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How to improve your credit, step by step

With some strategic moves, like targeting any collections owed, lowering your credit utilization ratio, and using your utility bills as a credit-building tool, your score will start climbing.

Monitoring your credit score sounds about as appealing as writing a term paper.

But having good credit is crucial for everything from getting a loan to getting an apartment. Which means if your credit score is on the lower end, you’ll need to be proactive — not just by monitoring it, but by actively working to improve it.

The problem? There’s a lot of conflicting info out there about what you should do to improve your credit score. Which tactics will actually make a difference, versus the ones that just sound like they’ll work?

Here’s what you really need to know about improving your FICO score, which holds the key to so many financial dreams.

1. Pay off collections 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.

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 the credit scoring algorithms will reward you for paying these accounts in full.

With collections accounts, the key is to get everything in writing. Request a letter stating that they received your payment in full and that they will update your credit report to show this.

In some cases, a collections 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. But keep in mind this kind of arrangement may appear on your credit report as a settlement, which could be less positive than if you paid in full.

2. Next, pay down ‘maxed out’ credit cards

Even if you pay your credit card bill on time, it’s never a good idea to hold a balance near the maximum limit. The closer you get to your credit limit(s), the worse it is for your credit score.

The magic ratio is 35%, 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% utilization,” he notes. “Anything over 35% is considered high and can [negatively] impact credit scores. Over 50% will have a definite negative impact on a credit score, and a maxed-out card will very negatively impact the score.”

3. Get a higher credit limit, if possible

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,” she explains.

“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.”

She adds, “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.

4. Look for non-credit accounts that report payments to the credit bureaus

John Ganotis, Founder of, makes this remarkable point: “Rebuilding your credit doesn’t always have to involve a line of credit.”

One way is to put a utility service in your name.

“Call your providers to find who reports to the credit bureaus.”

You don’t even need to go direct to the providers if you don’t want to. Experian Boost is a free service that credits you for on-time utility payments — think cellphone, internet, cable, heating, electricity, water, etc. You just connect your bank account and let Experian do the rest. Read our Experian Boost® review to learn more.

There are similar services that may be able to report your rent payments to credit bureaus, too.

“Experian and TransUnion now include rent payments [in assessing FICO scores] when reported through online third party services.”

5. 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, 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.

6. Open new accounts when able

Similar to asking for a higher credit line, adding one or two new credit accounts may actually help your score in the long run. (Although your score may dip for a few months after you first open the account.)

If you follow the steps above and continue to pay all your bills on time, your credit score will improve.

Unfortunately, however, it takes time. Improving your credit score from below average (mid 600s or less) to good (720 or better) may take a couple of years. If you’re hoping to buy a home or take out 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 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, such as your income and credit utilization ratio.

Avoid applying for new credit unless you absolutely need it or 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.

A secured credit card works just like a regular credit card except 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 bottom line

The road to improving 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 when getting jobs, apartments and, of course, loans.

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