Your credit score is one of the most important measures of your financial health. It tells lenders at a glance how responsibly you use credit. The better your score, the easier you will find it to be approved for new loans or lines of credit. A higher credit score can also open the door to the lowest available interest rates when you borrow.
If you'd like to improve your credit score, there are a number of simple things you can do. It takes a bit of effort and, of course, some time. Here’s a step-by-step guide to achieving a better credit score.
- Make sure you pay at least the minimum balance on time.
- Pay down your credit card balances to keep your overall credit use low.
- Don’t close old credit card accounts or apply for too many new ones.
1. Review Your Credit Reports
To improve your credit, it helps to know what might be working in your favor (or against you). That’s where checking your credit history comes in.
Pull a copy of your credit report from each of the three major national credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. You can do that for free once a year through the official AnnualCreditReport.com website. Then review each report to see what’s helping or hurting your score.
Factors that contribute to a higher credit score include a history of on-time payments, low balances on your credit cards, a mix of different credit card and loan accounts, older credit accounts, and minimal inquiries for new credit. Late or missed payments, high credit card balances, collections, and judgments are major credit score detractors.
Check your credit report for errors that could drag down your score and dispute any you spot so they can be corrected or removed from your file.
2. Get a Handle on Bill Payments
FICO credit scores are used by more than 90% of top lenders, and they’re composed of five distinct factors:
- Payment history (35%)
- Credit usage (30%)
- Age of credit accounts (15%)
- Credit mix (10%)
- New credit inquiries (10%)
As you can see, payment history has the biggest impact on your credit score. That is why, for example, it’s better to have paid-off debts, such as your old student loans, remain on your record. If you paid your debts responsibly and on time, it works in your favor.
So a simple way to improve your credit score is to avoid late payments at all costs. Some tips for doing that include:
- Creating a filing system, either paper or digital, for keeping track of monthly bills
- Setting due-date alerts, so you know when a bill is coming up
- Automating bill payments from your bank account
Another option is charging all (or as many as possible) of your monthly bill payments to a credit card. This strategy assumes that you’ll pay the balance in full each month to avoid interest charges. Going this route could simplify bill payments and improve your credit score if it results in a history of on-time payments.
Use Your Credit Card to Improve Your Credit Score
3. Aim for 30% Credit Utilization or Less
Credit utilization refers to the portion of your credit limit that you’re using at any given time. After payment history, it’s the second most important factor in FICO credit score calculations.
The simplest way to keep your credit utilization in check is to pay your credit card balances in full each month. If you can’t always do that, a good rule of thumb is keeping your total balance at 30% or less of your total credit limit. From there you can work on whittling that down to 10% or less, which is considered ideal for improving your credit score.
Use your credit card’s high balance alert feature so you can stop adding new charges if your credit utilization ratio is getting too high.
Another way to improve your credit utilization ratio: Ask for a credit limit increase. Raising your credit limit can help your credit utilization, as long as your balance doesn’t increase in tandem.
Most credit card companies allow you to request a credit limit increase online; you'll just need to update your annual household income. It’s possible to be approved for a higher limit in under a minute. You can also request a credit limit increase over the phone.
4. Limit Your Requests for New Credit—and "Hard" Inquiries
There can be two types of inquiries into your credit history, often referred to as "hard" and "soft." A typical soft inquiry might include checking your own credit, giving a potential employer permission to check your credit, checks done by financial institutions with which you already do business, and credit card companies that check your file to determine if they want to send you pre-approved credit offers. Soft inquiries will not affect your credit score.
Hard inquiries, however, can affect your credit score—adversely—for anywhere from a few months to two years. Hard inquiries are applications for a new credit card, a mortgage, an auto loan, or some other form of new credit. The occasional hard inquiry is unlikely to have much effect. But many of them in a short period of time can damage your credit score. Banks could take it to mean that you need money because you're facing financial difficulties and are therefore a bigger risk. If you are trying to improve your credit score, avoid applying for new credit for a while.
5. Make the Most of a Thin Credit File
Having a thin credit file means you don’t have enough credit history on your report to generate a credit score. An estimated 62 million Americans have this problem. Fortunately, there are ways you can fatten up a thin credit file and earn a good credit score.
One is Experian Boost. This relatively new program collects financial data that isn't normally in your credit report, such as your banking history and utility payments, and includes them in your Experian FICO credit score. It’s free to use and designed for people with no or limited credit who have a positive history of paying their other bills on time.
UltraFICO is similar. This free program uses your banking history to help build a FICO score. Things that can help include having a savings cushion, maintaining a bank account over time, paying your bills through your bank account on time, and avoiding overdrafts.
A third option applies to renters. If you pay rent monthly, there are several services that allow you to get credit for those on-time payments. Rental Kharma and RentTrack, for example, will report your rent payments to the credit bureaus on your behalf, which in turn could help your score. Note that reporting rent payments may only affect your VantageScore credit scores, not your FICO score. Some rent reporting companies charge a fee for this service, so read the details to know what you’re getting and possibly paying for.
6. Keep Old Accounts Open and Deal With Delinquencies
The credit age portion of your credit score looks at how long you've had your credit accounts. The older your average credit age, the more favorably you appear to lenders.
If you have old credit accounts you’re not using, don’t close them down. While the credit history for those accounts would remain on your credit report, closing credit cards while you have a balance on other cards would lower your available credit and increase your credit utilization ratio. That could knock a few points off your score.
And if you have delinquent accounts, charge-offs, or collection accounts, take action to resolve them. If you have an account with multiple late or missed payments, for instance, get caught up on the past due amount, then work out a plan for making future payments on time. That won’t erase the late payments, but it can improve your payment history going forward.
If you have charge-offs or collection accounts, decide whether it makes sense to pay off those accounts in full or to offer the creditor a settlement. Newer FICO and VantageScore credit-scoring models assign less negative impact to paid collection accounts. Paying off collections or charge-offs might offer a modest score boost. Remember, negative account information can remain on your credit history for up to seven years, and bankruptcies for 10 years.
7. Use Credit Monitoring to Track Your Progress
Credit monitoring services are an easy way to see how your credit score changes over time. These services, many of which are free, monitor for changes in your credit report, such as a paid-off account or a new account that you’ve opened. They typically also give you access to at least one of your credit scores from Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion, which is updated monthly.
Many of the best credit monitoring services can also help you prevent identity theft and fraud. For example, if you get an alert that a new credit card account is being reported to your credit file that you don’t remember opening, you can contact the credit card company to report suspected fraud.
The Bottom Line
Improving your credit score is a good goal to have, especially if you’re planning to apply for a loan to make a major purchase, such as a new car or home, or try to qualify for one of the best rewards cards available. It can take several weeks, and sometimes several months, to see a noticeable impact on your score once you start taking steps to turn it around.
You may even require the aid of one of the best credit repair companies to remove some of the negative marks. However, the sooner you begin working to improve your credit, the sooner you will see results.