Credit scores impact our lives whether we like it or not. Fortunately, anyone can take steps to improve their credit score. If you’re ready to improve your credit score or you just want to find out more, keep reading to learn what you can do to fix your credit score on your own.
Credit scores impact our lives whether we like it or not. A poor credit score can affect your ability to get housing and work and access to other opportunities. It also has serious financial consequences. Fortunately, anyone can take steps to improve their credit score. Though, it may take more time for some people than others. If you’re ready to improve your credit score or you just want to find out more, keep reading to learn what you can do to fix your credit score on your own.
Why Credit Scores Matter
Your credit score is a three-digit number that sums up your ability to handle credit responsibly, based on your credit history. When you apply for a credit card, mortgage, auto loan, or personal loan, lenders will look at your credit score to get a sense of how risky it is to loan you money. A low credit score tells the lender you are a risk, while a high credit score tells the lender that you’ll probably pay back the loan. You can think of it as a thermometer. If your credit score is high, your chances of getting a loan are hot. If your credit score is low, lenders might freeze up and not give you a loan.
Your credit report consists of your credit history. The information in this report is run through a complicated mathematical formula that results in a credit score. A bad credit score is low, generally under 620. A good credit score is high, generally over 680.
How Credit Scoring Models Work
The formulas used to compute your credit score are called credit scoring models. The most popular credit scoring models used today are FICO and VantageScore. There are five significant factors that go into your credit score calculation:
Your payment history, including negative events from missing payments like bankruptcy or foreclosure
Your credit utilization ratio, or how much of your credit limit you’re using
How long your credit accounts have been open
How diversified your credit mix is
How many new credit inquiries you’ve had recently
There are three major credit bureaus — Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax — that report your credit score, although the score won’t show up on your credit report. Each bureau collects information independently, and not all creditors furnish information about borrowers to all three agencies. So even if they use the same credit scoring model, they may produce slightly different credit scores. Different types of financial activity and the timing of the activity will cause your FICO score to fluctuate.
Late payments, past-due debt, collection agency debt, charge-offs, foreclosures, and judgments will negatively affect your credit score. Creditors are legally required to report all accurate information on your credit report, but sometimes they make mistakes. It’s important to make sure the information on your credit report is accurate because that’s what’s used to determine your credit score. Negative information such as a missed payment or an account that isn’t yours could decrease your score and ruin your chances to qualify for a mortgage or car loan.
Good Credit Scores Mean Lower Interest
Your credit score will determine your ability to get a loan and what the interest rate will be. People with higher credit scores tend to get lower interest rates than those with lower credit scores. The interest you pay adds up over time. A low interest rate will save you a lot of money over the long run. This means you’ll have more money to pay your bills and save up for goals and activities you enjoy.
How Credit Scores Affect Your Nonfinancial Life
A higher credit score can also help you get a better-paying job or a nicer place to live. Many employers, especially those in the financial industry, run a credit check on prospective employees before hiring them. And many landlords run a credit check on rental applicants to evaluate the risk of renting to them. Your credit score does not imply that you are or are not an honest person. There are plenty of white-collar criminals with high credit scores.
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Fixing Your Credit for Free Starts With Fixing Your Credit Report
If you want to fix your credit so you can increase your credit score, you can start by repairing your credit report. Although you have the option to hire a credit repair company to help you fix your credit, the service can be costly. The steps a credit repair specialist takes to repair a credit report are the same steps you can take to repair yours.
Obtain and Review Your Credit Report
A credit report is a document that lists your personal information and a detailed history of your credit activity for each of your accounts. It will include your payment history, the amount of debt you have, the amount of debt you’ve paid off, judgments, foreclosures, charge-offs, settlements, collection agency activity, and bankruptcies.
You can easilyget a free credit report every year from Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. Simply go to AnnualCreditReport.com and request a free copy of your credit report. Once you receive a copy of your credit reports, you’ll want to compare them. Lenders aren’t required to report everything to each credit bureau, and the credit bureaus don’t compare reports with each other to make sure they agree. Since your data could be different in each report, it’s possible yourcredit score could be different with each credit bureau.
If you’re having trouble getting your report and reading the information, or if it just feels like too big of a struggle at this point in your life, consider talking to a credit counselor to help guide you. Many are nonprofit and work with accredited counseling agencies. You can check with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) to view a counselor’s accreditation status and check the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for complaints.
Identify Any Errors on Your Credit Report
Unfortunately, it’s quite common to find errors on your credit report. Credit reporting agencies make mistakes. A typo or a computer error could result in inaccurate information. Plus, in today’s digital world, identity theft is always possible. The good news is that you can catch these errors and dispute them. Look closely at your report to make sure your name (current and former) is spelled correctly, your past and current addresses are correct, all account numbers are correct, and all amounts paid and owed are correct.
Grab a stack of your bills and receipts or go online and look at your billing history to compare your actual payment history and account information to what’s listed on your credit report. Do the account numbers and payments match? Take a look at your bank account history and match the transactions on your credit report to your bank account activity. You’re more likely to find a mistake if you compare your records rather than just relying on your memory.
Dispute Incorrect Information on Your Credit Report
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires creditors to report accurate information and gives you the right to repair your credit by disputing incorrect information. You must follow certain processes todispute a debt, but they aren’t complicated. Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax all provide instructions for disputing entries with a credit report. Basically, you must report the dispute and provide evidence to support your claim if you have it. If there’s legal action related to the dispute, you’ll want to talk to a consumer protection attorney.
Here’s a checklist of items to review on your credit report. Make sure each is accurate. If you find inaccurate information, dispute the item.
Name spelled correctly
Names of relatives
Names offormer spouses
Correct middle names and middle initials
Names of co-owners
Names of authorized users
Collection agency names
Dates of payments
Dates accounts opened
Dates accounts closed
If you find errors, you can dispute them over the phone, email, or through an online process. If you decide to formally dispute the debt, you’ll need to write andsend a dispute letter. It’s important to keep a record of all your communication with creditors, collection agencies, banks, and credit bureaus because you might need it for proof of communication or fraud in the future. You’ll also need to send supporting documents that show proof of your side of the dispute. Take your time to gather the documentation before you start calling or filling out online forms.
If you dispute several items at once on your credit report, it could have a negative consequence, even if your disputes are valid. The disputed record may disappear and reappear on your credit report from one month to the next, putting your credit score on a roller coaster. This happened to Angela Williams. With the help of an attorney, she won $2.7 million in damages.
It may take time and effort to resolve a dispute. Plan to space out your disputes. Also, keep in mind that credit bureaus have 30-45 days to review your dispute and send you a response. Changes won’t happen overnight. Sometimes a simple call to your lender to point out a mistake can result in a quick fix and help you avoid the long dispute process with a credit bureau.
How Long Does It Take To Fix Your Credit?
It could take months or even years to fix your credit. It will depend on how many incorrect negative items you need to fix and what your goal for your credit score is. It will also depend on the habits and activities of the lenders, credit reporting agencies, and credit bureaus. Fixing a wrong date or number might only take a month or two, but dealing with identity theft issues could take much longer.
If you suspect fraud or illegal activity, you can make a formal complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and your state’s attorney general office.
Fixing your credit is more like running a relay than a sprint. Information keeps getting passed between different people until it’s finished. It’s not just you running to the finishing line. But you do need to consider your finish line. Fixing your credit is about more than cleaning up your credit history and disputing errors. You’ll also want to take action to improve your score.
Ways To Improve Your Credit Score
It might seem impossible to increase your credit score when you’re deep in debt, but anyone can improve their credit score. It helps to have a good plan, practice healthy financial habits, and be patient.
Make Timely Payments
FICO takes timely payments seriously. Your payment history makes up 35% of your FICO credit score. If you can do only one thing to improve your credit score, start by making on-time payments.
Plan To Pay Off Your Debts
Reducing your debt will increase your credit score by decreasing your credit utilization rate. Take a close look at your budget and your debt. Can you make more than the minimum payment each month to pay off one of your debts sooner? Do your best to pay down or pay off accounts, but be sure to keep funds on hand for an emergency so you don’t fall deeper into debt.
Manage Your Credit Accounts
If you’re able to pay off one of your credit cards, you may be tempted to close the account. If possible, keep it open for a while, especially if you’ve had the account for several years. Older accounts look good on your credit report so long as they’ve been in good standing.
Get a Secured Credit Card
If you’re in the process of rebuilding your credit after bankruptcy or foreclosure, consider starting with a secured credit card. A secured credit card is a little different than a regular credit card because you’ll give the credit card company money to hold on to for security. If you manage your card well and make on-time payments, it could lead to an increase in your credit limit or a conversion to a traditional card account. Your on-time payments and an increase in credit will give your credit score a boost. But be careful. Many secured cards have high interest rates. Be sure to pay off your balance before the interest adds up!
Improve Your Credit Mix
A credit mix is the variety of credit you have. A good credit mix might include a mortgage, car loan, credit card, and personal loan. Having five credit cards and no other loans is not a good mix. Using a mix of credit responsibly shows lenders that you can manage different types of loans and payments. The more you can manage, the better your credit score. Consider adding to your credit mix.
Keep an Eye on Your Credit Utilization Ratio
When it comes to increasing your credit score, your credit utilization ratio is the second most important factor after timely payments. This is also called your credit utilization rate. Utilization has to do with revolving credit accounts like credit card debt. FICO and VantageScore will look at how much credit you have available versus how much credit you’ve used. Ideally, you only want to use 30% of your available credit. Try to pay down your credit card debt so you can reach this 30% goal.
To figure out your utilization ratio, add up your total available credit and your total credit card debt. Then divide your debt by your available credit. For instance, let's say you have two cards with a limit of $2,000 each. That means your total available credit is $4,000. If you went grocery shopping and put $300 on one card, then your fridge broke and you put $500 on another card, your total debt would be $800. To get your credit utilization ratio, divide $800 by $4000, which is .2 or 20%. That’s great! Your credit score will get a boost.
Explore Debt Management or Debt Relief Options if You Have too Much Debt
If you have debt you can’t manage or you find your bills impossible to pay, take a look at entering into a debt management plan (DMP). In a debt management plan, you can combine your many monthly payments into one monthly payment. A credit counselor can help get you started. You may also be able to take out a debt consolidation loan, which allows you to pay off all your other loans or debt using a new loan with a lower interest rate.
Some people find relief by negotiating a debt settlement with creditors to pay off a debt for less than what you owe. You can do this on your own with a debt settlement letter or hire a company to help. There are many debt settlement scams and settling debts can decrease your credit score, so this isn’t always the best option. Finally, you may want to consider filing bankruptcy. Bankruptcy can help you wipe out all your debt at once instead of dealing with a few of your accounts over several years. While bankruptcy can harm your credit score in the short term, consider how difficult it is to rebuild your credit score when you’re drowning in debt you can’t pay.
All of these debt relief options will hurt your credit score, but not permanently. These options will help clear the slate so you can work with your current finances to rebuild your credit score. You won’t be boxed in by your old debt, and you’ll be free to move on to a new beginning.
Your credit score can open doors to opportunities. You can improve your credit score even if you have debt and a low credit score. It just takes a little DIY action and planning. You can start by requesting your credit report, reviewing it for errors, and making sure that those errors are corrected. For a lifetime of improvement, take steps to make on-time payments, reduce your debt, watch your credit card spending, and add to your credit mix. If you’re overwhelmed with old debt, take some bold steps to get rid of that debt and start over with a clean floor and room to create a new future for you. Upsolve can help.