Credit scores are an important piece of your overall financial puzzle. In Part 1, we demystified credit scores by discussing what they are, who uses them and where to find them. Now we’ll describe the best ways to improve your credit score.
In order to improve your score, you need to understand the rules of the game, so you can play it effectively. First, let’s review the five elements of a credit score and then we’ll discuss the best ways to improve your score.
- Payment History (35% of the total score) – This element measures whether you have paid your past accounts on time (e.g credit cards, retail store cards, car loans, mortgage loans, student loans)
- Amounts Owed/Credit Utilization (30% of the total score) – This element measures the total amount of debt owed on all of your accounts. It looks at different types of debt like installment accounts with a fixed payment schedule (e.g. car, mortgage) as well as revolving accounts (i.e. credit cards).
- Length of Credit History (15% of the total score) – This element measures the time since your credit accounts have been established. The longer the credit history, the better. It will consider an average length of your credit accounts.
- New Credit (10% of the total score) – This element measures the number of recent credit inquiries in the prior 12 months.
- Credit Mix (10% of the total score) – This element simply measures the different types of credit accounts you have.
Note that the first two elements represent nearly two-thirds of your overall credit score. This is where you get the biggest bang for your buck. So let’s get right to it. Here are five tips to improve your credit score.
Review Your Credit Report and Dispute Errors
This may be obvious, but you don’t want to be held responsible for transactions that aren’t yours. Reporting errors happen with regularity, so you should check your credit reports from all three bureaus every few months. By law, you are allowed one report per year from each of the three credit bureaus from annualcreditreport.com, so you can stagger them and check one every four months.
If you see an error (e.g. accounts that don’t belong to you, paid off collection accounts showing as unpaid, incorrect name or address listed) you are able to dispute it online and it is the obligation of the creditor to prove to the bureau that the report is valid 30-45 days from receipt.
Pay Bills on Time (Payment History)
Late payments can significantly impact your credit score, particularly if you do not have much credit history. Even if you can only make the minimum payment, always try to stay current. This includes bills like rent, utilities, medical bills and student loans. If you can’t make the minimum payment, notify your creditor beforehand and see if you can work out a payment plan. Communication in advance is preferable to simply not paying and ignoring them. Creditors will typically report late payments to credit bureaus for balances that are 30+ days past due (180+ days for medical bills).
Bonus Tip: Recent late payments affect your score more that older late payments, so if you have multiple accounts that you’re behind on, consider getting current on the more recent one first. Also, note that you have a longer window (180 days vs. 30 days) with medical bills before they are reported to get current.
Keep Balances Low on Revolving Debt (Amounts Owed)
A credit utilization ratio (Amount Owed/Credit Available) above 30% will begin to negatively affect your score. Even if you’re paying minimum payments, if your credit cards are maxed out, your credit score will be impacted. Also, trying to reduce your credit card balances while still using the credit card is a losing game. Stop using the card if you are trying to significantly reduce your balance.
Bonus Tip #1: If your credit card is in good standing and you’ve made on time payments for 12 consecutive months, contact the creditor to see if they will increase your credit limit without a hard pull credit inquiry. If they are willing to increase your limit, you can improve your utilization ratio with little effort.
Bonus Tip #2: If you have a spouse or close family member you trust who has a credit card in good standing, they can add you as an authorized user on their credit card. They don’t have to give you the card (it’s preferable if they didn’t), but they are simply extending their credit to you, which increases Credit Available and decreases the Utilization Ratio.
Caution: Being an authorized user goes both ways, so any negative behavior (late payments, collections, etc.) on that account (by either party) can negatively impact your credit just like your individual account.
Don’t Close Old Credit Card Accounts (Length of Credit History)
You may have heard advice in the past that if you have old credit cards on your credit report, you should call them and close them out to keep your credit report “clean.” That’s likely bad advice for two reasons. First, even if you don’t use the card, the credit limit adds to your Available Credit and helps your Credit Utilization. Second, the Length of Credit History takes an average of all of your open accounts. The more old accounts you have the longer that average will be. Closing the account simply eliminates the history from benefitting your score.
Bonus Tip: You can request creditors remove negative incidents from your report. For example, if you had a late payment a year ago or more and you’ve been current, you can contact the creditor and request they remove that incident. They are not obligated to (until after 7 years), but they may oblige as a courtesy for customer satisfaction and to keep your business.
Don’t Apply for New Credit Cards Solely to Increase your Available Credit (New Credit)
Even though New Credit is only 10% of your score, credit inquiries (also called hard credit pulls) stay on your credit for a full year. So applying for a new credit card solely to increase your available credit is counterproductive. You get dinged for the hard credit pull and you’ve reduced the average length of your credit history. If you’re looking more long-term and not concerned about the short-term impact on your score, this is less of a concern.
Bonus Tip: Checking your own credit is not considered a hard pull credit inquiry (it’s called a soft pull inquiry). Soft pulls are typically for background checks, opening utility accounts, and open a checking or savings accounts. Soft pull inquiries will not affect your credit score.
Those are some of the best ways to improve your credit score. Remember to be patient as scores don’t shift dramatically overnight and account changes often lagged by 30 days or more. If you’re looking to make dramatic changes to your score (100+ points) it may take 6 months or more depending on your situation. Credit scores are much easier to pull down than to bring up, so it’s important that you stay diligent. Finally, remember your credit score is just a number, a debt management score. It doesn’t measure your overall financial health and it is a point-in-time metric that can be improved.