By Rachel Morey and David Rodeck
A higher credit score means lower mortgage interest rates, better credit card offers, and better insurance rates. Despite what you may think, increasing your credit score fast, is possible.
The first step is diagnosing the reason for your less-than-perfect score. Not all credit problems are the same. Late payments, collections, bankruptcy, a large number of credit inquiries, and a high credit card utilization rate, and even credit report mistakes all have a negative effect on your score.
How to repair credit
Take a close look at all three credit reports. They are available for free, once every twelve months, at AnnualCreditReport.com. When you access your free credit reports, you won’t see your credit score, but you can see your credit history. You can also view your free credit score report card, updated monthly, on Credit Sesame.
Beyond the three free reports you can get each year, you can purchase additional copies.
If there is an easy way to improve your credit score, it’s error correction. The FTC estimates that as many as one in five consumers have an error on one or more of their three major credit reports. Negative information on a credit report accounts has a serious impact on your FICO score, so an error could torpedo your score. Depending on the type of error, identifying them and asking the credit bureaus to correct them could have an immediate positive effect on your score.
If you find an error on your credit report, take the matter up with the credit reporting agency. Disputing an error on your credit report is a simple process, and each of the three major credit bureaus offers instructions when you view your report that make it easy to request a correction.
Look closely at your credit reports for errors like a report of a late payment that’s more than seven years old, accounts that don’t belong to you, paid-off accounts showing as unpaid, accounts discharged in bankruptcy showing as delinquent or with a balance, and tax liens that are paid and more than seven years old.
Here’s what a sample credit report looks like:
Check your reports for incorrect names or addresses and inaccurate employer information, as well. While personal information errors won’t hurt your credit, they could be a sign of fraud or reporting mistakes.
Expect to see your dispute resolved within 30 days (45 if you provide additional documentation within the 30-day timeframe). The FTC sets strict guidelines about how much time a creditor has to respond to a dispute. Over half of all disputes are resolved within 14 days. If you don’t get the desired result, you may need to take up the issue directly with the company that provided the incorrect data. You also have the right to file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) or the Attorney General in your state.
How to raise your credit score after late payments
Payment history accounts for 35 percent of your credit score. A 40 to 100-point drop after just one missed payment is common and higher scores takes harder hits. Needless to say, if you are in the process of building credit, making payments on time is crucial to maintaining an upward trajectory.[Learn More: Best Way to Build Credit]
The good news is that a payment that is a few days late, while it may cost you a hefty late fee, will probably not show up on a credit report. Most creditors don’t report late payments until they reach the 30-day mark.
Get back on track as quickly as possible after missing any payment. The only surefire way to increase your score after a series of late payments is to make sure you pay on time, every time going forward. Although late payments stay on your credit report for seven years, their impact really diminishes after two years.
How to increase your credit score after collections
Increasing your credit score after a collections account shows up on your credit history can be especially challenging. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act lays out your rights. Protect your credit score by getting to know those rights before you proceed.
We have a few other tips when it comes to collection accounts and your credit:
Pay recent collections first. Recent collection accounts have a much more detrimental effect on your credit than old collection accounts. The damage to your score diminishes over time.
Pay off collections if you need to improve your score before the account is due to age off your report. Paid collections still cause lingering damage to your credit score if the score is calculated with the FICO 8 scoring method or any earlier method, so you might not see much improvement in your score after you pay off a debt. However, the newest version, FICO 9, ignores paid collections. That means you’ll likely get a boost to your score when you pay off those old debts. VantageScore also ignores paid collections, and at least 1,200 creditors use this score to make their lending decisions.
Balance the consequences of settling. Some consumers settle debt for less than the full amount owed. That’s great for your credit score since the account balance will be reported as zero. The catch is that the forgiven amount will almost certainly be reported as income and you’ll be on the hook for the taxes.
Pay non-medical debt first. When choosing between paying off medical and non-medical collections accounts, be aware that non-medical debt hurts your score more, so go after those bills first.
Monitor your credit. Once you do pay off a collection account, monitor your credit report to ensure it is updated accurately. It may take several weeks to see the new account status if you pay off the debt just at the time the creditor reports balances to the credit bureau. In that case, you won’t see the update until the next reporting cycle. If about 45 days pass and you don’t see the new account status, initiate a dispute with the bureau that’s reporting the account.
Approach old debt with caution. After seven years, a collection account should be removed you’re your credit report, and that should result in a higher score. (If the account doesn’t age off, dispute it.) If you make a partial payment, the relevant dates could change and the account could show up on your credit report (and affect your score) again.
Keep records. Be sure to keep any and all correspondence from debt collection agencies, and especially proof of payment. “Zombie debt” is a huge problem for consumers with past collections. Your old debt might be sold to another collection company who then tries to collect as if it were never paid, or to start the clock over on time-barred debts.
What about pay-for-delete? Some collection agencies promise to remove the collection account from your credit report in exchange for your full payment. Anecdotally, some consumers have reported success with this method of improving their credit score. This strategy is problematic, though.
First, federal law, not negotiation, sets the timeline for removal. The credit bureaus are under no obligation to remove the collection account from your file even if the collection agency tries to make good on its promise to you to do so. In fact, the bureaus prohibit the practice and may sever ties to the collection agency if evidence of pay-for-delete is discovered (and that would put the agency out of business). The law requires that all of your credit-related information, positive and negative, be reported for a certain number of years. No less, no more.
Second, the collection account needs to be removed from all three of your credit reports in order to have the desired effect. What are the chances a collection agency will risk being found out and cut off from all three bureaus?
How to increase your credit score after bankruptcy
While bankruptcy provides many consumers with a fresh financial start, it does have lasting ramifications where credit is concerned. Chapter 13 bankruptcy restructures payments and stays on your credit report for seven years. Chapter 7 bankruptcy shows up on your credit report for ten years, but it wipes the debt slate clean. The negative effect of bankruptcy on a credit report decreases over time.
In general, higher credit scores take a harder hit after bankruptcy. Expect a loss of 150-240 points over the course of the bankruptcy process. Depending on how many negative marks were present on the report prior to the bankruptcy, you may see a more or less dramatic drop.
After confirming that your bankruptcy has been correctly reported by all three credit bureaus and each included account is labeled as “included in BK,” focus on the future.
Focus on finances. Living well within your means is the single most effective strategy to help you climb back up the credit ladder. Maintain steady employment, and don’t take on new debt.
Establish a positive payment history. Set up a secured credit card right away to start the clock on a good track record of paying on time. Pay off the charges every month.
Be careful with credit. Approach new credit products with caution, and don’t get in over your head. You won’t be able to include new debts in bankruptcy for up to seven years.
What can I do to improve my credit score?
Your credit score is based on five keys factors and they hold the solution to improving your credit. If you can get these five things right, your score will go up naturally and easily over time.
The most important factor in your credit score is your payment history. Do you make all your scheduled credit and loan payments and are the payments on time? Every monthly payment helps your score but just one missed payment can drop your score by 100 points, wrecking all your progress. If you miss a deadline, make the payment as soon as possible because lenders typically wait until a payment is 30 days late before reporting it.
Your credit utilization ratio counts nearly as much as your payment history. This is the amount of credit card debt versus your total outstanding credit limit. For example, if you have $2,000 of debt and a $4,000 combined credit limit, your utilization ratio is 50%. Bring your balance down to 30% of your limit or less to improve your score. The lower your ratio, the better the boost to your score (people with the best credit scores use no more than 7% of their available credit).
Credit Sesame users who have scores 800 or higher barely have any credit card debt: The average credit card limit among users who have the highest score (839) is a generous $12,898, yet the average balance is a mere $54. That’s a credit utilization ratio of 0.42%.
The third factor is the average age of your credit accounts. Over time, you will gain points in this category so long as you don’t close old accounts.
The next factor is credit mix. The credit bureaus like to see that you can handle a variety of credit products (for example, student loan, mortgage, auto loan, credit card).
Finally, each inquiry into your credit can cause your score to drop by a few points. Soft inquiries, including employer checks, self-checks and inquiries made for the purpose of prequalifying you for promotional offers do not hurt your score. Hard inquiries, however, are those made as the result of an application for new credit. Those are the inquiries to limit.
Tips on how to build credit fast
One way to build credit fast is to check your credit report for mistakes. Many errors are inconsequential (misspelled address, for example), but others can hurt your score. For example, your credit report could mistakenly show that you never paid off an old car loan when, in fact, you did.
Error correction can have an immediate effect on your credit score. Indeed, your score is a snapshot of the moment a creditor requests it, and any time the data in your file changes, your score reflects the new data. You might not see the change right away, but you can use Credit Sesame to check your score for free monthly and monitor your progress.
A second way to build credit fast is to make a large payment on your credit card debt. Your score will increase as your balances go down. Also, your score takes a hit if any one card is maxed out (even if they aren’t all maxed out).
If you pay off a maxed out card, you score can improve by 100 points in a few months. The dollar amounts are not as relevant as the amount of debt you carry, expressed as a percentage of the amount of credit available to you.
Make plans now to use an upcoming bonus or your next tax refund to pay down your balances, or look for an extra part-time job that you can take on to make those extra payments.
A debt consolidation loan might also work. This type of loan is reported as an installment loan, not as revolving credit. So if you pay off your credit cards, your utilization will drop to zero and all you need to do is maintain an excellent payment history on the new loan.
Be careful! The last thing you want to do is then go out and charge the credit cards back up. If you do, you’ve only doubled your financial trouble.
Using a credit limit increase to build credit
A credit limit increase can help your score by improving your utilization rate. For example, if you have a $1,500 balance with a $3,000 credit limit, your ratio is 50% which isn’t great. If your card increases your limit to $6,000, you’ve brought your utilization rate down to a respectable 25% without paying down the balance at all.
Once again, caution. Be realistic about your ability to handle the higher limit or additional cards. If there is any risk that you might spend more as a result of getting more available credit, pass on this strategy and just focus on paying down your debt.
How long does it take to build credit?
Every month that you do everything right (pay on time, keep your balances low and so on) your score will rise. The amount of time it will take to build up a good credit score really depends on your personal situation and the reasons why your score is low.[Learn More: What is a Good Credit Score]
If you have errors on your credit report or your cards are maxed out, you can get back to a good score quickly – within a couple of months or less – by fixing the mistakes and/or paying off your debt. On the other hand, if your score is low because you recently declared bankruptcy, it’s going to take years to completely turn things around.
Once you make a concerted effort to improve your credit, look for improvement at the 6-, 12- and 24-month marks.
How to rebuild credit after credit problems
If your credit score is in bad shape because of poor decisions, your options to build credit will be a bit more limited. For example, you may have trouble qualifying for a regular credit card that you can use to build credit. A great alternative is a secured credit card. This is a credit card that you back up with a cash deposit. Many consumers with bad credit qualify for a secured card. Regular on-time payments on this account will help your score.
You can ask to become an authorized user on someone else’s account. When you become an authorized user, the account information is transplanted to your credit file. If the primary account holder pays the bill on time and keeps the balance low, your credit score will get the benefit of those good financial habits. On the other hand, if that person doesn’t handle the account well, your score will suffer.
If you have unpaid collections, paying them off may help your score. It depends on the credit scoring model that is used to calculate your score. The newest versions of FICO and VantageScore ignore paid collections (FICO 9, the newest FICO scoring model, is not widely used yet). Paying off old debts also shows new creditors that you’ve cleaned up past mistakes. You should prioritize paying off the most recent delinquent accounts first because these hurt your score the most now.[Learn More: Perfect Credit Score]
If you’ve had a bankruptcy or foreclosure, your score will go up little by little over time, and should improve even more when the negative item is finally removed from your file. While you wait for the negative item to age off your report, practice excellent financial habits. Lenders are more concerned with your recent history. A bankruptcy from 6 years ago matters much less than a bankruptcy from 6 months ago.
Using a free credit repair service
There are no such thing as free credit repair services. Some consumers find value in paid credit repair services, and legitimate companies that offer credit help for a fee do exist. But they can’t do anything for you that you can’t do for yourself.
The best way to build credit is to learn about it (it’s not hard once you have the information) and stick with it for the long haul. Your credit history is what determines your steps for improving credit going forward. If you’ve missed a few monthly payments, set up automatic payments or reminders that you won’t ignore. If your cards are maxed out, make a plan to pay down your balances. It isn’t easy. If it were, no one would have debt.
Credit Sesame offers valuable guidance and tons of education, free, to anyone who wants to repair his or her credit. You can monitor your progress, free, by becoming a Credit Sesame member.