Credit scores are often mysterious and misunderstood - but these three-digit numbers have big power over our financial lives, because they make it easier (or harder) for people to borrow money.
Your credit score is an indicator of how trustworthy creditors (banks, mortgage companies, credit card companies) consider you to be. If you have a good credit score, you get “cheaper money” in the form of lower interest rates on your loans whenever you borrow money. People who have good credit scores will save thousands of dollars (or tens of thousands of dollars) when they borrow money to buy a house or buy a car or make a major purchase.
If you have a lower credit score, you will pay more money in loan interest over the course of your life - and you might find it more difficult to get approved for a loan in the first place. Other consequences of bad credit are more subtle.
Improving your credit score goes hand in hand with improving your overall financial condition. Here are a few tips for how you can improve your credit score starting today:
Get a Free Credit Report
Knowledge is power. The first thing you should do is see exactly what is on your credit history by ordering a free credit report from annualcreditreport.com.
There are many websites that offer a free credit report, but many of them will tie various services or products to providing your “free” credit report. Annualcreditreport.com is the only official site set up by the credit reporting agencies to give consumers their free credit reports each year as required by law.
Seeing your credit report is important because it shows you the full picture of your debts and credit accounts and helps you avoid getting penalized for errors on it. According to a recent study from the FTC, one in four American consumers found mistakes on their credit reports, and 5% of consumers had mistakes that were so serious it could have affected their ability to get a loan at favorable terms.
Checking your credit report also gives you protection against identity theft. In case someone has stolen your identity to open credit card accounts in your name, it will show up on your credit report.
If you see anything on your credit report that you did not authorize or do not understand, you can dispute it with the credit reporting agency. For example, if you see a credit card account that you did not open, but it is still listed under your name, you can talk to the credit card company and ask to have the account closed. Or if your credit report claims that you missed a payment on your car loan, even though you have never missed a payment, you can dispute these incorrect statements as well.
Know Your Credit Score
Getting a free credit report is important, but it will not tell you your credit score. Do you know what your credit score is? According to a recent survey from Harris Interactive and CouponCabin.com, nearly half of all American adults do not know their own credit score. If you want to get an idea of your credit score, you can use a free service such as Credit Karma.
Credit scores range from 300 to 850 (higher is better), and your credit score can fluctuate for various reasons, depending on how promptly you pay your bills, how many credit cards you have, and how recently you have applied for credit (and how often). Each credit rating agency has a slightly different model, so you might have three different credit scores from the three major credit agencies - In general, a “good” credit score is considered to be anything from around 650-750.
Check Your Balances
If you are carrying credit card debt on multiple credit cards, the percentage of credit that you are using matters to your score. Try to pay down your debts until you are only using 35% or less of your available credit on each account. (For example, if you have a credit card with a $10,000 limit, you should make sure that your balance is less than $3,500.) According to Credit Karma, 35% credit utilization is the cutoff point that affects your credit score. Credit reporting agencies want to see that you are not using too much of your available credit limits, as this can be a sign that you are getting overburdened with debt and are becoming a risk to fail to repay the money you’ve borrowed.
Pay Your Bills on Time
According to FICO, payment history makes up approximately 35% of your overall credit score. Making sure that you make payments on time - even if it’s just the minimum payment - is one of the best ways to improve your credit score fast. Set up payment reminders via e-mail or text, or consider making automatic monthly payments to your creditors.
Cancel Some Credit Accounts - But Make Sure They’re the Right Ones
For example, if you have had a certain credit card for 10 years or more, and have recently opened two or three other credit accounts, keep open your oldest account and consider canceling one or more of the newest ones. The longer you’ve had credit history with an account, the better your credit score will look - because credit reporting agencies like to see signs that you can use credit responsibly over a longer period of time.
Starting Over? Get a Secured Credit Card
If you have declared bankruptcy, are a new graduate who is just beginning to establish a credit history, or if you have bad credit and cannot get approved for a credit card, consider signing up for a secured credit card. With a secured credit card, you can only borrow as much money as you have saved or put up as collateral. But every time you make an on-time payment with your secured credit card, you are building up your credit history and improving your credit score.
Getting a better credit score takes time, discipline and focus, but it can be done. Your credit score is a reflection of your overall financial stability and organization. Improve one area of your financial life, and the credit score will follow.