If you're strapped for cash and having trouble making ends meet, improving your credit score may be the last thing on your mind.

Millions of Americans are suffering from dinged-up credit: the lingering result of the recession, the lack (until recently) of real increase in wages, the economy's sluggish growth. But a strong credit score is the backbone of an individual's financial health, and its importance goes beyond simply getting a low interest rate on a loan. A driver's credit score, for instance, is a major factor in pricing auto insurance.

Regardless of what has happened to you financially – whether you have gone through foreclosure or bankruptcy, gotten behind on credit card payments or racked up a lot of debt – it is possible to rebuild your credit. Here's how.

Understand How Your Credit Score Is Determined

Your credit score (often referred to as your FICO score) provides a snapshot of your credit status. It's determined by a variety of factors, and obviously, you need to understand the components that affect your credit score before you can start to repair it. Although the exact formula used by the Fair Isaac Corporation, which compiles the score, is proprietary and not publicly disclosed, here's basically what it looks at, and how each factor is weighed:

  • Payment history – 35% of your score. Do you have a history of paying on time? That's what will improve your score the fastest.
  • Amounts owed – 30% of your score. How much debt do you carry compared to how much you make? Reducing the amount you owe will also go a long way to improving your credit score.
  • Length of credit history – 15% of your score. The longer you've had credit, the better. A person who is younger will typically have a lower credit score than someone who is older, even when all other factors are the same.
  • New credit – 10% of your score. Each time you sign up for a new credit card or loan, your credit score will likely go down for at least a short time.
  • Types of credit used – 10% of your score. A good credit mix (credit cards, installment debts and long-term loans) will improve a credit score.

Know All Your Scores

The FICO score isn't the only credit score creditors can base their decisions on. In fact, the three credit reporting agencies or credit bureausTransUnion, Equifax and Experian – have pulled together to create their own credit scoring model, called the VantageScore.

While FICO is used by more creditors to determine credit worthiness, being aware of your VantageScore and working to improve it can help you look your best should a creditor decide to use this algorithm instead of the FICO. It can also be used as an educational tool to see where your strengths and weakness are.

Check the Credit Report

So, the first thing you should do is assess the damage by looking at a current credit report issued from one (or all) of the three major credit bureaus. Under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, every American has the legal right to receive one free report from each one of the companies per year, which will save you some money on processing fees. You can get access to each one at the site annualcreditreport.com.

Check over your credit report with a fine-toothed comb: Verify that the amount you owe on each account is accurate. And look for any accounts you paid off that still show as outstanding. If something seems incorrect or you are not sure of any items, then it is your right to contact the credit agency in writing and ask them to investigate the issue and make an amendment. The Federal Trade Commission recommends sending your letter via certified mail and requesting a return receipt so you know the bureau received it. According to the FTC, companies typically must investigate disputes within 30 days of receiving a correction request.

Pay special attention to any recent inquiries that you did not authorize. Before a creditor approves you, or someone pretending to be you, for an account, they will make an inquiry which will be noted on your credit report. If there are inquiries that you did not authorize, notify the credit bureau immediately.

Credit reports typically have a space for you to provide your comments at the bottom: explaining why a particular debt hasn't been paid or to point out any factual errors. While this is another area of recourse, with the credit bureaus you're seen as guilty until proven innocent, and the burden's on you to correct things. When you write to the credit bureau, be sure to send copies (not the originals) of any proof that can be used. 

Checking your credit report on a periodic basis, at least annually, is a good way to catch any instances where you might be the target of identity theft – or the credit bureau has accidentally mixed up your history with someone of a similar (it happens more than you'd think). If you are concerned about others accessing your credit report without your permission, you can freeze it, which will limit who can access the information and under what circumstances. If you think you are a victim of identity theft, contact your local law enforcement authority immediately.

What to Look For

There are several key things to examine in a credit report that will help you identify any problems:

  • Personal information – Make sure the names and addresses reported match your personal history. As noted above, sometimes the reports of people with the same or similar names get combined incorrectly; having your report tied to that of someone with bad credit can lower your score. To correct an error you need to document, in writing, what is wrong. This can be a quick fix if all the negative information belongs to someone other than you, but proving that may take some time.
  • Account Information – Carefully check all accounts listed and make sure they are actually accounts that you have opened. If you find an account in your name that you did not open, contact the credit bureaus, explain the fraud and ask that a fraud alert be put on your account. Then contact the card-issuing company to find out more details about the account. The fact that it is on your report means it is likely that someone used your Social Security number in opening that account. Also be sure that the balance information and payment history for each account is accurate. If any information is inaccurate, you will need proof of the correct information and you will have to start a dispute with the credit bureau to ask for ratifications.
  • Collections – If there are collections on your credit report, check to be sure there are not multiple reports of the same unpaid bills. Collection accounts are bought and sold, so the same information could be reported by more than one agency, which would make your credit history look worse than it is. Send documentation to prove the debt is listed more than once.
  • Public Records – Negative information from public records can include bankruptcies, civil judgments or foreclosures. Bankruptcies can be on the report for seven to 10 years, but all other public records must be removed after seven years. If the public record on your report is older than is allowed, dispute the information with the credit bureau and send documentation to prove that the debt is too old and should no longer be on the report.

Pay Early and Often (or at Least, On Time)

Once you know what you have to work with, make sure that all of your accounts are current, and up to date. Were you a little tardy paying that MasterCard bill last month? Well, this will go on your credit report and lower your credit rating. The longer and more often you do not make bill payments on time, the lower your credit rating will become.

And many lenders won’t give credit to people with a history of recently missed payments on other credit accounts (with "recently" translating to two years back). Missing enough payments that your account is turned over to a collection agency is another sure way to tank your score, not to mention limiting your access to affordable credit – or make it cost more than it should.

Credit reports record your payment habits on all type of bills and credit extended, not just credit cards. And sometimes these items show up on one bureau's report, but not another's. Old, unpaid gym dues that only appear on one report could be affecting your score without you even realizing it. If you rent a house or apartment, some credit agencies count the history of those payments in their credit score calculations (assuming the landlord reports it to them). For example, credit rating giant Experian began including positive rental payment histories in its credit score ratings in 2010. TransUnion also figures positive rental payments into its credit calculations (look for it under “tradeline expense” on your credit report.)

Over one-third of your score depends on whether you pay your creditors on time. So, make sure you pay all your bills by their due dates, keep receipts, canceled checks or reference numbers to prove you did so. While utility and phone bills aren't normally figured into your credit score, they may appear on a credit report when they're delinquent, especially if the provider has sent your account to a collection agency and forwarded that information to the bureaus.

You don't have to pay your bill in full to have your payment count as on-time; you only have to pay the minimum (though that isn't there to do you any favors – it's there to keep you in debt: You'll be paying lots of interest, and paying off your balance for years). However, if it's all you can afford, you're better off making the minimum payment on time than not making a payment at all. The important thing to remember here is that a consistent history of on-time payments will cause your credit rating to rise.

Some folks swear by setting automatic payments using their bank’s online bill-paying system or their creditor’s automatic-payment system. If you prefer more control, at least sign up for automatic payment alerts from your lender, via email or text. Then set up a place in your house where you always pay bills, and get an accordion file that enables you to arrange the statements by due dates. Be sure to time your payment so the check or electronic funds transfer will arrive on time.

Payment Pecking Order

Not all debt is equal. Indeed, installment loans, like mortgage or education loans, is considered “good debt” because it presumably leads to something that improves your financial position (owning an asset like a house, getting a good job). That’s in contrast to unsecured debt – like credit cards.

“If you have to choose between debts to pay, skip the credit card bill because it's unsecured and a creditor can't repossess anything. Luckily, credit card delinquencies hurt credit scores less than bigger debts, such as home or auto loans,” says Sarah Davies, senior vice president of analytics, product management and research for VantageScore Solutions.

If you’re unable to pay all of your bills on time, “cushion the blow to your credit score by defaulting on just one account. There is a component in the FICO score called 'prevalence,'" says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com. "That means having five collections is worse than having one." He recommends that you “let the account with the highest monthly payment fall behind to free up more money every month to pay your other debt obligations.”

Contact Your Lenders

If you are facing financial difficulties, it's always best to contact your lenders, creditors or service providers (such as your utility company or physicians) as soon as possible. Collection agencies and legal fees cost lenders a lot of money, so they are often open to negotiations, which are free. Call, email or write to explain your financial situation (for example, if you have experienced a job loss or unexpected set of expenses due to medical emergency). Discuss a new payment plan and make a good faith payment. At the least, you might be allowed to skip a payment without penalty or lower your minimum payments.

Assuming unemployment isn't the issue, job stability is a good indicator to lenders that you will make good on your debts. If you have a spotty resume, make the choice to stay in your current position for at least a year or two to build lenders' confidence. Of course, don't hesitate to take a new job if it comes with a sizeable bump in salary.

Credit Card Payment Tips

After payment history, the next largest impact on your credit score (30%) is the amount of debt you have. For most people, the most controllable aspect of this is how you use your credit cards.

"Financial companies love profitable customers who run up their credit card balances, right? One might think," says Randy Padawer, vice president of credit services at LexingtonLaw. "But interestingly, that same industry penalizes consumer credit scores as a direct result. To ensure a good credit score, never max out your credit cards. For an even better score, keep balances as low as possible."

You need to show you can handle credit wisely, so having occasional balances on your credit cards can be a good thing. But in general, when you use your credit cards, try to pay them off as soon as you can (you don't have to wait for the statement in the mail but can pay online anytime). In fact, you can make your record look better than it is by making your payments just before your statement is sent, rather than waiting until you receive it. Most credit card companies report your balance at the same time that they mail your bill. If, for example, your statement goes out on the 15th of the month, pay your bill early (let’s say by the 13th) so the money will arrive prior to the statement being sent out. That way your outstanding credit balance reported to the credit bureaus will be lower.

When you have the extra cash to pay down your outstanding balances, focus on the cards that are closest to being maxed out, to benefit your credit score the most. Next, zero in the credit card balances that are higher than 50% of your credit limit. Borrowers who have used up more of their available credit are considered higher risk.

That being said, if those are the cards with the lowest interest rates, perhaps because you took advantage of a low APR balance-transfer offer, the savings you'll achieve from paying off your highest-interest-rate debt first may be more important than improving your credit score.

When one card is paid off, take the payment you were making to the paid-off card and add that to the next card.

Don’t Open Too Many Accounts…

The number of credit accounts you have open is also important to control. Credit cards are easy to get: Almost every store has a quick, convenient way to get you a new card. Attractive incentives, such as big discounts on purchases the day you sign up, add to the temptation. If you shop in that store often, it may be worth getting its card; otherwise, resist the urge.

It's not just that the new plastic can encourage you to spend. Having too many cards can hurt your credit score. Credit-lending institutions will look at the total amount of credit you have available to you. If you have 10 credit card accounts, and you have a $5,000 credit line in each account, then that will amount to a total of $50,000 in potential debt. Lenders will take a look at this potential debt load – as if you were to go out and max all your cards tomorrow – before considering how much they will lend you. They also worry about whether you will be able to meet your financial obligations.

What's more, each time you apply for credit, the potential lender will check your score. Each time your credit is checked, other potential lenders worry about the additional debt that you may be taking on. Sometimes, the act of opening a new account, or even applying for one, can lower your score. Having lots of recent inquiries on your credit report dings your score temporarily. So don't apply for cards often, if you want to raise your score, and don’t constantly move your balance from card to card to get a special 0% APR. It will likely hurt your score more than it helps.

However, if you must have more plastic, applying for a secured credit card can be a safe way to go about improving your credit score. These are lines of credit that are secured with a deposit made by you, the cardholder. Usually, the deposit also acts as the credit limit on the secured card. While they come with high fees, high interest rates and low limits, these cards report your repayment history to the major credit bureaus each month, so as you make on-time payments, your credit score will improve – to the extent you won’t need the secured card anymore (they aren’t the most advantageous out there), or the card issuer will let you convert to a regular card (usually after 12 to 18 months).

You could also ask a trusted family member if you can be added as an authorized user on an account of theirs. You do not even necessarily need to use the card to improve your credit score.

…But Don’t Close Old Accounts

A good idea would be to keep three to four credit card accounts open, but only use one or two of them; put away or cut up the others. Once you have paid off a card, though, keep the account open, even if you don’t want to use it anymore. Closing a card will lower your credit score, even if you always paid on time and never carried an outstanding balance. If a card's high annual fees are making it undesirable, try asking the credit card company for a downgrade to one of their free or lower-fee cards. This allows you to maintain a longer history with the company, which is important for a healthy credit score. The company will report to the credit bureau that you have a good record with them, which will increase your credit rating.

Closing out delinquent accounts or those with a history of late payments can also help, as long as you've paid them off in full. Because history is important, if you do decide to close a few more accounts, close the newest ones first. The length of your credit history is 15% of your score, so even after you've paid down your balances, keep your oldest cards open. Be sure use these cards to make occasional purchases (then pay the bills in full), so the card company won't close your account for inactivity.

Delinquent Debts 

While it seems to make sense to pay off all of your old delinquent debts, this strategy can sometimes backfire and drop your score further. If a credit account is simply overdue and shows as outstanding debt, paying it off will improve your score – though it won't eradicate the record of late payments. But if you have an old debt on your credit report that has been charged off by the lender – meaning that they do not expect further payments – setting up a new payment plan can re-activate the debt and make it appear to be more current than it actually is. This is often the case with debt that has been turned over to a collection agency. The agency may register the debt with credit bureaus as new rather than reporting it against the written-off debt.

As newer debt weighs more heavily on your credit report than older debt, your score can drop when you make an effort to pay, whether in part or in full. While the payment will make the debt show as settled in full, it may show on your report as new debt. Regardless of how it shows on your report, ensure that the lender removes the charged-off status on your old debt and shows it as paid in full.

If you choose to settle with a lender for less than the total owed, the arrangement will show on your credit report and may drop your score depending on how it is reported. Some lenders will simply mark it as paid, which has a positive affect on your score. However, if they show it as settled, your score may suffer. Although you can negotiate with a lender as to how they will report the settlement, you ultimately have no control over what they will do.

Out With the Old

Carefully review older debt that shows as charged-off. Before contacting the creditor or collection agency, check your state laws to see if the debt is statute-barred or time-barred, meaning that it is too old for creditors to attempt further collection. If it is not statute-barred, even contacting the creditor can re-instate the debt as currently collectible, which can drop your score.

If the debt is due to drop off of your report in the next several months because it is almost seven years old, consider waiting until then to pay it, as it will have no affect on your score once it disappear. If the debt shows as written off but will still show on your credit report for longer than a few months, collect all of the funds together to completely pay it off before making contact with the lender. That way, you will potentially re-activate the debt but will also show payment in full, which will minimize the damage to your score.

Increase Your Credit Limit

There’s a way to boost your credit score that doesn’t involve paying down debt or any of the other more traditional score boosting tactics. Since credit scores are determined, in part, on the difference between your credit limit and the amount of credit you use, ask for a higher credit limit. Your chances of increasing it are likely better than you think. Of those who apply for a higher credit limit, 8 out of 10 are approved, according to a recent Bankrate Money Pulse Survey. While it helps to be over 30, odds are good for all adults. To avoid having your credit diminished by asking for a higher limit, ask for the highest credit line increase that won't trigger what's called a hard inquiry. (See also: Credit Score: Hard vs. Soft Inquiry.)

By increasing your credit limit, you automatically increase the spread between the amount you are allowed to borrow and the amount you actually do. The larger the spread, the higher your credit score.

This spread, known as the credit utilization ratio, is expressed as a percentage. For example, if the limit on your MasterCard is $5,000 and you have a balance of $4,000, your utilization ratio is 80%. If your limit goes up to $10,000, suddenly your utilization is just 40%.

Obviously, the higher the utilization percentage, the worse you look. Experts have long said that using 30% of your available credit is a good way to keep your credit score high. More recently, that recommendation has been reduced to 20%. In the $5,000 limit MasterCard example above, 30% utilization would represent a $1,500 balance. Boosting your credit limit from $5,000 to $10,000 would allow for a $3,000 balance and still maintain 30% utilization. (This, of course, is just an example. It’s not likely you would get a 100% increase in your credit line. But any amount will help increase the spread and lower the utilization ratio).

A third of your overall credit score is based on the credit utilization ratio across all of your cards. Because of the way credit scoring works, it's better to carry a $1,000 balance on a card with a $5,000 limit (20% credit utilization) than to carry a $500 balance on a card with a $1,000 limit (50% credit utilization). That's why, in discussing payment pecking order, we recommended paying off the cards closest to being maxed out. That's also why you shouldn't terminate accounts. It'll increase the percentage of total available credit that you’re using – and that will reduce your score.

Negotiate a Lower Interest Rate

The key to this strategy is obtaining more credit, but not using more credit. In other words, if your limit goes up $1,000, don’t go out and charge half of it. Think of the boost as a way to save money later when you apply for an auto loan, home loan or another form of long-term debt where a high credit score will likely result in big savings via a lower interest rate.

While you're at it, ask the credit card company if they could lower the APR on your card. With a lower interest rate, your pile of existing credit card debt won't grow as much every month, and you'll be able to pay down your balances faster.

Beware of Scam Artists

If you are having troubles paying some of your bills in a timely fashion, then debt consolidation may be right for you. (See also: Digging Out Of Personal Debt.)

But tread carefully. This a field ripe with scam artists who rebuild nothing but their own bank accounts. If you are approached with an offer of help to negotiate your debt, make sure that you receive a copy of the "Consumer Credit File Rights Under State and Federal Law" and a detailed contract for services including contact information, stated guarantees and an outline of fees and services before you provide any personal information or turn over any financially-related documents. Ask for references, do online research and keep copies of all paperwork and correspondence in case a dispute arises.

Rapid Rescoring

Rapid rescoring is a little-known strategy explained by credit guru Liz Pulliam Weston in her book, "Your Credit Score: Your Money and What's at Stake." Unlike credit repair services, which are almost always a scam, rapid rescoring is a legitimate way to improve your credit score in as little as a few hours – if there are verifiable inaccuracies on your credit report. For rapid rescoring to work, you must have proof that negative items on your credit report are incorrect.

Rapid rescoring is for people who are in the process of applying for a mortgage or other type of major loan and, because of their low credit scores, are being denied credit or offered a high interest rate. Individuals cannot initiate rapid rescoring on their own, but a lender can do it on their behalf. The rapid rescoring service works with credit bureaus to quickly remove incorrect negative information from your report.

Take Out a Small Loan

If your credit score is pretty good, but not good enough to get you the interest rate you want, you may be able to improve it by taking out a small loan and repaying it as promised – in other words, by adding some positive activity to your credit history. Also, because installment loans add to your mix of credit, obtaining one might improve your score.

One option is to use a peer-to-peer service like LendingClub, which facilitates lending between individuals. The company reports borrowers' payment histories to credit bureaus. The minimum loan amount is $1,000 and you must have a credit score of at least 660 to apply.

The Bottom Line

Improving your credit score is a bit like losing weight: It takes a while. Unless there are major errors on your credit report that you can easily get erased, there is no quick fix. Often, it takes at least a couple years to go from a low score to a high one. But at least, you'll be improving your financial position, and building up good financial habits, in the interim.

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