Building credit is an extremely important step to adulting like a pro. Your credit score is a report card of sorts that credit card issuers, mortgage lenders, auto loan officers, etc., all examine before deciding to give you the money you need to make huge advances in life.
But how long does it take to build excellent credit? And how can you build credit when you have none to begin with?
Whether you’re fresh to the credit world and building up from scratch or re-entering after bankruptcy, building your credit from the bottom takes time. But there are things you can do to expedite the process, and steps you can take to avoid common pitfalls that might set back your progress. Let’s take a look.
How long does it take to build a credit score?
If you’re building credit from nothing, you can generally achieve a credit score within three to six months. In fact, you can find yourself with a relatively decent score within a year. For example, I was able to get approved for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (one of the best travel credit cards on the market) after just one year of building my credit.
What does “building credit” even mean?
If you’ve got any sort of credit line at all, be it a credit card, personal loan, etc., you are building credit. You’re bolstering your credit history, giving banks and other lenders more information on how responsible you are with credit.
Note that just because you’re building credit doesn’t necessarily mean you’re building good credit. If you’ve got bad habits, such as missing payments and running up your credit card balances (we’ll talk about this stuff in a bit), you’re not doing yourself any favors.
To build good credit, you need to exhibit a streak of healthy financial habits that make lenders literally want you to borrow their money.
Read more: How credit works
What’s a “good” credit score?
In truth, many lenders have different definitions of what is good and what is bad. However, FICO is perhaps the ultimate authority on credit scores — and it identifies the ranges as follows:
- 300-579 — Very poor
- 580-669 — Fair
- 670-739 — Good
- 740-799 — Very good
- 800-850 — Excellent
I recommend that you don’t apply for premium (or even mid-range) credit cards until your credit score is at least 700. That’ll give you a good chance of being approved.
Plus, you’ll have also shown yourself that you can routinely perform positive financial acts — and therefore be responsible enough to handle credit.
Read more: How to get a free credit report and credit score
4 ways to build credit from nothing
So, what if you’ve got no credit at all? How long does it take to build credit from nothing?
If you’re starting from scratch to build your credit history for the first time, you’ll have a history long enough to be scored within three to six months.
But since you typically can’t get access to credit without already having a credit score first, here are some ways to break into the world of credit:
1. Get a jumpstart with the help of a cosigner
I personally remember how hellacious it was to get an auto loan with no credit. No lender is eager to fork over $10,000 to someone they know almost nothing about.
While most loans are extremely difficult to get without a credit score, you can be approved for just about anything if you’ve got a cosigner with good credit. That’s because when you’ve got a cosigner, the lender will examine their credit and approve you based on that. If you default on your loan, it’s the responsibility of the cosigner to pay.
Read more: What does being a cosigner really mean?
2. Open a secured credit card
Without a credit score, you’re going to have a near impossible time convincing a credit card issuer to let you open a card.
However, many banks offer a “secured” credit card without a credit score. In short, you agree to let the bank hold a specific amount of money as collateral. They will then give you a credit card with a credit limit identical to the amount of money you’ve given them.
This eliminates the need for them to trust you. If you can’t repay your credit card balance, the bank will simply use your own money to pay the debt.
When you finally acquire a credit score and can be approved for non-secured credit cards, you can get rid of your secured card and the bank will return your money to you.
Read more: Best secured credit cards
3. Piggyback as an authorized user
An authorized user is someone who is added as a secondary cardholder to someone else’s credit card. For example, if your parents have a credit card, they can add you as an authorized user, and you can use their credit limit.
One huge benefit of being added as an authorized user is that you will benefit from the primary cardholder’s good credit habits. The credit card will appear on your personal credit report.
This means if you can find someone with good credit that’s willing to add you to their credit card, you can build good credit by literally doing nothing. You don’t even have to spend on the card — they can just add you to the account and cut up the authorized user card when it shows up.
Read more: Pros and cons of authorized cardholders
4. Open a credit builder loan
Credit builder loans aren’t typical loans, as they’re designed specifically to help you build credit. They tend to be for quite small amounts (think: less than $1,000), and therefore reduce your risk of sinking into unmanageable debt.
You can access these loans through some banks and credit unions, or through online credit services like Self.
With Self, the process of opening an account is simple. First, you select a loan amount and payment terms. Then, each month you begin to pay on the loan and after you’ve completed the process, Self will send you a check for the sum of your principal payments.
Each month you make a payment toward your loan, Self will report the action to all three credit bureaus.
After you’ve completed your loan, you should only have lost a small amount in interest and fees, while having improved your credit score and profile. That’s an extremely cool service that can be well worth the nominal fees you’ll pay.
Read more: Is a credit builder loan right for you?
Check out MU30 founder David Weliver’s tips on how to build credit from scratch
How to maintain good credit
Building credit can be a lengthy process. It takes time and dedication — years, even — to build excellent credit. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. As long as you cultivate and stick to the right habits, you’ll be able to pull up your score.
Always make payments on time
If you remember nothing else, remember this: late payments will be the death of your credit score.
No matter what, be sure to make payments on time. Even if you are unable to pay off your credit card each month, at least make the minimum payment. If you don’t, a “delinquency” will appear on your credit report, which tells lenders that you’re the kind of person who doesn’t repay your debts.
Doing this just once or twice can cause your credit score to freefall. And credit histories have long memories — things like missed payments will stay on your record for seven years, while bankruptcies will be on there for up to 10. If you’re looking for full credit recovery, you’re looking at a much lengthier process.
Read more: What happens if you stop paying credit cards?
Keep your balances low
A big part of your credit score is “credit utilization.” Banks like to see that you’ve got a lot of credit available to you, but you’re not using much of it. If you’ve got a total of $30,000 in available credit, but a balance of $29,000, the banks will probably see that as extremely risky. It shows that you’re not living below your means.
Read more: What’s your credit utilization ratio?
Don’t cancel credit cards (unless there’s an annual fee)
Another part of your credit history that you should mind is your “credit history.” This is calculated based on the mean average of the lengths of your currently active credit lines.
For example, if your only loan is a credit card you’ve had for five years, your average credit history is five years. But if you open a credit card tonight, your average credit history will become 2.5 years.
The longer your average credit history, the better your credit score.
Read more: When (if ever) should you cancel a credit card?
Don’t frequently apply for new credit
This is loosely tied to the previous point about credit history, but it goes a bit deeper.
When you apply for new credit, the lender will perform a “hard inquiry” on your credit report. Basically, they are checking your credit to see if you’re too risky to be given a loan. Hard inquiries temporarily reduce your credit score slightly.
If you’re applying for new credit all the time, you’ll have loads of credit inquiries on your credit report. Then, when a lender is examining your credit, they may infer those credit inquiries as financial trouble. Someone constantly applying for more credit can look suspicious.
Read more: Soft pull vs. hard pull: how each affects your credit
Building some credit can be done in a matter of months. Building excellent credit, however, is a process that takes years. The trick is to avoid getting discouraged. Cultivate and stick to your good spending and payment habits, and avoid the actions that will leave black marks all over your credit history.
Having very good credit can potentially unlock virtually any loan you’ve got your eye on — not to mention the best rates and the best terms possible. Even if it takes years of effort and commitment, don’t you think that’s worth it in the end?
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