23 of the Greatest (Expert-Approved!) Credit Score Tips of All Time
by Liz Steelman
If there’s one thing I love, it’s a good credit score tip. As long as they’re easily understandable and enactable, most people can use them to greatly improve their day-to-day lives—which is something that’s pretty rare these days on the Internet! As Apartment Therapy’s real estate editor, I’ve come across these tips and tricks, good and bad, and shared the ones that really stood out. But, unlike me, you’ve probably haven’t read every article we’ve published in the past year and might have missed some of the best. (It’s okay! I get it! You have other things going on!)
So, in “honor” of Liz$plaining’s launch (our new personal finance series hosted by moi!), I’ve decided to go through all the credit score-focused articles we’ve published in the past year and round up the best tips experts have shared with us. Here, 23 of the best credit score tips and tricks.
And just a note: While these are all great tips, not everyone will need to enact all 23 (nor should they!) And, if you think something might help your credit score, I recommend talking to a certified professional before you pursue anything that may affect your overall financial health.
1. Pay your bills on time, every month
If you ask someone for credit score advice, it’s likely they’re going to reply with this. Why? Because it’s the most important. Payment history makes up 35 percent—the biggest factor—of most credit scores.
2. Pay at least the minimum amount
While paying off your balance in full every month is ideal to avoid interest, it’s not always possible. That said, you should always pay at least the minimum due and never less. If you don’t pay this, it will count as a missed payment (there goes your payment history!) and your credit card company may even report the account past due (oof! an account in collection!). If this wasn’t bad enough, you might even get late fees tacked on in addition to interest.
3. Keep your utilization rate to under 30 percent
The second biggest factor in your credit score? Utilization, or how much credit you’re using compared to your total line. Though it’s calculated across all lines of credit, you should try to keep the balances on each individual card under 30 percent of its credit line. That way, everything’s in check across the board.
4. Ask for an increase in your credit line
One easy way to keep your utilization rate low? Keep your line of credit climbing. Call your lender and ask for a credit limit increase. If your available credit is higher, your utilization rate will decrease if your balances are the same. One expert even says to set a calendar reminder to do this every six months.
5. Look at your free credit report
Think about it this way: If your credit score is a grade on how credit-worthy you are, your credit report is the test. And who doesn’t want to know what’s exactly on the test they’re taking? Thankfully, you’re legally guaranteed to see your credit report once a year from each of the three credit bureaus. Get it from annualcreditreport.com and take a look to see if anything looks amiss.
6. Remove errors in your report
If you don’t keep tabs on your credit report all that often, you may notice errors or even fraudulent activity when you look at it. Thankfully, your credit report has all the contact information for creditors, so if there’s an error to dispute, you can reach out to them to begin the process.
7. Know what credit score you’re looking at
Surprise! You don’t have one credit score. You can actually have tens (or even hundreds!) The two most common are FICO and Vantage. And while 90 percent of lenders use FICO scores, many free third-part credit monitoring services show your Vantage Score, which is similar enough but calculated slightly differently. Additionally, they may be pulling your credit report information from just one bureau (e.g. TransUnion, Equifax, or Experian) the instead of a composite report, which combines all three. There also is something called a PLUS or educational score, which is not an actual credit score, but just an estimate!
8. Know when your creditor reports to the bureaus
You may think that going over the 30 percent utilization rate on any card is okay if you pay it down before the due date. However, your statement date might not always align with the days when your credit card company reports to the bureaus, meaning you could be dinged for high usage even if you’re doing it responsibly. (Unfair, right?) Your best bet? Ask your lender or credit card company when they report so you can make sure nothing slips past.
9. Keep your cards in good standing
Surprisingly, many credit card companies don’t share the timeline for closing an account due to inactivity. And since credit history is so important, you want to make sure all your cards are in good standing so they don’t accidentally get cancelled. The best way to keep your cards healthy? Put a small monthly charge on a card (like a subscription service) and set up auto payments. That way, you can set it and forget it without the risk of a dinged credit score.
10. Become an authorized user
When one becomes an authorized user on a credit account, they’re given access to use someone else’s line of credit (and usually receive a card in their own name). However, the account holder is still responsible for paying the bill every month and both parties credit records are affected. Since this can be a risky move, it should be used on a case-by-case basis since it essentially ties one’s credit to someone else’s. However, for young people with no established credit and a willing parent (or a responsible account holder with a great record), it can be very beneficial. (In fact, it’s why many young people have good credit scores to begin with!) Your best bet is to talk to a financial professional before making any changes.
11. If you’re getting a credit pull, ask if it’s a hard or soft inquiry
Keep in mind: Even if you’re applying for something that might help your credit (like a line increase or a new account), it’s likely the bank will need to do a hard credit inquiry. Too many of these on your account can lower your score—which might counteract the benefits you’re searching for. Soft pulls, on the other hand, have no affect. To make sure you’re keeping your score high, ask what inquiry type a creditor is planning to do before it happens.
12. Have a good mix of accounts
While opening up another credit card may help with improving available credit and utilization, it may not help all that much because it’s just adding another line of the same type of credit revolving credit. Your credit score is based not only on number of accounts, but also the types of credit in the mix. Lenders want to see a healthy mix of installment and revolving loans. Though student loans may be a pain in the butt, they’re actually pretty bountiful to your credit. Since other types of installment loans like mortgages and car and personal loans may be out of the picture for many Millennials, student loans might be the only type of installment loans available. (Though, beware: Your credit score may drop once you’ve paid them off since you’re losing that loan type and credit history!)
13. Don’t close old accounts
Even if you really use that credit card anymore, you shouldn’t close it. Losing a line of credit means the amount of available credit goes down, credit utilization rate goes up, and scores are negatively impacted. Also, if it’s an older one, it will also affect average length of credit, can cause scores to go down.
14. Downgrade costly credit cards
Don’t want to keep paying that monthly fee on that flashy, point-driven credit card? As discussed above, closing it can cause scores to sink. Instead, call your creditor to see if you can swap to a similar, no-fee version. You’ll likely end up with fewer benefits, but it can help keep your credit score afloat.
15. Don’t open too many things at once
Planning on getting a mortgage sometime soon? Don’t also open up a new store credit card before closing. Not only can changes in your credit report cause your mortgage to be denied, adding more hard inquiries can cause your score to go down. Instead, take one thing at a time. It’s suggested to wait between three and six months between applications.
16. Ask your landlord to report your rent
Not seeing your rent—the thing you pay religiously on time each month—appear on your credit score? Most ma and pa landlords don’t report the bureaus (though some large corporate buildings do.) If you want the boost a record of on-time payments will bring to your score, you can ask your landlord to report your payments using a third-party website like Rent Reporters. You can also bypass your landlord and use Experian’s RentBureau.
17. If you don’t have credit, get a starter loan
These are basically savings accounts that work like an installment loan. A bank will “loan” a customer, say, $700, but the customer doesn’t get that cash until they pay the bank back that money plus interest. Yes, one has to pay interest (which can get pricey), but these loans can be valuable if one has unsuccessfully attempted to get a credit card or really need to establish any movement on a credit report.
18. Opt-in for new scoring models
FICO and Experian both released new scoring models that take into account non-traditional financial factors for those who might not yet have official credit accounts. ExperianBoost is a read-only service that looks at bank account management. It best benefits consumers with scores between 580 and 668. UltraFICO is similar, taking into account checking, savings, and money market accounts. Paying bills on time, keeping a healthy savings account, and not over-drafting a checking account are all behaviors that can be rewarded with the new service.
19. Always call your credit card company first
Not sure you can make a payment? Have ballooning debt and not sure what you can do about it? Call your credit card company first! They most likely have in-house services and resources to help out. Since debt collectors cost money, banks and lenders have an incentive to settle in house. Call and explain your problem—you may be surprised at what fixes they can offer you.
20. Write a goodwill letter to your creditor
If you have an account in collection, it can only stay on your credit report for seven years. That said, seven years is a long time. If you’ve paid off your debt and want to speed up that process, try writing a “goodwill” letter. Include your account number, payoff date, and a short explanation of why you were unable to pay it off in the first place. Though the creditor is not required to erase the mark, there is a chance it can help.
21. If you have a similar name to a family member, keep a freeze on your credit
Share the same name with a parent, cousin, aunt, uncle? If you’ve seen their accounts pop up on your credit report, call the account servicers to figure out how to remove them. Once everything’s in order, keep your credit frozen until you need to apply for loans or credit. It’s the easiest way to make sure your credit files don’t get mixed up.
22. Keep your children’s (or elderly parent’s) credit frozen
Identity theft commonly happens to the elderly and young because it’s likely no one is paying too close attention to their credit reports. Since these two groups are likely not opening new accounts, it can be a good idea to keep their credit frozen until they need to apply for something.
23. Don’t miss the forest for the trees
Yes, having a good credit score is great—but bending over backwards in terms of your budget or lifestyle just to bump your score up a couple of points quickly may not be worth it. Credit gets better with age, so just patiently paying your bills and waiting may be the easiest way to raise your credit score. As long as you don’t need credit anytime soon (buying a house or car or applying for a personal loan), it’s mostly okay to put credit building on the back burner while you focus on other more immediate financial goals. (But remember: Pay those bills on time and try to limit your utilization to 30 percent as best as you can!) Not sure what to do? Talk to a financial professional, who can help you walk through the situation and personalize a plan for you.
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