Building A Good Credit Score

Use card responsibly and pay each month's bill on time.

Use card responsibly and pay each month’s bill on time.

Building a good credit score doesn’t happen overnight. There are steps you can take to assure good credit from the outset and establish yourself on a positive note. They include:

Credit Reports

Check to see if you have a credit report. You could have established credit without being aware of it. For instance, if you have been authorized to use a family member’s credit, you might have a credit report. It is also possible that you have been a victim of identity theft, and that definitely needs to be cleared up before you start building credit in earnest. WalletHub is one site that offers credit reports and scores that are updated daily. If you find a report under your Social Security number, analyze it and if necessary, dispute errors, fraudulent accounts and negative records related to unauthorized use.

Get A Credit Card

Starting with a clean slate, open a starting credit card. It is usually pretty easy. There are some that don’t charge an annual fee or require you to incur debt as loans do. They report to the major credit bureaus on a monthly basis.

Three options for a starter card include student credit cards, general use cards for people with limited credit and secured credit cards. You have to have an active college or university email address to get a student credit card. A secured card offers the best opportunity to get guaranteed approval without the risk of overspending. The alternative to a starter card is a loan, usually for home, car, student use or other need that requires debt with interest.

Use Your Credit Card For 6 Months

Use the card responsibly for at least six months. That will generate a credit report and score. The score could range from bad to well above average, depending on what you did with the card and how well you paid. This first report is critical, because it puts you under the credit score microscope. Mistakes will be magnified beyond what they would be if you were a seasoned credit user.

Pay Bills On Time

Pay each month’s bill on time and keep your utilization of the card below 30 percent – 10 percent for the best result. Never use all the credit they extend to you. Setting up automatic payments from a deposit account is helpful in meeting these standards. Responsible handling of the initial card will help when you are ready to apply for a higher credit limit.

Study Your Credit Report

When you have a sense of how your initial foray into credit card use went, continue to study your credit report regularly. By looking at all of the components of the report, you can gain a sense of how the system works and be prepared for long-term credit use. You can learn to adjust course if any element of your report seems out of sync.

A responsible journey into the world of credit can set you up for life in what is an important element in ongoing personal finance.

The Credit Elite Have Savvy Habits

Payment history most important factor used to determine overall score.

Payment history most important factor used to determine overall score.

Ever yearned to be part of the “Credit Elite,” those whose credit ratings are up the 800-850 range as determined by the rating agencies? That kind of credit almost assures that you will be approved for loans and likely enjoy lower interest rates.

Those in the 800-plus range know that it doesn’t happen by chance. They make particular credit habits part of their regular personal finance strategies. Here are some of their suggestions:

Pay On Time

Without exception, pay on time. The payment history is the single most important factor that the agencies use to determine your overall score, being some 35 percent of the total. If you miss a payment or make one late, it has a negative effect.

Keep Balances Low Or Paid Off

Keep a rein on credit card balances. The size of the balance relative to the card limit is a factor. The best credit is generated by using less than 10 percent of the allowable limit.

Low Number of Credit Cards

Limit your credit accounts. Applying often for new credit can affect your bottom line. That activity represents 10 percent of the credit agency’s total. If you make frequent inquiries about new cards, for instance, trying to find the best mix of perks, it could have a negative effect. Try to get the right mix into place, then stand pat. A mix of debt, including credit cards, auto loans, mortgages, student loans, etc., all deftly managed, will impress the rating companies.

Don’t Spend More Than You Make

Live within your means. Overextending yourself financially will come home to roost. Don’t use credit to overspend. A solid, long-term credit history will keep your score in the range you want. The older your accounts become without serious lapses, the more they count. Stability is a factor when you’re looking at the 800 rankings.

Staying on course is important. Consistency is key to a good credit score. A small lapse can have a reverse effect. Make good credit a habit and stay on course. Check your credit score periodically and monitor your progress toward the elite standing.

Be Wary of Fake Debt Scams

Be wary of bill collectors claiming you owe them money.

Be wary of bill collectors claiming you owe them money.

When a thief gets your credit card info and runs up a huge debt, who is responsible for paying? Some scammers are making an art out of trying to get the money from the card holder and there are steps you can take to protect yourself. The elderly are particularly vulnerable since they tend to be less savvy about electronic finance issues.

One unfortunate retirement-age woman found herself being dunned for $8,500 after someone named “David” used her credit information illegally. She received more than 60 calls over a three-week period, often late at night, as she was hassled to pay the debt. The harassment didn’t end until she hired a lawyer.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) reports that 8,700 similar complaints were filed with the agency over a 15-month period, half from elderly persons who reported unrelenting attempts to collect money they didn’t owe.

In the period from July 2013 to December 2014, the agency received overall 110,000 complaints regarding debt collection. The Federal Trade Commission lists such complaints as its most consistent industry problem.

The debt collectors report they are trying to collect some $756 billion in debt. It isn’t possible to estimate how much of that staggering total involves “false debt” claims. But based on complaints by those 62 and older, there are several identifiable tactics that collectors use to weasel money not owed from the elderly, according to an AARP magazine article. They include:

Common debt collector scams:

Threats to garnish Social Security or veterans’ benefits if the person doesn’t pay the claimed “debt.” CFPB experts say this is not possible. Garnishees from these government sources are only possible for delinquent state or federal debt such as unpaid taxes, student loans or government-backed mortgages. Alimony or child support payments also can be withheld from Social Security payments, but Supplemental Security Income benefits cannot be garnished due to any debt.

Pressure to pay medical bills that supposedly were generated by a late spouse. Widows are the frequent victims of this particular scam, which are purposely imposed on them when they are emotionally frail, just learning to cope with their loss. Or the scammers may make repeated attempts to collect debts that they falsely allege were owed by deceased family members.

Frequently repeated calls, offensive language and threats of public shame are among the scammers’ arsenal to intimidate so-called debtors into paying. The experts stress that persons being subjected to these annoying tactics should not respond under pressure simply to be rid of the annoyance. Verify the debt before even considering payment. Be aware that collectors cannot collect on debt that has expired under statute of limitations provisions. The period ranges from two to 10 years, depending on state laws.

There are instances of mistaken identity in which legitimate collectors simply have their information wrong. In some instances, they are able to collect from the wrong party because those being dunned are reluctant to provide identifying information over the phone for fear of identity theft. But if you think you may have wrongfully paid a debt under such circumstances, contact the CFPB and your state’s attorney general to report your concerns.

To protect yourself against fake collectors, follow these steps:

Ask for specific information about the alleged debt. If the collector fails to respond, you can assume it is a scam. Visit go.usa.gov/Fsge for information about bogus collectors.

Keep close tabs on your credit transactions. You are entitled to three annual free reports from the three major credit reporting firms. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com for information on obtaining these reports. Look for unrecognized debt in your name and report discrepancies immediately.

Visit go.usa.gov/FsY3 to get information about alleged debt. Dispute claims that are not correct. You can obtain sample letters from that address that you can use as patterns to report your disputes. Send the information by certified mail and with a “return receipt” to the collector and to the creditor. Copy to the CFPB, the Federal Trade Commission and your state attorney general.

If you are being dunned for alleged credit card debt, insist on written proof, such as statements detailing unpaid charges. If the collector claims medical debt, ask for documents detailing services, dates and names of providers. Cross-check with Medicare and private insurers.

Check Up On Your Personal Finance Planning

The Great Recession that plagued personal finances from 1993 to 2008 had a significant impact on the amount of money Americans were saving. Savings figures for the period were at the lowest levels in recent history.

But by May of 2009, the household savings rate had climbed to 6.9 percent, the highest level since 1993. It took a major financial jolt to get people back on the right track. The effect of the recession, coming on the heels of a period of high borrowing, was a disaster for many. Bankruptcy filings had nearly doubled by the end of 2008.
If you have lingering concerns about the state of your own finances, check your data against these indicators. Make adjustments if necessary.

5 Steps To Financial Health

Credit Scores

1. Check your credit score. In a range of 300 to 850, the higher your score, the better your financial health. Lenders use this score to determine if they want to do business with you. To get a credit score without cost, contact one of the three primary credit bureaus, TransUnion, Equifax or Experian. If your score is below 600, try to improve it by paying down debt, satisfying outstanding judgments or curb your use of credit cards.

Savings

2. If you are saving less than 5 percent of your income, it isn’t enough. In 1993, the rate, at 7 percent, was the highest it had been. Since then, too many earners began dipping into savings to see them through the recession, rather than adding to their savings cushion. The trend now is up and if you haven’t joined the savers, now is the time. Don’t look at it as an immediate thing, but as part of the retirement you hope to have. If your savings backup is niggardly, it may disappear entirely in the event of a medical emergency or any other of the many financial challenges that can bite when you aren’t prepared. Make savings of 10 percent of income a goal.

Credit Cards

3. You can be pretty sure you are in over your head if you carry credit card balances from month to month or if you are paying only a small amount to the principal. This is a major cause of financial stress for many people. Ideally, you use a credit card only in emergencies, or charge only what you can pay off in a month. Then you start whittling away at the total, paying whatever you can over the expected monthly payment. Only $5,000 in credit card debt requires a minimum $200 a month and can ultimately cost $8,000, taking up to 13 years to pay off.

Mortgages

4. If housing consumes more than 28 percent of your income, you are in trouble. Almost certainly you will have to cut back in other areas of your budget to handle that load. When the housing market was thriving, the mortgage lenders were allowing people to buy homes that absorbed up to 35 percent of their income, but with the country just coming out of the housing slump, they are edging back to the 28 percent figure. Give some serious thought to downsizing if possible.

Cut Back

5. If your non-housing bills are going crazy, you can assume you need to do something to restore balance. Succumbing to the temptation to buy items on time, you end up paying what seem to be relatively small amounts on a dozen or more products or services. Then relative small quickly becomes over-large and you’re suddenly in the category in which the required outgo is larger than the income. Assess your situation by putting all the bills on the table and seriously discussing them. Identify what you can trim or do without and then do without it. Just one for-instance: Do you really need a 500-channel cable TV package if you are using only a few of the channels? Do you really need a land line if you have cell phones? Etc. etc. etc. An honest look may help your family regain control of its resources without any really painful sacrifices.

Do what you can to avoid become part of the dismal foreclosure and bankruptcy statistics. Keep tabs on your finances and move toward a better distribution of what you have for the sake of the future as well as the present.

When To Close A Credit Card

Keep the number of credit cards you have to a minimum.

Keep the number of credit cards you have to a minimum.

If you are like most Americans, you are besieged with offers to try a new credit card, often offering a lower interest rate or more rewards than the one you are currently using. How to decide, short of accumulating a fistful?

Closing out one of your current cards to accommodate another may make good economic sense, but it also can have a downside. Closing out a card you have had for a long time may cause a temporary dip in your credit rating. Some card holders opt to hold onto their old, established cards rather than swap for a lower-interest option because of that reason.

However, experts at Experian, one of the three big credit bureaus, say that excessive concern about the effect on your credit rating should not be the exclusive reason for not changing cards. It is one of the factors you should consider, but there are others.

Credit bureaus look at a range of factors when they create a score for you, said Experian’s Rod Griffin.

Credit utilization is one of the factors. That means how much of your available credit you are actually using. If you have four cards, each with a limit of $5,000, you have total credit available of $20,000. But if you have two cards that are about maxed out and no balances on two of the cards, you are only utilizing about 50 percent of your capacity. That’s what the credit bureau looks at. Cancelling one of the cards would have a small impact on your overall score. And if you continue a long-running record of timely payments, it is likely to recoup quickly.

Even so, if you are planning to apply for a home or auto loan or any other in which your credit score will be relevant, wait until that transaction is complete before dropping a card, Griffin advises. In general, it takes three to six months for your rating to be affected by the cancellation of a card.

If you are concerned that cancelling a card will immediately eliminate its credit history, don’t be, he says. The credit bureau will include that card’s history in its considerations of your rating for at least 10 years if there is no negative background.

Your next credit report will note that a card was closed at your request, which is not likely to be a red flag for a potential lender.

If you want to evaluate your credit cards and determine if they are all necessary, the questions you should ask include whether or not a particular card is financially beneficial to you. Consider the interest rate, fees, incentives and rewards and make comparisons to determine if you want to eliminate one or more of the cards. Ideally, you will retain only cards that you use on a monthly basis, paying them off in a timely manner.

Occasional pruning is a good idea, particularly if you are carrying a lot of cards that have low limits and relatively high interest. For instance, that card you signed up for in college for the sake of the free T-shirt. As your credit history matures, you have more leeway for low-interest cards that offer more incentives.