This article was originally published on GoodHousekeeping.com.
It’s funny what numbers we keep in our heads. I’ll bet you could recite your height, weight, Social Security number, and a host of other figures…but do you know your credit score? And even if you do, have you pumped it up as high as it can be? Because that’s the key to saving thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of dollars over your lifetime through lower interest and insurance rates. Here’s how to achieve all that.
Boost Your Score
Step 1 Get and review your credit reports from the three big reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) for free once every year. They’re instantly available at annualcreditreport.com. “Go line by line through each report (each reporting agency is independent), asking yourself:
Is everything here mine? If you see a simple mistake (say, a car loan that belongs to someone with the same name in another town), contact the credit bureau to dispute it. Notice that lines of credit have been taken out in your name? That’s identity theft; head to ftc.gov/idtheft for help.
Are the details correct?Your credit report includes the terms of your loans and credit lines. Let’s say you’re carrying a $1,000 balance on a credit card with a limit of $10,000. That’s a healthy “10% debt utilization,” in financial lingo, which means you’re using 10% of your credit limit — not so bad. But what if your original limit on that card was $2,000 and your lender never entered the increase to $10,000 with the credit bureaus? It will look as if you’ve been using 50% of your available credit — not so good! Call the lender to get it fixed.
Keep in mind that these reports won’t show your FICO scores (see “Figuring Out FICO”); you have to pay to get those (for example, $20 at myfico.com). Many services offer “free credit scores” if you sign up for a monthly subscription; often, you can cancel before the end of the trial period and pay nothing. Make sure you understand what you are purchasing before you click and pay. Vendors will provide you with a score for free when you’ve been denied a service (like a home equity loan) or received adverse terms because of bad scores.
Step 2 Pay on time, every time — over one-third of your credit score rides on it (see “Know Your Number!”). To make this easier, set up automated payments from your checking account or establish an alert system on your calendar.
Note: You will likely be charged a late fee if a bill is paid late. This may cause your interest rate to increase, but lateness isn’t typically marked on your credit reports until you’ve missed a full payment cycle.
Step 3 To improve your credit, you need to owe less as quickly as possible. An extra $20 per month can make a big difference; add it to a minimum payment on a $2,000 debt at 15%, and you’ll save nearly $500 in interest, digging yourself out of debt five years faster.
Step 4 Can’t eliminate debt and improve your score on your own? Head straight to a nonprofit credit-counseling agency (find one at nfcc.org) to review what you owe, get help talking to lenders about new payment plans, and maybe even eliminate some fees.
Figuring Out FICO
Most lenders use FICO (short for Fair Isaac Corporation) credit scores. These are based on info from Equifax, Experian, TransUnion, and other bureaus, which give a history of all your credit accounts and how they have been managed. To work toward stellar credit: Pay promptly, don’t carry balances higher than 10% of your limits, don’t open too many credit lines at once, and manage all debt responsibly.
Careful! Watch Out for “Credit Repair”
“We guarantee we’ll fix your credit…instantly!”If you hear this pitch, don’t fall for it! A service that makes this promise can do more harm than good by disputing everything on your credit report so as to temporarily buoy your scores. It may also ask you to pay it instead of your creditors, then delay making a payment, which will really hurt your score. Nonprofit credit counselors (nfcc.org) are always best, but if you’re considering a debt-consolidation company, be sure to check out its record at bbb.org.
Know Your Number!
“Before 2007, a FICO score of 650 was good enough to get you a million-dollar mortgage or a $25,000 credit limit on a credit card!” says credit guru John Ulzheimer, president of smartcredit.com. But since the recession, lenders have wanted much higher numbers (see below). How FICO scores are calculated: 35% depends on your payment history, 30% on how much you owe, 15% on credit-history length, 10% on types of credit, and 10% on new credit. Go to myfico.com for more details.
850 to 750: Great (lower) interest rates
750 to 640: Good to fair interest rates
Below 640: The worst (most expensive) interest rates
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