Do you feel like your credit score is holding you back? Does it seem like your attempts to improve your credit score never help as much as you expect?
Working to improve your credit score can feel like an uphill battle. But here’s the good news: Your credit score is not permanent. It’s constantly changing, and you have the ability to improve it.
The best way to improve your credit score is through sustained, responsible money management over time. That means paying your bills on time and reducing the amount of debt you owe — things that are certainly easier said than done. (“If I had the money to pay down my debt, my credit score wouldn’t be an issue.”)
Bethy Hardeman, our personal finance expert at Tally, believes just a few small changes can have a significant impact on your credit score.
“There’s no quick fix for credit, but there are some simple things you can do now that could get you moving in the right direction,” Hardeman said. “In fact, some of these tips could help your score in six months or less.”
Improving your credit score requires a lot of patience. So while you continue to develop your healthy money management habits, here are three productive tips to give you that extra credit score boost when you need it most.
1. Make sure your credit report is accurate
This information can have a tremendous effect on your life, so why leave it to chance?
If you’re sharing your credit score with other people — banks, lenders, even your landlord — it’s important to know what’s behind it.
Your credit score is based on your credit report. Everyone has three different credit reports from the three credit-reporting bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax and Experian.
A Federal Trade Commission study from 2012 found that one in five consumers had an error on at least one of their credit reports. The same report found about 13 percent of consumers boosted their credit score after correcting the errors. So, clearly, it’s worth an extra look.
Credit report errors are also the No. 1 complaint received by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If a creditor is incorrectly showing you made late payments or defaulted on a loan, it’s almost certainly hurting your credit score.
You should also check your credit reports regularly because new information is always being added.
“Your credit report tells the story of how you’ve managed your credit and debts over the course of your life. It’s the recipe for your credit score — the number used by lenders to determine whether or not to extend credit to you,” Hardeman said. “And don’t forget that your three credit reports could have different information. This can happen when an information provider sends data to one or two bureaus but not the other one. You really need to check all three for accuracy.”
Some of the major errors in credit reports to look out for include:
- Personal details: Confirm the spelling of your full name and address and double-check your Social Security Number and birthdate.
- Missing credit accounts: If you’re making regular payments to a credit account that isn’t listed on your report, it may be harming your credit score.
- “Late payments” that were made on time: Your payment history is the single-greatest factor (up to 35 percent) for credit-reporting bureaus when they calculate your credit score, and late payments hurt your credit score. If they’re on your credit report, make sure they’re accurate.
- Outdated information: Late payments, collections and charged-off accounts remain on your credit report for seven years, while bankruptcies can last up to to 10 years and hard inquiries last up to two years. All of these can hurt your credit score, so be certain all of your details are up to date.
- Unauthorized credit applications: Be thorough and confirm that you are responsible for every credit application on your report.
“If you have a late payment on a credit card, but it’s recent and out of the ordinary, you can try to call your credit card company to request that it be removed,” Hardeman said. “Of course, you need to back this up with a good reason and the data that shows you’ve been a good credit holder, but it can be worth a shot.”
If you find any of these errors in your credit reports, address them immediately. You’ll need to file a separate dispute for each error and for credit report. Learn more about how to initiate a dispute online.
2. Minimize your credit usage
Just because you have a $5,000 credit line doesn’t mean you need to use it all every month.
Your credit utilization rate is a major factor for your credit score. It’s the amount of revolving credit you’re currently using divided by the total amount available from your revolving line of credit. In general, your credit utilization rate should be 30 percent or less of your total credit line.
The two primary credit score providers, FICO and VantageScore, calculate your credit score in different ways. Still, your credit utilization rate is a major factor (up to 30 percent) when credit-reporting bureaus are calculating your credit score.
“It’s a common misconception that you need to carry a balance on your cards from month to month to show active usage,” Hardeman said. “That’s just not true. You can show utilization and boost your score by charging a little bit on your cards each month and paying off the balances in full.”
The easiest way to minimize your credit utilization rate is to simply reduce spending. But that’s not always an option.
As an alternative, you can make micropayments — smaller, more frequent payments throughout the month — to keep your balance in check. By increasing your payment frequency, you decrease the likelihood that you’re carrying a big balance when your credit card issuer makes its monthly report to the credit bureaus.
“Your credit report tells the story of how you’ve managed your credit and debts over the course of your life. It’s the recipe for your credit score.”
— Bethy Hardeman, Personal Finance Expert
You can also request a credit limit increase. If your goal is to keep your credit utilization rate below 30 percent, and spending less is not an option, increasing the credit limit makes complete sense.
If you’re able to increase your credit limit and maintain your balance, your credit utilization rate will immediately improve. However, credit limit increases often require a “hard” credit check — and that can have a negative effect on your credit score.
Your best bet is to request a credit limit increase from your credit card issuer without a “hard” credit check.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Becoming an authorized user on someone else’s credit card can be an easy way to improve your credit score — but it’s not without risk.
Think of it like piggybacking on someone else’s credit.
If you know someone who has good credit (and who is also willing to help improve yours) ask them nicely to add your name as an authorized user to an existing credit card account. This means you can use the card to make purchases, but you won’t be the primary account holder.
As an authorized user, you also may not have the same amount of access as the primary account holder. But in this case, you’re really only looking to boost your credit score.
Becoming an authorized user on someone else’s credit card can increase your available credit, which, in turn, can lower your debt-to-income ratio. And that lower ratio could provide a quick bump in your credit score.
The tricky part about being an authorized user is finding a willing participant. That’s because the responsibility of paying the credit card bill lands squarely on the shoulders of the primary account holder. And if he or she misses a payment on the card, both of your credit scores will likely take a hit.
“Before you become an authorized user on someone else’s credit card, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into,” Hardeman said. “You have to be prepared to take on the risk. This strategy usually works best with a close family member like a spouse or parent.”
Your best bet is to seek out your credit hero. Find someone who makes smart financial decisions and make sure both of you understand the benefits and drawbacks.
Usually, becoming an authorized user is a good strategy if you have a relatively short credit history. The potential benefit to your credit score is smaller if you’ve been building credit for a long time.
Bottom line: There’s no quick fix when it comes to improving your credit. But a small boost using these three tips could get you on the right track in just a few short months.