Your credit score is one of many pillars of your finances. While you can survive without credit, you can go much further with an excellent credit score. This is why people are always looking for tips on how to improve a poor credit score or make an average one better.
Experian’s 2020 Consumer Credit Review tells us the average FICO score in the U.S. hit an all-time high of 710 in 2020, which is good. Perhaps you’re wondering how you can get your score to this point or higher. It is possible, but it takes work, consistency, and the right knowledge. That’s why we’ve brought together nine finance experts who know the secret to excellent credit. Keep reading to learn how to increase your score and keep it high.
Table of contents:
Benefits of a good credit score
A good credit score can sometimes take you places that even robust savings can’t. There are endless benefits of having an excellent track record as a borrower and paying bills on time. Here are a few of these benefits according to our finance experts.
One of the most liberating feelings is financial stability. Knowing you have the money or access to resources needed to pay your bills and live comfortably can give you peace of mind. Good credit can help you attain financial stability, as you may have access to more lucrative jobs. It can also help you qualify for loans that can help you create your own stream of income.
Ibo Dusi, Chief Operations Officer, Happy Money shares some benefits of a good score.
EXPERT: Ibo Dusi – Happy Money
“A good credit score can help you on the journey to financial stability as you’ll often end up paying lower interest rates and may find more success in securing a job.”
If you didn’t know, some employers check your credit and use it as a determining factor during the hiring process.
Dusi continues, “…Employers often pull your credit when considering you for a new job or even a promotion. Whether you’ll be working with kids, handling money, or in a role that requires a security clearance, good credit shows responsibility and reliability and could put you at the top of the list.”
For those looking to move beyond conventional career paths, credit can open doors of opportunity. Not everybody uses loans to start a business, but they can be a helpful resource. Without an impressive credit score, your chances of being approved for business loans are slim.
Rebecca Lake, Personal Finance Expert, shares more on this.
EXPERT: Rebecca Lake – Boss Single Mama
“If you want to start a business so you can be your own boss, a good credit score can help you secure loans to get your idea off the ground.”
Easier Access to Utilities
It isn’t always common knowledge that you need good credit to qualify for some utilities. It may be shocking when you try to take out an internet contract and the service provider runs a credit check. The same applies when it comes time to rent an apartment or get a cellphone contract.
According to Dusi, “People may not realize that with a good credit score, you’ll receive more favorable terms on the small things too—such as signing a contract with your cellphone or internet provider.”
He continues, “These contracts are actually a form of credit since you’re committing to pay the provider for the term of the contract. So keep in mind, if they see red flags in your payment history, you could be denied service or be stuck with unfavorable terms.”
This is a reminder to keep up with your utility payments, as failing to pay could hurt your credit in some scoring models. Also, as Dusi states, utilities are an unconventional way of building your credit score outside of loans and credit cards. Alternative credit scoring models like UltraFICO, Connect, and Experian Boost can report your payment history to credit bureaus to help generate a credit score. We’ll discuss more about how this works below.
Better Insurance Rates
When you apply for car insurance, your credit score can influence the cost of your monthly premium in some states. Insurance providers sometimes use what’s called a credit-based auto insurance score (as one of many ways) to determine how likely you are to claim and pay your monthly premiums. If your credit score isn’t on the high-end of the spectrum, you could pay high premiums.
Likewise, your credit score can also affect the premiums you pay on life insurance.
Personal Finance Writer Myles Ma provides better insight on this.
EXPERT: Myles Ma – Policygenius
“Life insurance may not be the first thing that comes to mind when consumers think of good credit. A good credit score won’t directly lead to better life insurance premiums, but the behaviors that lead to a good credit score can. For example, life insurance companies won’t look at your credit score, but they will look at your credit report and generate an insurance score. They based this score is based on your income, debts, insurance history and driving history. Similar to your credit score, a history of bankruptcy and missed payments will bring your insurance score down and potentially bring your insurance premiums up. But you can’t look up your insurance score.”
If you enjoy going on vacation, that’s another incentive to build your score. A high credit score can give you access to luxury vacations that would otherwise cost you thousands of dollars. Andrew Chen, founder of Hack Your Wealth, says with a good credit score, you can get pre-approved for discounted vacations.
He gives us a real-life example of how having a great score landed him a luxury vacation.
EXPERT: Andrew Chen – Hack Your Wealth
“A few years back, I took my wife to London and Paris for two weeks. We stayed in fancy five-star hotels for zero dollars for the entire two weeks because we could redeem loyalty points that we had earned on premium credit cards our high credit scores had given us access to. We also redeemed those points for free round-trip flights. Our only expenses were food, drinks, and museum tickets.”
Maintaining a good credit score
Building your credit score is a game of consistency, and so is maintaining it. The key is to keep the elements used to calculate your credit score at the forefront of your mind and let them guide your financial decisions.
Here are a few expert tips on maintaining a good score and avoiding long and short-term dips.
Keep utilization low
credit utilization. is the second biggest factor that influences your score. Experts advise you only use 30% of your available credit within a single billing cycle. Using more could cause a dip in your score as lenders flag you as a risky borrower. The assumption is that if you’re close to maxing out your cards every month, you may be experiencing financial difficulties.
Adams explains it best stating, “The second most important factor in credit scores is how much debt you owe and your credit utilization. Using a smaller percentage of your available credit on revolving accounts (such as credit cards and lines of credit) boosts your scores. And the opposite is true when you use more of your available credit. That causes your utilization ratio to spike and your credit scores to drop quickly. Using more of your available credit is a signal that you might make late payments in the future and could be a higher risk to creditors.”
Pay bills on time
Late payments can occur for various reasons, including financial hardships or simply forgetting to pay. However, missing a payment can damage your score, so avoid it at all costs. Pay the minimum payment and set a reminder or automate the payment so you don’t forget. If you can’t pay on time for any reason, contact the service provider to see how they can help.Your payment history is the biggest influencer—driving 35% of your score—so it’s extremely important to pay your bills on time and pay at least the minimum required balance. —Myles Ma @policygenius Click To Tweet
Avoid closing cards
If you aren’t using a credit card account or you’re tempted to overspend, you may consider closing it. This can negatively affect your score, so think twice before doing it. Two common outcomes you may experience are:
- Score drop because your available credit reduces and your utilization ratio shoots up
- Score drop because the average age of your credit drops
If it’s the oldest account on your credit report or you don’t have many accounts open, you could especially be susceptible to these negative effects.Closing a credit card can cause a dip in your credit score. So even if you are no longer using the card, keep it open. You can even cut it up so it’s out of reach but keep the line of credit open. —Ibo Dusi @happymoney Click To Tweet
This isn’t to say you should never close a credit account; high annual fees, high interest rates, and insurmountable debt are a few reasons to close it. Just consider the implications before doing it. Even if you decide to close an account and your score drops, it should go back up within a few months assuming you pay your other credit accounts on time and keep utilization low.
Rate shop within a two-week period
What happens to your score when you’re buying a new car or looking for a perfect mortgage? In some cases, multiple inquiries within a short period can cause it to drop. However, there is a trick to protect your score, which Dusi shares.
“As you may know, repeated inquiries can cause a dip in your score. So, if you’re rate shopping for a mortgage or auto loan, make sure you complete all loan applications within a two-week period and you’ll take advantage of FICO’s 30-day credit inquiry grace period.”
The exception to this rule is shopping for credit card accounts; multiple applications within a short timeframe will hurt your score.
Ask for removals
Mistakes happen, and sometimes, lenders are more forgiving than you think. If you have a missed payment, for example, call your loan or credit card servicer and ask if they can remove it.
Dusi advises, “Ask for forgiveness. We’re all human. One or two hits are likely to happen to even the most perfect credit scores. Go to the credit bureau or lender and ask how you can work to remove the ding to your score. And proactively engage with the lender before you’re delinquent to avoid credit score dips. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and be prepared to make a good case for why you deserve the chance to fix whatever caused the dip.”
Consider the implications of paying off loans
Paying off a loan is something worth celebrating. Sadly, it doesn’t always reflect positively on your score. Why is this? Some reasons it could drop include:
- It affects your credit mix. For instance, if you have four accounts open—one is an installment loan and the other three are credit cards, you would no longer have a good credit mix once you paid off the installment loan.
- It was the only account with a low balance
Ma explains in more detail, “A tip that often gets overlooked is to space out major credit moves, such as paying off a loan. My credit score recently dipped after I paid off my car. A major change to your credit like that can temporarily decrease your score because you’re reducing the variety of your credit mix or shortening your credit history. Before paying off a loan or making a big change to your credit, make sure your credit score is high enough to withstand the small dip.”
Ma also advises that after paying off a loan, you should wait before applying for new credit. “Once you do pay off a loan, I recommend waiting a month or two before applying for new debt to allow your credit score to stabilize and help you be eligible for better rates.”
Rest assured, the dip is temporary, and your credit score should bounce back after a few months of consistency.
Live within your means
Not everyone is good at budgeting and saving. Developing these skills is key if you want to maintain a good credit score. You can use apps like Tiller to help you stay on track and monitor spending.
Most importantly, avoid emotional spending. It can lead to credit card debt and take you on a downward spiral financially.Stop spending money you don’t have to buy things you don’t absolutely need. —Laura Adams @lauraadams Click To Tweet
Build an excellent credit score
Good is good but wouldn’t you like a very good or dare we say an excellent credit score? From adding new credit to your credit mix or making sure your utilization stays low it’s possible with careful planning.
Become an authorized user
What is an authorized user? This is when a credit card user adds you to their account and gives you the authorization to use their card. If you can convince someone to add you as an authorized user, you could be well on your way to an impressive score.
Get a secured card
To get a conventional credit card, you often need to pass many checks. Your credit history is one of the influencing factors. If you don’t have a spotless credit history or have no credit history, lenders may be reluctant to approve a credit card or you may face much higher interest rates. To overcome this challenge, get a secured credit card.
According to personal finance expert Laura Adams,
EXPERT: Laura Adams – Personal Finance Expert
“Using a secured credit card that reports payment history to one or more credit bureaus is one of the easiest ways to build credit from scratch. They work like a regular card, except you must pay a refundable security deposit, which becomes your credit limit.”
Note that not all providers report to bureaus, so be intentional about choosing one that does. Are you wondering how much the deposit is for a secured credit card?
Adams answers this by saying, “The required deposit varies depending on the secured card you choose; it could be as low as $50 or have a maximum of $5,000. Making a larger deposit allows you to use a secured card for larger purchases.”
When you don’t have access to credit or you’re just starting out, you can use other people’s creditworthiness to build your own. Lake shares more insight stating,One of the easiest ways to build good credit is to ask someone you know to add you to one of their credit cards as an authorized user. This allows you to essentially piggyback off their good credit history. —Rebecca Lake @seemomwrite Click To Tweet
Don’t worry about having to share a card with the account holder; you should get your own card with your name on it. Becoming an authorized user is also beneficial for those with children or teenagers. You can help them get ahead by simply listing them as an authorized user.
EXPERT: Natalie Graham – Go From Broke
“You’ll get the benefit of their credit history without having to do anything yourself. Some people may be reluctant to do this but remind them they don’t need to actually give you a card or even access to the account. Simply being named on the account is all you need. This is an especially great way for parents to help their kids build credit.”
Some people don’t know, but you can get someone to cosign on a loan you wouldn’t approve for on your own.
CEO David Melnicoe further explains how this works.
EXPERT: David Melnicoe – Tradeline Supply
“Credit “piggybacking” allows you to build credit by becoming associated with another person’s good credit. For example, you could have someone with good credit cosign or guarantee a loan that you might not qualify for otherwise, or you could open a joint credit account with that person.”
Use a newer scoring model
Conventional scoring models use the following factors to calculate your credit score;
- Payment history 35%
- Amount owed 30%
- Credit history 15%
- New credit 10%
- Mix/Types of credit 10%
What happens when you’re new to the country, just clocking 18, or have little credit history? This is when alternative credit models can benefit you. They factor in other things like utility bill payments.
As Lake rightly states, “Something else worth noting is that newer credit scoring models are now taking things like rent and utility payments into account. So, something as simple as paying your rent or electric bill on time can work in your favor for building credit.”
Here are three alternative credit scoring models to know about.
Ultra FICO: Ultra FICO enables you to share your checking, savings, and Money Market Accounts with credit bureaus. This helps boost your score as lenders can see if you pay your bills on time.
Experian Boost: Another alternative is Experian Boost, which allows you to build credit using things like Netflix, phone contracts, and utilities. It’s an extension of Experian—one of the largest credit bureaus in the country. Unlike other alternate scores, using Experian Boost increases any FICO score based on your Experian credit report.
How does it work? Ma explains, “Services like Experian Boost let you connect the account(s) you use to pay your bills and add the payment data to your Experian credit file.”
Connect: Connect is the first organization ever to help consumers build an accurate bill payment history with rental, utility, and other recurring bill payments. An added bonus is it’s free to use.
Pay balances early
When you have credit cards or a loan, one of the terms of condition is paying an agreed amount by the due date. This greatly affects your score as payment history comprises 35% of a FICO score. Paying balances before the due date can have positive effects and reduce the likelihood of late payments.
Andrew Chen explains, “Typically, the credit utilization statistics reported by your credit card issuers to the credit bureaus are sent at the end of your monthly billing cycle, when your statement closes.”
He continues, “What you can do is just pay off your balance slightly before the end of your statement closing date each month. When your credit card issuer reports your credit balance to the credit bureaus, it will look like you are using little to no credit (because you’ve already paid off the balance for the month). The balance your card issuer sends to the credit bureaus is lower, which makes your computed utilization lower, which increases your credit score—but really all you’ve done is just pay your bill off a few days early.”
Check your credit report
Something people sometimes overlook when building credit is their report. Checking it regularly is key, as mistakes sometimes happen.
“If you are looking to build your credit, it’s a good idea to read through your credit report carefully and check for errors that may be lowering your score. Common credit report mistakes include things that may seem harmless, like a misspelled name or wrong address, but could be signs of identity theft that could result in your score taking a hit,” says Myles Ma.
Sometimes mistakes on your credit report are harmless. In more serious cases, it could be identity theft. What happens in the event someone steals your credit or is using your information? Ma gives detailed advice on what to do if you’re in this situation.
“If your identity has been stolen, you may also see accounts you don’t recognize or duplicate accounts, or even delinquencies on accounts you don’t have. All of these can have negative effects on your score, so it’s important to file a dispute with the credit bureau reporting these mistakes. Reporting an error, and ultimately having the mistake removed could result in a score increase. As the credit bureaus don’t share information with each other, make sure you’re looking at all three main credit reports for any mistakes and reporting them to the corresponding bureau.”
When you have a poor credit score, sometimes it’s best to seek professional help. Trying to improve your score on your own can take time and resources you may not have.
John Rampton, founder of Due.com gives us an example of how helpful outsourcing financial challenges can be.
Credit repair services can help you remove negative marks on your credit report. Before choosing a company, check reviews, and understand how the services work. Rampton gives insight saying,
EXPERT: John Rampton – Due.com
“When I got married, my wife had a horrible credit score. Literally in the 400s. I have always had 750+ credit, so I didn’t get it. She had a car repoed, stopped paying on credit cards, missed hospital bills. Life gets hard, we lose our jobs, crap happens. I get it. I didn’t realize how low it was, but it was something where we hired someone to fix her credit. Cost us around $150 a month and a LOT of our time hounding them to do what we needed them to do.”
“How credit repair works with the company we hired, they send legal notes to creditors telling them to remove the bad credit once it’s been paid off. Over the course of around a year and a half (total cost was around $2k plus 60 to 80 hours) we were able to improve her credit from mid 400s to high 700s.”
You should also consider using credit counseling services as they can provide debt management advice. You can also try debt consolidation as it helps negotiate lower interest rates and consolidate your debt.
Getting a handle on debt—particularly if you have past-due accounts, can help you stop credit damage so you can start rebuilding.
Is your credit rating holding you back? Find out how to fix it.
Advice for those afraid to use credit
When you think about the work that goes into maintaining credit, it can be off-putting. Some people resort to avoiding credit altogether, especially if they’ve had unpleasant experiences with debt.
Feelings of fear are valid, but it’s necessary to put things into perspective. If at any point you want to finance a house or car, take out a loan, apply for utilities, or even get a dream job, you may need good credit.
Personal finance expert Dominique Broadway advises,
EXPERT: Dominique Broadway – Finances Demystified
“Don’t be afraid to use credit! I know many times you will hear people telling their stories of how they got into tons of debt and are therefore scared of credit. However, if you use your credit responsibly, it will help you save thousands of dollars when getting a car, buying a home, and more. Credit can also give you the ability to leverage other people’s money to grow your wealth!”
1. Don’t borrow more than you can afford
Sometimes, people have bad experiences with credit because they’re overspending. Credit can seem like free money but it’s not—you often pay interest on what you’re spending (if balances aren’t paid in full every month).
As David Melnicoe says, “You do not have to go into debt or go overboard on spending to use credit successfully. Start small by opening a credit card, using it to pay for some of your usual expenses, and paying off the balance in full every month.”
Budgeting can also help you live within your means. If you’re new to credit, create a budget before you get a card. Irrespective of your credit limit, only spend what you can afford to pay back.
Ma suggests, “Before opening a credit account, it’s a good idea to create a budget. This can help you control your spending and determine the maximum amount you should charge on your credit card each month, so you don’t overspend. As a starting point, Policygenius offers a user-friendly and free budget spreadsheet that you can download and easily personalize.”
2. Educate yourself
There are tons of resources you can use to learn about credit and how it works. The more educated you are about credit, the less intimidating it may seem.
Rampton says, “Read the advice of the richest people in America. They ALL used credit to get where they are. Don’t take advice from just one person—read, listen and acquire the knowledge it takes to make you comfortable with the decision. Never borrow more than you know you can pay back. Never take unnecessary risk.”
Credit can help you build financial freedom and also make it easier to access the resources that you need to make your dreams come true. Lake shares a similar perspective as Rampton on the importance of self-education.
“Credit is really just a tool, and if used properly, it can help you get the things you want or need without leaving you in a pile of debt. If you’re wary about falling into a debt trap by using credit cards or loans, then the first step is learning how they work. That means understanding things like APR, grace periods, fees, etc. From there, you can start to learn those positive credit habits mentioned earlier that can help you build a good credit score.”
3. Start small if you’re new to credit
When you’re new to credit, building your score can start with a single credit card or store card. You don’t have to go all out and get anything overwhelming. The goal should be to start building credit history as early as you can.
“We understand that getting a credit card or signing on for a loan can be scary, especially if it’s the first time you’ve applied for credit of any kind. But by taking a proactive approach to your credit score, starting small and starting early, you can save tens of thousands of dollars over time with lower interest rates and payments. You can use credit wisely,” Dusi says.
You can decide to only use your credit card for specific expenses like utility bills or groceries.
4. Take advantage of saving opportunities
Credit cards in particular offer many saving opportunities. You can get discounts at certain stores, reward points, rental car insurance and much more depending on the card you have. Find out the benefits of various credit card providers and choose one that aligns with your goals. For example, if you travel often, you may want a card that offers travel miles or points when you spend.
Managing credit isn’t a score we’re taught in school, but it isn’t impossible to learn in adulthood. With discipline and the knowledge the finance experts above shared, you should see your credit score climbing up the ladder in due time.
Working to improve your credit? Try CreditSmart free for 14 days.
Article last modified on May 12, 2023. Published by Debt.com, LLC