Guide: What Affects Your Credit Score?

vasily2@creditsesame.com'/
whataffectsyourcreditscore

By Kate Hornsby, Naomi Mannino and Paul Sisolak

1. Does Closing a Credit Card Hurt Your Credit?
2. How Late Payments, Defaults And Collections Affect Your Credit Score — And What You Can Do About It
3. How to Remove Collections from Your Credit Report
4. Soft Credit Checks And Hard Credit Checks – How They Affect Your Credit Score
5. How Does Credit Card Debt Consolidation Work?
6. Infographic: Understanding Changes in Your Credit Score

Your credit score is a three-digit number that defines your financial health. In order to have a credit score, you need at least one account that has been open for six months or longer, and at least one account that has been reported to the credit bureau calculating your score within the past six months. Both requirements can be satisfied by the same account.

Knowing your score is important to maintaining that health, but simply knowing the number is not enough. According to Ken Chaplin, senior vice president of TransUnion, it’s also important to understand how credit works and how your financial activities can affect your credit score. With each action that you take, you are ultimately helping or hurting your financial health.

For example, one thing that you may not know is how a credit check can affect your credit score. Before you ever open a new account, the mere act of applying for it affects your score.

See where you stand, in comparison to Credit Sesame members, when it comes to credit scores.

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Think of your FICO score as a pie that is divided into five different slices. Credit checks, known as inquiries, make up about 10 percent of the pie. When you apply for a credit card or attempt to borrow money, the lender performs a credit check. In other words, the lender inquires into your credit standing with one or more of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). This is called a hard inquiry, and it usually knocks a few points from your credit score.

On the other hand, if you check your own credit, (for example, through Credit Sesame), that is a soft inquiry and does not count against you.

[Related: What is the Highest Credit Score?]

Here’s how the entire FICO scores break down:
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  • Payment history (35%)
  • Debt utilization (how much debt you carry in relation to the total amount of credit available to you (30%)
  • File age (the average age of all of the accounts in your file) (15%)
  • Credit mix (your experience with a variety of different types of credit products) (10%)
  • Inquiries (10%)

A major competitor to FICO in the credit scoring industry is the VantageScore. This is a scoring system that was developed by the three major credit bureaus, and at least 1,200 lenders use it instead of — or in addition to — the FICO score.

What doesn’t influence your score

For any credit scoring models, certain factors are never considered. They include gender, marital status, religion, race, nationality, color, ethnicity, age, salary, child support obligations, occupation, title, employment history, employer, where you live or your assets.

Your credit score also does not consider the interest rates you pay for credit, credit checks made for the purpose of sending you pre-screened offers for credit, or employer credit checks. Finally, your credit score is not affected by credit counseling programs.

How will becoming an authorized user affect my credit score?

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“Authorized user” is a term for a third party added onto an established credit card holder’s account. As an authorized user, you’ll simply receive a card with your name on it. Once the card is activated, you have the same buying power as the primary cardholder. Even though you have use of the credit card, you are not liable for any of the charges that are made or the balance on the account.

While you may think that being an authorized user is simply a way to allow someone access to a line of credit, it actually has a much greater purpose. Becoming an authorized user allows some consumers to build up their credit when they don’t have any, or to rebuild credit when their own has been damaged after some sort of credit disaster, such as a bankruptcy.

The strategy is simple. Once the authorized user is added to the account, the account will show up on his or her credit report the next time the creditor reports to the credit bureaus. All of the details associated with the account (payment history, utilization, account age, and so on) will then factor into your credit score.

Note that there are a few caveats to this strategy. First, not every credit card issuer reports accounts to an authorized user’s credit report, so you may find that even though you’re an authorized user, the card still doesn’t show up as part of your credit history. If you wish to use this method to improve your credit score, call the credit card issuer ahead of time to ensure that they will report the activity.

Second, FICO frowns on the addition of authorized users to credit card accounts when there is no legitimate relationship between the two parties. This is known as “piggybacking,” and FICO views it as an attempt to game the credit scoring system. To avoid scrutiny, it is best to only become an authorized user on the account of someone you have a close connection to – your parents, your spouse, a housemate.

Does closing a credit card hurt your credit?

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If you’re like many consumers, once you’ve acquired an inventory of credit cards, you may feel inclined to cancel one or more of the older cards that you no longer use. Watch out.

Closing an account can hurt your score.

A reasonable consumer may think that closing a credit card account would help a consumer’s credit score, since no balance means no debt. What actually happens is that when you close the account, you reduce your overall available credit. This affects your credit card utilization rate, which is one of the most important factors contributing to your credit score. Your utilization is simply how much of your credit you’re using, in relation to the overall credit you have from all of your credit card limits.

To figure out your credit card utilization rate, take the amount of outstanding balances that you have on all of your credit cards. Then divide that number by the sum of all of your credit limits combined. That gives you a percentage, and that’s your utilization.

Here’s an example. Fred has three credit cards as follows:
Card 1:     $1,000 limit        $0 balance
Card 2:    $3,000 limit        $1,000 balance
Card 3:    $5,000 limit        $4,800 balance

The total credit limit is $9,000. The total balance owed is $5,800. Fred is using 64% of his available credit. If he closes card 1, his available credit falls to $8,000 and his utilization rises to 73% even though he didn’t make any new purchases.

Closing a credit card can hurt your credit score if it causes your utilization rate to go up. Click To Tweet

Credit card issuers like to see that you have credit… but don’t use it much. For optimum credit health, keep your balances to no more than 30% of your limits, overall and on each card. The lower the better. Consumers with top credit scores tend to use 7% of their credit or less. If any one card is maxed out (or close to it) your score will suffer. Fred is using 96% of the available credit on card 3, and that will cause his score to drop.

If you’re using more than 30% of your credit, you’re not alone. According to Credit Sesame data, more than half of Americans are using 70% or more of their available credit.

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One way you can bring this down is to open a new credit card but don’t use it. If you were thinking of closing a credit card because it has an annual fee, call the credit card company and ask if you can “downgrade” to a lower-tiered card that does not come with an annual fee. Keep in mind, however, that it will most likely have a less robust rewards program.

[Real Story:How I broke out of the credit card cycle”]

Credit cards after bankruptcy

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A Chapter 7 bankruptcy clears your debts. It can offer a clean start, but it also has a disastrous effect on your credit score. Likewise, a Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a serious negative mark against you. Contrary to myth, bankruptcy does not prevent you from obtaining new credit.

Since you can only file for bankruptcy once every two to eight years, you become more appealing to card issuers: you no longer have any debt and you can’t legally be absolved of your responsibility to repay it any time soon.

After bankruptcy, fewer credit cards will be available to you, and you’ll inevitably pay higher rates and fees.
If your credit score is low, you may find that you cannot qualify for a traditional card.

Instead, you can look for a secured credit card, which requires that you deposit money into the account that is then held as collateral against default.

How long does bankruptcy stay on a credit report?

A discharged Chapter 13 bankruptcy stays on your credit report for seven years, while a Chapter 7 bankruptcy will remain for 10 years. The effect on your score diminishes over that time. The older the bankruptcy, the less effect it will have on your credit score.

Bankruptcy credit counseling

Credit counseling never shows up on your credit report and doesn’t affect your credit score. If you have the opportunity to work with a professional credit counselor, take it. To find a free or low-cost credit counselor in your area, visit NFCC.org.

How late payments, defaults and collections affect your credit score — and what you can do about it

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If you have a less-than-good credit score, you’d probably like to know how it got that way, why it stays that way, and what you can do about it.

One surefire way to torpedo a credit score is to miss payments. According to the most recent Credit Sesame internal statistics, 13% of members’ credit card account payments are not current. That includes any payments that are 30 to 120 days late, and accounts in collections or charged off.

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Late payments are weighted differently depending on how late they are. Sixty days late is worse than 30; 90 days late is worse than 60; 120 days late is worse than 90. Charge-offs and collections are even more harmful. Indeed, many mortgage lenders will automatically reject a mortgage application from any applicant whose credit report shows just one unpaid collection account.

Do late payments affect your credit score?

According to a 2012 VantageScore report on how credit behaviors affect your credit score, one late credit payment can plunge your score 60 to 120 points, depending on how high your starting score was and whether you missed an auto loan payment, mortgage payment or student loan payment, all of which carry more weight than credit card payments.

According to the VantageScore report, it may take approximately a year to recover your credit score from a missed payment once the account is current on payments.

Can you remove late payments from your credit report?

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The only time the credit bureaus are obligated to remove late payments from your credit report is in cases of errors. If you can prove that you did not make a late payment, you can dispute it with the credit reporting agency and the creditor that reported the late payment. If the late payment cannot be substantiated, it must be removed from your report.

Although they are under no obligation to comply, you can also ask the creditor to remove the late payment from your payment history. If you’ve never been late before and you bring your account current, the creditor may be willing to erase the late payment from its system and report it as current instead. The credit reporting bureaus only report the data that is uploaded to them.

The best way to minimize legitimate late payment reports is to bring the account current on payment as soon as possible and not to miss any more payments.

How a default affects your credit score

Once a late payment goes past 120 days it is considered to be in default. A default not only causes a further drop in your credit score, but it also signals the creditor that it’s time to send your account to a collections agency.

Other creditors want to know that you’ll honor your debts before they extend credit to you. Avoid defaults and collections by calling up the creditor and making some sort of payment arrangement as soon as you know you will miss that first payment, when they can still work with you.

How to avoid a student loan default

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A student loan is different from a credit card account because it is an installment loan. Fixed payments are due for a fixed time period. When student loan accounts are paid on time, they reflect positively on your credit score. The only time a missed student loan payment won’t hurt your score is when the loan is in deferred status and no monthly payments are due.

Student loans affect your credit negatively when you make late payments or no payments. Student loans can be especially tricky because most students graduate with multiple loans (because student loans are only available for the current academic year), each with its own repayment amount and schedule. Also, some student loans are reported to the credit bureaus as separate loans every time you receive a disbursement, even if you don’t make separate payments on the disbursements.

According to the most recent Credit Sesame data, the average student loan debt per person was $27,819 across an average of eight student loans.

Student loan debt is not going away; the average loan debt is $27K, according to Credit Sesame data.Click To Tweet

If you do default on your student loan, it’s likely to drop off your credit report seven years after the date of delinquency, like any other loan. Some student loans, however, can remain on your credit report until they are paid in full.

Even if the loan ages off your report, you’ll never be completely free from it until it’s paid off. Student loans are almost never discharged in bankruptcy. Default can lead to harsh consequences, including wage garnishment and withholding of your tax refunds.

Avoid a federal student loan default by following a few simple steps:

  • Keep track of all your loans (and how they appear on your credit report).
  • Take advantage of deferment, forbearance, loan consolidation and forgiveness opportunities for which you’re eligible. Use the official Department of Education website for guidance. Remember, loans in default are not eligible for deferment or forbearance.
  • Enroll your federal loans in a repayment program that works for you. Most are income-based.

If your loans are private, do everything you can to keep up with the payments or to work out an alternate payment schedule with your lender. Private loans are not eligible for deferment, forbearance, forgiveness or income-based repayment plans, so if you want to protect your credit, you need to treat them like any other loan (like a mortgage or a car loan). Pay the bill on time, every month.

How credit collections affect your credit score

Looking at Credit Sesame internal data, only 4% of Hawaii residents have five or more accounts in collection compared with as many as 29% of residents in other parts of the U.S.

Whether you defaulted on a $100 credit card account or a $1,000 credit card account, the result of a collections account reported on your credit report is the same:  Your credit score may decrease by 80 to 185 points depending on other aspects of your credit report.

How to remove collections from your credit report

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There are many ways of removing a collection account from your credit report, but contrary to popular belief, paying it isn’t one of them, although that is definitely the way to reduce its future negative impact on your credit score.

  • Settling current debts in collections: One option for settling a collection account is to offer to settle the debt (pay it off for less than what is owed). Always pay the most recent collections account first because current debts have the most negative impact on your score. You’ll have to personally call up the creditor or collections agency to ask if they will accept a lesser amount to satisfy the debt. If they agree, make sure they will supply you with a debt satisfaction letter and that they report the debt as satisfied or paid as agreed to the credit bureaus.

Be careful with this strategy! The amount forgiven will likely be reported to the IRS and added to your taxable income for the year. It may not be as much of a savings as you think it will.

  • Addressing old debt: If you find a collection account on your credit report that is older than seven years since the date of delinquency or the date of the last activity, dispute the item with the credit bureau reporting it. Collection accounts must be removed after seven years.

Furthermore, check with your state’s attorney general about the statute of limitations on debt collection. Although you still technically owe the money, the creditor may be barred from suing you for payment.

Be careful about making any payment on outdated collections account because that can restart the statute of limitations and allow the creditor to continue to make efforts to collect on the debt and report it to the credit bureaus.

In the newest credit scoring models, FICO 9 and VantageScore 3.0, medical debts and paid collections do not negatively impact the consumer’s credit score, so there is some benefit to paying off collections, especially recent ones. (Medical collections are ignored because they often pop up while insurance benefits are still being hammered out.) Note that FICO 9 is not yet in widespread use, so paid collections might still affect your score.

The credit reporting agencies will not remove a collection if it’s correct and verifiable until the amount of time allowed by law has passed, so we don’t advise using “pay for delete” strategies.

Removing inaccurate collections from your credit report

You can get a collection removed from your report if any part of the reporting is in error. In that case, according to The Fair Credit Reporting Act, when a consumer initiates a dispute, if the facts cannot be substantiated, the account must be removed from the report.

Here are some errors warranting removal of the collection account from your report (so check each collection on your report very carefully):

  • More than seven years from the date of default or date of last activity, whichever is more recent
  • Does not belong to you, or any part of the name is reported wrong
  • Never actually happened at all and you have proof
  • Any information about the account is reported incorrectly, such as the date, amount, account number, payments

Dispute any error by mail with both the credit reporting agency and the collection agency who reported it, including your supporting documents proving the error. Remember to keep a copy of everything you send.

Insider tip on small errors on legitimate collections you really do owe: Even if a collection account is removed from your credit file, if your state’s statute of limitations for collecting the debt has not passed, the collection agency will probably update its records with the correct information and report it to the credit bureau, where you will see the account reported correctly.

How to improve your credit and credit score after collections

Once a collections account is satisfied and reported as such, it won’t continue to pull your score down. The farther it is in the past, the more your score will continue to rise every month, assuming you have no other negative credit behaviors such as maxed out credit accounts, other late payments or other collections.

Follow up on disputes every 30 days to ensure that changes have been made and accounts are reported correctly. Contact the credit bureau and the collections agency again if not.

Keep making on time payments, checking your report for new errors and paying down other credit balances.

It’s a big, positive step in the right direction to improve your credit score, especially if late payments, collections or defaults have been a problem for you financially.

But if these issues snowball or persist, you may find yourself in the unenviable position of being sued by a lender or creditor. If a judge rules against you, that judgment becomes legal, public record and will probably show up on your credit report.

Credit judgments can hurt your credit score

If you’ve had a civil judgment handed down against you, it helps to know that it won’t stay on your credit report forever, and luckily, you have some control over the impact it has on your credit score.

If you’ve lost a civil lawsuit over a monetary dispute or unresolved/unpaid debt and the court has ordered you to pay, that judgment will be reported to the three credit bureaus and listed on your report.

Judgments can linger in your personal and financial life much longer than any of us would like them to. Depending on the state you live in, the statute of limitations for using a judgment to collect a debt is anywhere from five to 20 years.

Many state laws also permit multiple renewals of judgments, so the clock may keep ticking. Thankfully, the damage a financial judgment does to your credit report – and the length of time it stays listed there – isn’t quite as dire.

How long does a judgment stay on your credit report?

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Most judgments remain on your credit report for seven years from the date it was filed. This falls under guidelines set by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which essentially implies that anything longer is unfair to a consumer trying to move on with his or her life, financially speaking.

Other public records can linger on your credit report and impact your credit score for 10 years.

Don’t expect a negative mark or credit judgment to stay on your credit report for less than seven years – that much is relatively standard according to FCRA rules. But in terms of your credit score, a judgment may have less impact as time goes on. Generally, as more positive credit behavior gets listed on your credit report (like on-time payments, a good credit mix and low credit utilization), it’ll help raise your score and offset the damage caused by any collections or judgments.

How long does a foreclosure stay on your credit?

A home foreclosure will remain on your credit report for seven years after it’s been filed. The good news – like with a credit judgment – is that its impact to your FICO score, which is major at first, will diminish over time.

You may begin to see positive changes to your score within two years if you maintain good credit behavior and keep your overall credit in good standing. This is another example of how a negative listing doesn’t have to be a death knell to your credit if you take control of your finances and steer your credit in the right direction.

Soft credit checks and hard credit checks – how they affect your credit score

Myths and misconceptions abound regarding hard and soft credit checks, but the most concerning is confusion over which one actually affects your credit score.

In a nutshell, a hard credit inquiry can affect your credit score; a soft credit check cannot. A hard check is when a potential lender checks your credit report in response to your application for credit, and before deciding whether to approve your application. They’ll want to see your full credit history to determine how creditworthy you are.

This hard pull of your report can slightly ding your score, but not by much. Hard checks stay on your credit report for two years, but are only factored into your score for one year.

On the other hand, a soft credit check has no impact on your score. For example, when an individual or a business – say, a prospective employer – performs a background check on you. If you’ve ever been pre-qualified for a mortgage or a peer-to-peer loan, that’s the result of a soft check. Once you decide to go ahead with the application, the lender will make a hard inquiry.

Does checking your credit score lower it? Anytime you check your own credit it is a soft inquiry. Yes, you can check your credit as many times as you like with no negative effects.

The bottom line is that some credit incidents, be they judgments, foreclosures, debts, or hard inquiries impact your score, but not forever. While they may seem like they’ll never get erased from your credit report, give it time. In the meantime, take your finances into your own hands, rebuild your credit, and be proactive in raising your credit score using simple good financial habits.

Debt and your credit score

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Credit card debt in the U.S. is no joke. Nationally, consumers owe more than $733 billion on their cards, with an average household balance of nearly $16,000. Credit Sesame users carry average credit card debt of over $3,600.

These dollar figures make debt look like a hole that’s impossible to dig out of. Credit card debt can hurt your credit score, but when borrowers are unable to catch up on their payments, the burden gets heavier. Late payments and defaults cause further damage and prevent approval for other credit products – except at the very worst terms.

Debt affects your credit in a couple of ways. First, having any debt means you’ve got payments to make. If you make your payments on time, every month, you get points added to your credit score. If you don’t, your score will fall.

Second, even if you have credit available to you, using too much of it to take on debt will hurt you. Debt utilization – the balances you owe in relation to your credit limits – is a big part of your credit score. Don’t use more than 30% of your available credit (and get your balance as close to zero as possible). If you have a credit card with a $1,000 limit, your balance should be $300 or less.

Third, some creditors will look at your debt in the context of your income before approving you for a loan. In particular, mortgage lenders will verify that your monthly payments don’t exceed a certain percentage of your monthly take-home pay. Even if you make your payments on time and your credit score is decent, having too much debt will prevent you from qualifying for a mortgage.

How does credit card debt consolidation work?

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Debt consolidation means paying off several smaller debts with one larger new loan. Consolidation often results in a single, lower monthly payment. It only makes sense to consolidate if the interest rate on the new loan is lower than the average rate of the smaller debts.

Here are a few different ways to approach credit card debt consolidation:

1. Credit card debt consolidation
Balance transfer cards allow you to combine the high-interest debt from several credit cards onto one card, at a lower interest rate. It’s a positive way to better manage your debt, especially if you have a few cards you’re struggling to pay off with varying APRs. Many balance transfer cards may come with introductory 0% interest rates, so you can make meaningful progress on paying down your debt right away.

2. Obtain a debt consolidation loan
If you qualify, your bank, credit union or a private lender will give you a personal loan to pay off your credit card debt. This new loan will provide you with a new APR and new terms and conditions, easing your debt reduction through one, singular source. This loan is not revolving debt. The debt balance will not go up while you make fixed monthly payments (the way a credit card balance often does). You do not have to have stellar credit to get this type of loan. Debt consolidation loans for bad credit are available.

3. Seek out a debt management plan
A certified credit counseling agency is a great option for people struggling with credit card debt. When you enroll in a debt management plan, the counseling agency will work with your creditors to negotiate new terms (often including lower interest rates), including a payment plan. The debt management plan is designed to get rid of all of your unsecured debt within three to five years. You can find a free or low-cost certified counselor in your area by visiting NFCC.org.

Relieving mortgage and home loan debt

Mortgage relief is available to some borrowers who are struggling to keep up with payments. Visit MakingHomeAffordable.gov to find out if you are eligible for a loan modification or other assistance. The deadline to apply for HAMP (Home Affordable Modification Program) is December 30, 2016.

The Mortgage Forgiveness Relief Act is a law that helps borrowers who received mortgage relief between 2007 and 2014. Normally, forgiven debt is reported as income to the IRS. Under this Act, debt reduced through mortgage restructuring and some foreclosures and short sales during those years is excluded from income.

What about medical bill debt relief?

Medical bills on a credit report do impact your score (and not in a good way). Medical bills generally don’t show up on your credit report unless they are delinquent, so we’re talking about defaults and collections here. They remain in your file for seven years from the date of delinquency.

The good news about medical collections is that recent changes in the credit scoring industry give consumers the benefit of the doubt, and ample opportunity to clear the debt before it has a chance to torpedo their credit scores.

Medical debt will not appear on your credit report for at least 180 days. The extra time is meant to allow insurers to pay their portions before a consumer’s credit is dinged, or to give the consumer a chance to make payment arrangements. Once it does show up on your credit report, it will have less of an impact on your score than non-medical collections. So if you’ve got multiple collection accounts, your score will benefit the most if you pay off the non-medical bills first.

If you do let a medical bill go into default, pay it as soon as you can. Paid medical collections won’t hurt your credit score (the newest versions of FICO and VantageScore) at all, but unpaid medical collections will.

Consolidation tips

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Cut up your old credit cards but leave the accounts open. Having more available credit will help your credit score, especially as your balance goes down. If, however, you might be tempted to go out and use the credit cards you just consolidated, close the accounts. The hit to your credit score will not be as bad as ending up in debt that is worse than when you started.

Remember, a consolidation loan must be treated like any other credit product. Always pay your bill on time, every month, or you’ll damage your credit.

If you look at debt settlement options, be very careful. Debt settlement is when the creditor agrees to accept less than the full amount owed. One downside to debt settlement is that the forgiven amount will probably be reported as income to the IRS and you’ll owe taxes at the end of the year.

Watch out for debt settlement companies that look like debt counselors. Freedom Debt Relief and National Debt Relief, for example, are debt settlement companies. The way debt settlement companies work is this:

  • The company advises you to stop paying your bills
  • You make a monthly payment to the debt settlement company
  • Once the balance reaches a certain point, the company offers to settle your debt for less than what you owe
  • The process is repeated for each creditor
  • You also pay fees to the debt settlement company

This is a risky process for several reasons. First of all, late payments and collections are extremely damaging to your credit and remain in your file for seven years. You can’t even begin to rebuild your credit score until the entire debt settlement process is complete, and that could be years. Second, you’ll owe taxes on the amount forgiven. Last, the debt settlement company can’t make any deal that you wouldn’t be able to make yourself, for free.

How to pay off credit card debt

Paying off credit card debt is never easy. If it were, no one would struggle. Here are a few tips.

  • Remember that paying off credit card debt always involves financial sacrifices. Expect to do without some things that you want in order to make bigger payments toward your debt.
  • Snowball your payments. Choose a debt to pay off first. Make minimum payments on all of your other debt, but add any extra dollars you can squeeze out of your budget to the payment for debt number one.
  • Once debt number one is paid off, take the entire amount you were paying each month and add it to the minimum payment on debt number two.
  • Once debt number two is paid off, add the payments for debt number one and debt number two to your payment for debt number three.
  • Continue in this manner until debts are paid.
  • Avoid taking on new debt in the meantime.

It makes the most financial sense to start with the most expensive debt, but some people prefer to start with the smallest debt. Paying off a smaller debt will get you to your first payoff faster, giving you a great boost of motivation to continue. Paying off an expensive debt will save you money in interest charges and ultimately get you out of debt sooner.

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Here’s a helpful infographic that explains changes in your credit score

UnderstandingCreditScore-Infographic

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Published July 13, 2016
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