The very mention of “credit score management” can induce a state of panic in many of us. The FICO score’s measurement of your credit-worthiness is calculated based on an ever-shifting algorithm that seems to favor only the most perfect and punctual among us. Managing this number well is essential to achieving financial independence. But without a clear strategy and understanding of how credit scores work, a credit report can feel like a dark secret waiting to hijack your future. It’s even harder when companies and lenders, which rely on FICO scores to make decisions about loans and interest rates, contribute to the confusion by putting in fine print that can work against the very thing you’re trying to establish.
While we might be tempted to try to outrun your credit score, you can’t hide out from it forever. Eventually, you’re going to need it — and it’d better be good. But just because credit scores involve formulas and paying off bills doesn’t mean that we can’t invent creative solutions to understand how they work and use that knowledge to our benefit. We asked some credit experts and financial planners how to rethink the credit score conundrum.
Step One: Make Peace With the Past
One unspoken cost of bad credit is the emotional energy you spend feeling terrible about yourself because of it. Part of the dread of dealing with your credit score comes from knowing you’ll have to face up to irresponsible spending, loads of debt, or missed payments that have damaged your score. The upside, though, is that this is normal. Ashley Feinstein Gerstley, a money coach and founder of The Fiscal Femme, acknowledges that lots of people feel this way. “Often we are ashamed of our own spending habits, so we avoid dealing with them. That can turn into a horrible cycle. The key to forgiveness is mustering up some compassion for ourselves and understanding why we are where we are.”
Unless you have a significant trust fund or another extensive financial safety net (and sometimes even if you do!), chances are you’ve made some choices about debt that you’re still paying for. Gerstley has some wisdom about that too. “When we get how difficult money can be, forgiving ourselves is a whole lot easier. Money is something we can’t avoid — most of us didn’t learn about it, we can’t talk about it because it’s taboo, and we give it a lot of power because it is a tool to have and experience what we want in life.” It’s time to come to terms with how past spending decisions have affected your score. Use CreditKarma.com, Mint.com, or a credit card app to take a look at where you stand. Make a deal with yourself to own it and move forward.
Step Two: Find Accountability
When it comes to your FICO score, you don’t get extra credit for figuring out everything on your own. And while no one will be as invested in your personal credit score as you are, that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone in your quest to unlock a close-to-perfect score. Find a financial guru — be it your bestie who’s mastered how to game the travel points on her credit cards or your savvy retired aunt who’s been able to live her best life on a fixed income for 15 years. Be real with them about what your credit score looks like, and ask them to help keep you accountable.
If there’s no Zen-level credit score expert in your life, consider calling in professional assistance. Speaking with a credit repair specialist, placing a call to the person who does your taxes, or asking for a consultation with a mortgage loan officer costs nothing (or next to it) and can save you the frustration of guessing what to do next. Reaching out to establish relationships at your bank’s local branch can’t hurt, either. Not only can a national bank be a valuable source of advice (and a loan, when the times comes), but brand loyalty can mean late payment forgiveness when you overdraw your account or miss a deadline.
Bethy Hardeman, Chief Consumer Advocate at Credit Karma, advocates for the value of speaking with an actual person at your bank when you make a mistake. “Ask for a ‘lifeline’ with your bank. If you’ve made a late payment, pay your bill as quickly as possible, and then call your lender. They may be willing to consider it a fluke and help you by waiving a late fee or keeping a late payment off your credit report. You can also call ask for a lower interest rate, higher credit limit, or different due date.”
Step Three: Automate Everything
Once you’ve committed to improving your credit, you’ll find out that on-time payments can cover a multitude of financial sins. Automating bills you have to pay — like utilities and transportation costs — can mean you never make a late payment again. Guaranteed Rate Mortgage’s VP of mortgage lending Jennifer Beeston agrees that ditching manual payments is key. “Automate every single bill so at least the monthly minimum is paid five days before the due date. Always try to pay your cards to zero each month.” If the prospect of disputing mistakes on your credit report seems daunting, you can automate that too. CreditKarma.com will file a dispute report on your behalf if you cite a valid reason for a late payment, like a change of address or a banking mistake. Once you’ve filed the dispute, it’s usually resolved within 60 days without any further action on your part.
How many credit cards should you have, anyway? “Ideally, you want three credit cards,” Beeston shares, “and you want to use them each month for small amounts and then pay them off.” Don’t wait until the monthly payments on your cards are due, either. Contributing small amounts to your account balances throughout the month can improve the appearance of how quickly your credit line “revolves” and also make you a prime candidate for credit increases.
Maggie Johndrow, a financial advisor with Farmington River Financial Group, put it this way: “[Payment history and amounts owed] accounts for 65 percent of your credit score. So if you’re making your payments on time and don’t carry large balances, you should have a good credit score.” It’s just that simple. And even if you’ve made lots of late payments in the past, don’t lose hope: Every payment made on time will count toward bringing up your average of on-time payments. That means that each month you have several opportunities to diminish the impact those late payments have on your score. While you’re at it, set up an automated transfer to your savings account to get even closer to a healthy financial future.
Step Four: Play for Keeps
We can’t repair or improve our credit scores overnight, as much as we might wish we could. Write down your ideal credit score and a financial goal that it will help you to achieve. Then determine your next steps by thinking critically about what you do have going for you already. If you’re up to your eyes in student debt, for instance, your credit history might actually benefit. “Many young people do not realize that student loans, so long as you’re in good standing with them, can actually help your credit score!” encourages Johndrow. “It provides payment history on a loan.” She also reminds us that keeping the accounts we already have is vital. “Don’t close your credit cards,” she warns. “While you might think it could help improve your credit health, closing your credit cards could actually affect it negatively. To build credit, show you’re responsible with the credit you already have.”
If you have a lot of credit card debt, realistically assess how you’re going to pay it off and #dothedangthing. Accept that there’s probably no fairy godmother coming to intervene on behalf of your maxed-out credit card. While it’s never fun to throw your money at old debt, try treating yourself to small rewards when you reach debt milestones like paying off a card in full.
Getting out of debt is hard — but not impossible. Once you’ve realized that having a bad credit score doesn’t make you a bad person, confided in a mentor, and taken the first simple, proactive step of automating your bills, you’re ready to make a long-term plan to game the credit card system in your favor.
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(Photos via Getty)