Having a less-than-perfect credit score doesn't make you a bad person, or financially irresponsible. Everything from a job loss to a family hardship or fraud could lead to blemishes on your credit report. But if you take steps to help your credit score now, you may be in good position once you’re ready to take out a major loan, like a mortgage.
What can you do to improve your credit score?
The credit bureaus aren't perfect, and there could be a mistake on your credit report. By law, you can request a copy of your credit report from each of the three major bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — once every 12 months. If you find errors in your payment history, you should dispute them. Once these are corrected, you should see an improvement in your score.
This also a good way to confirm that no one is using your identity. Make sure all the loans and accounts listed on your credit report are familiar to you. If you find someone has committed fraud using your identity to open new accounts, that’s likely the cause of your low score. You’ll need to contact the financial institutions involved, the credit bureaus and possibly the police. Help for identity theft is readily available.
If you owe a creditor money who’s already reported you to the credit bureaus, offer to pay them in full, provided they change your status to “paid as agreed.” Before you pay, get this in writing.
Similarly, if you have a longstanding account where you had a few hiccups in the distant past, contact the creditor and ask if they could remove the notated late payments in light of your recent good behavior. As far as credit score tips go, this is a long shot, but if you succeed, it can make a substantial difference in your score.
Your credit score is based partially on your “credit utilization ratio.” What does this mean? If you spend $2,000 a month on your credit card, but your credit limit is only $4,000, the credit bureau will see that you’re using half of your available credit. It doesn’t matter if you pay your credit card in full each month — you’ll still get dinged for a high credit utilization ratio. You want to show that you’re not using anywhere near all your available credit.
Credit bureaus want to see that your ratio is below 30 percent. One way to do that is to pay your credit card twice a month. That way, you’ll never have a large amount carried on your card and the bureaus will see that you’re not in danger of maxing yourself out.
You can also ask your credit card company to raise your credit limit, often through an automated request on your credit card’s website. If your request is approved, it will improve your credit utilization ratio without any change in your behavior.
If your problem isn’t that you don’t have the money but that you are forgetful about payments, it might make sense to automate your bill payments. That way, all your creditors get paid on time and in full, and you’ll have freed yourself of trying to remember. Online banking can offer a lot of convenience.
While there are some tips that offer quicker credit score fixes, the most effective way to improve your score is to consistently pay your bills on time over a long period of time.
Blemishes stay on your report for seven years. As the years roll by, your mistakes will recede into the distant past and your score will improve, provided you’ve been paying your bills on time regularly.
Not sure what is considered a good credit score, or need help building good credit? Our guide to building and maintaining a good credit score has the answers. Or schedule an appointment with a banker who can answer your credit-related questions.