It’s the number that follows you everywhere: when you’re renting an apartment, buying a car, even interviewing for a job. Prospective romantic mates who have their financial acts together could be disgusted by your, um, digits.
Yeah, we’re talking about your credit score. While it can take years to repair a really lousy one—hey, you didn’t ruin it overnight either—swift and thorough action can lead to dramatic improvement.
Suspect yours could use a boost? Here’s how to bump it up quickly.
The first step to rehabbing a less-than-ideal FICO score is to face facts. You can get a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months from each of the three reporting agencies at AnnualCreditReport.com, and get a free look at your score through sites like creditkarma.com. More than a dozen credit card issuers, including Citibank, Discover, and Capital One, also offer free access to scores for cardholders, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Take a good, hard look at your score, and come to terms with what it means. Hint: Your FICO score can range from 300 to 850, but if it’s somewhere in the bottom half of that range, you’re looking at the very real possibility of rejected applications or sky-high interest payments. A mortgage lender typically requires a score of at least 680, while you’ll need 620 or better for decent terms on a car or personal loan. (A score above 750 is considered excellent.)
Your credit report will give you a good sense of what’s behind your score. It includes years of personal financial data. If you’ve paid your bills late, abandoned a balance on your Visa, or opened a joint account with an irresponsible lover, it’ll probably be here.
As you’re scanning your report, take note of any errors, such as late payments from more than seven years ago; credit cards you never opened; or accounts you closed but are reported as if the provider closed them. If this exercise starts to feel tedious or unimportant, keep this in mind: One in four consumers has identified credit report errors that could affect their credit scores, according to an FTC report.
If you do find a mistake, the quickest route to resolution is directly contacting your lender, as they tend to have better phone access and documentation processes than bureaus. “Banks and lending agencies want to keep their customers happy,” says John Ulzheimer, a seasoned credit expert, formerly with Equifax and FICO.
Both lenders and credit bureaus are legally obligated to make corrections within 30 days, but it may take up to 60 to see those changes reflected on your report.
One of the easiest and most powerful things you can to do is to pay your bills on time, as this simple task accounts for 35 percent of your credit score (more than anything else). “Timely payment shows lenders you’re responsible with credit,” says Randi Shober, a financial counselor at Pennsylvania-based Tabor Community Services.
If forgetfulness is your Achilles heel, online tools can make it virtually impossible to screw up: Nearly every utility, car, student loan and credit card company allows you to set up automatic payments. Not only will this improve your credit score over time, but you’ll be saving yourself the sting of late fees and the stress of wondering if you remembered to pay that cable bill on the 15th.
Reporting agencies reward people who use a small percentage of the credit they are extended—a calculation known as the credit-utilization ratio. Experian recommends aiming for less than 30 percent. In other words, if your American Express has a $10,000 limit, your balance shouldn’t exceed $3,000 (though, of course, paying any balance off each month is ideal).
You can improve this ratio in two ways: by paying off debt and by calling up your creditors and asking for a limit bump.
Note that keeping credit cards open even if you don’t use them often can help keep your utilization ratio down by keeping your overall credit limit higher. In fact, this move does double-duty when it comes to healthy credit because it also helps extend the length of your credit history, which accounts for another 15 percent of your FICO score (just be sure you have a good payment history on them).
If you have a patchy credit past but have reformed your ways, you could ask a responsible loved one like a parent or spouse to add you as an authorized user on one of their cards. Being associated with their strong credit history and timely payments can help boost your score. (Just don’t let them down!)
On the other hand, you don’t want your credit to be co-mingled with someone who may be less reliable. “Most people agree to co-sign or add an authorized user to their account because a bank determined that the other person is not credit-worthy,” Ulzheimer says. “Guess what? A bank is better at underwriting than you are.”
So remove from your accounts anyone you’ve seen display risky behavior. Not only does this protect you from their bad credit habits, but it creates a powerful mind shift toward taking responsibility for your own financial future.