal finance advice column. Send your tricky money questions to DearPenny@thepennyhoarder.com.
This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.