Looking at the financial to-do list I compiled back in January, some long-standing goals are now checked off. I switched CPAs — hiring a good accountant pays for itself and then some. I found a financial advisor, a first for me. I put together a three-year plan for getting out of debt, and put three months worth of cash into an emergency fund.
But I still have a ways to go. In paying down credit cards, I haven’t taken advantage of all the zero percent balance transfer offers sent by other card companies and strewn across my dining room table. And on a parallel track, I haven’t pulled and analyzed my credit reports to find mistakes and correct them, as websites like this one so often recommend.
It’s easy to put off looking at your credit report…
I know I’m resisting the last task because it sounds about as appealing as writing a term paper. I know how to read the reports. (You can learn about how to pull your credit reports and credit scores, totally free, here.)
I also know you should look for mistakes, write the credit bureaus and and let them contact the credit companies in question. The Federal Trade Commission even has a concise process for how to do this.
But when I know my credit score could be better, it’s kind of the last thing I want to do. I’ve also learned that rooting out errors isn’t the end of improving your credit score, it’s just the beginning.
If your credit score isn’t what you’d like it to be, there’s conflicting information out there about what you can do to improve it. Here’s what you need to know about improving your FICO scores, which hold the key to so many financial dreams, not least of which is purchasing your first home.
How to improve your credit score step by step
1. Target collection accounts first
“If your credit history includes unpaid bills that are in collections, work to pay those off [first] if possible,” says Kelley Long, a member of the National CPA FinLit Commission at the AICPA.
“The FICO scoring system recently changed so that taking this action has a more positive effect than in the past,” Long says. Letting an account get so late it goes to a collections agency is never a good thing for your credit, but the good news is that the credit scoring algorithms may reward you for paying these accounts in full more than they did in the past. With collection accounts, the key is to get everything in writing and pay close attention to your credit report. If you pay a collections account in full, request a letter stating that they received payment in full and that they will update your credit report to show this.
In some cases, a collection agency may be willing to negotiate and settle your debt for less than the full amount. Again, you’ll want to get something in writing showing that the debt was settled and the account closed. Keep in mind that this kind of arrangement may appear on your credit report as a settlement that may be less positive that if you pay in full.
2. Pay off debts that are close to the credit limit
It’s a little-known fact that even if you pay your card bill on time, it’s never a good idea to hold a balance near the maximum limit. The magic ratio is 35 percent, says Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations with Freedom Financial Network. “If you have a credit card with a limit of $10,000 and you owe $3,500 on it, that’s 35 percent utilization,” he notes. “Anything over 35 percent is considered is high and can [negatively] impact credit scores. Over 50 percent will have a definite negative impact on a credit score, and a maxed-out card will very negatively impact the score.” And you wanted to max just one card, eh?
3. Ask your credit card companies for help
When it comes to repaying credit card balances, you’re more empowered than you think. Nearly nine out of 10 credit cardholders who asked their card issuers to waive late payment fees were successful, according to a new CreditCards.com report. And about two-thirds of cardholders who requested a lower interest rate were approved. The problem is that only 28 percent of American cardholders have asked to waive late fees, while only 23 percent have requested lower interest rates.
“It’s probably the best time in years to ask credit card issuers for a break,” says Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com’s senior industry analyst. “Americans are pulling out their plastic again. Banks are loosening their grip on credit. That makes for a very competitive environment: one consumers can use to their advantage.”
4. Higher credit limits can help, if you can get them
Believe it or not, requesting a higher credit line with an existing account can actually help your credit score, says Gail Cunningham, a spokeswoman with the non-profit National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). “Or, open a new line of credit. The idea is that you’ll owe the same amount of money but it’s against a higher credit line, thus the ratio of credit-to-debt improves.
This option may not help you if you’re already having credit problems, however, because it takes good credit to get more credit. If, however, your credit score is in the high 600s or low 700s and you want to improve it even more, you may be able to find a credit card that offers a good chance of approval for your credit score range.
I’d caution, however, that this strategy only works for a person who’s very disciplined—and knows they won’t charge more simply because they have access to a higher credit line.” In other words, take it easy at the mall with that credit line increase.
5. Look for non-credit accounts that will report payments to the credit bureaus
John Ganotis, Founder of CreditCardInsider.com, makes this remarkable point: “Rebuilding your credit doesn’t allows have to involve a line of credit. Yes, you heard that right.” One way is to put a utility service in your name; “Call your providers to find who reports to the credit bureaus.”
Another is to report your living expenses to the credit bureaus, including your rent. “Experian and TransUnion now include rent payments [in assessing FICO scores] when reported through online third party services.”
6. Finally, avoid for-profit “credit repair” companies
Some businesses charge a hefty sum to “repair” your credit, but they can actually do more harm than good, says Carl Robins, a Vice President and Mortgage Banker with PrivatePlus Mortgage in Atlanta. “What they don’t tell the consumer is that they’re signing up for a service to improve their scores that lenders—and current underwriting guidelines for mortgage transactions—won’t accept if there are still unresolved credit disputes on their credit report.” He adds: “They also don’t explain the cumbersome process to have unresolved disputes removed from credit reports to qualify for a home purchase or refinance their current mortgage.”
If you feel like you need help managing your credit, look towards non-profit counseling options like the NFCC.
How to get approved for a loan with less-than-perfect credit
If you follow these steps and continue to pay all of your bills on time, your credit score will improve. Of course, it takes time. Improving your credit score from below average (mid 600s or less) to good (720 or better) may take a couple years. If you’re hoping to buy a home or get other new credit in the meantime, it may be a challenge. Here are some things to keep in mind.
1. Don’t apply for new credit recklessly
The credit bureaus take note of every time you apply for credit, and doing it too often will further hinder your efforts to improve your credit score. Keep in mind that there are factors other than just your FICO score that are taken into account when you apply for a credit card. Avoid applying for new credit unless you absolutely need it or — if you are seeking a new line of credit to boost your credit score — you are confident you will be approved.
2. Work with a community bank or credit union
If your credit score isn’t what it should be, a relationship with a community bank or credit union can really come in handy. “A banker who knows you can perhaps look behind the poor credit history,” says Charlie Crawford, President and CEO of Private Bank of Buckhead in Atlanta. “They’ll look at the big picture rather than just a score or some other stand-alone piece of information.”
Best of all, a community banker can be straight with you and let you know your chances of being approved before you actually apply. Waiting as little as a couple months while you make some tweaks to your credit usage or budget may mean the difference between being approved or denied for a mortgage, and a knowledgable banker can tell you that.
3. Consider secured credit
“Establishing some cash-secured credit is one way to demonstrate your ability to pay while not putting a new bank loan at risk,” says Crawford.
If your credit score is in the low 600s, you may consider a secured credit card to help you establish a new credit line and have timely payments reported to the bureaus. It works just like a credit card except that you first have to deposit money in a savings account to “secure” your credit line. Most secured credit cards can be converted to traditional credit cards (and you get your security deposit back) after a period of responsible use.
The road to improve your credit isn’t always easy, but it’s well worth it. Consumers with good credit scores pay thousands less in interest over their lifetime and avoid hassles getting jobs, apartments and, of course, loans. If you’re just getting started, take a moment to understand how credit scores work and how to check your credit score and reports for free.