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9 Ways Your Credit Score Can Make Life Heaven or Hell

How to Improve Your Credit Score Step-by-Step » Understanding Your Credit Score » How to Improve Your Credit Score Step-by-Step



There are two main steps to improve your credit score:

1. Repair 

2. Rebuild 

This guide teaches you how to do both. We’ll also point you to paid services when they’re available, so you can decide if it’s worth the cost. If you have any questions or need help achieving the score you want, just head over to’s Credit Help Center.

Why do I need to improve my credit score?

Your credit score can make or break some of your life’s big milestones. Whether you’re trying to get a small personal loan or attempting to secure a mortgage, your score will be used by lenders to judge your creditworthiness. It will affect your ability to make big purchases or borrow money in addition to affecting the interest rates you receive.

A low credit score means you’re less likely to get a loan in the first place, and if you do, it may come with a high-interest rate. So, whether you’re just starting out or you need to rebuild after a period of financial distress, knowing how to improve your credit score is essential. You can always pay a professional to do the work if you have the means, but not the time. However, there is nothing that paid credit repair and restoration services provider that you can’t effectively do on your own.

Below is a quick snapshot of the process and the differences between the free and paid methods of credit improvement. You can read more about each step below and find a helpful FAQ at the end of this page.

How to improve your credit score step-by-step:

The Free WayThe Paid Way
Repair: Download your credit reportsGo to annualcreditreport.comPay a credit repair service to obtain them or subscribe to a credit monitoring service
Repair: Review reports for errors / negative itemsReview your reports yourselfCredit repair service completes a review and confirms errors with you
Repair: Dispute any errors to have info removedMake all disputes yourself directly with the bureausState-licensed credit repair attorney makes disputes on your behalf
Rebuild:  Offset negative items with positive actionsDo this without credit monitoring or with a free serviceUse paid credit monitoring to track score improvement
Rebuild: Gradually build credit to achieve the score you wantIf you’re not monitoring, expect score improvement within one to two yearsWith monitoring, you can exactly gauge when you’re done

Step 1: Repair

Download your credit reports for free

Fixing your credit fast with free yearly credit reports

There is really one place that allows you to download your credit reports for free with honestly no strings attached. It’s This is a government-mandated website that was launched as part of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. That law states that every consumer can request a free copy of their credit report once every twelve months. is the portal they created to make that possible.

This is not run by a private company and there is no hidden way of charging you later. You don’t even enter credit card information to access it. Just answer a few security questions based on the information contained in your report. Then you can download your credit reports from each of the three credit bureaus.

There is no requirement to download all three at once. In theory, they should all say the same thing. However, errors and discrepancies can occur—that’s part of the reason you need to download your reports. So, you need to decide if you want to download all of them or just one at a time.

  • If you just recovered from financial distress, you may want all three. That’s because you want to make sure that all three reporting agencies show your newly debt-free and financially stable status.
  • If you’re just working to improve your credit over time, you may only need one. This allows you to download the three reports throughout the year, giving you better tracking ability.

If you download all three reports then decide that you want to check them again within that year, you’ll usually have to pay. You can either pay a specific bureau for another copy OR you can use a paid credit monitoring service. But, if you use the free downloads strategically, you may be able to avoid this cost.

Review your credit reports

Once you get your reports it’s time to read through them. If you’ve never looked at your report, don’t be intimidated! We have a resource page that can walk you through reading your report. Basically, there are two main goals to accomplish as you review your report:

  1. You must identify any errors, mistakes or discrepancies that you need to dispute.
  2. You also need to review the negative items that are not errors to see where your credit actually stands.

The first part of this exercise relates to credit repair. About 1 in 20 reports contains at least one error, and 1 in 5 says something that damages your score.  So, you need to check to make sure that your credit reports are accurate. This is what you need to look out for:

  • Incorrect personal information, including aliases that aren’t you
  • Accounts that don’t belong to you
  • Duplicate accounts (i.e. the report lists your mortgage twice)
  • Missed payments that you made on time
  • Incorrect or out-of-date account statuses or balance amounts
  • Collection accounts that aren’t yours

Any of those items can lead to credit problems for you and many would decrease your score if they exist. So, you want to make sure your report is accurate and error-free. If you find a discrepancy, highlight it for the next step.

In addition to mistakes, you also want to take note of any negative information that’s legitimate. These are items that contribute to a lower credit score. Knowing what those items help you craft an effective strategy to offset that damage.

Dispute any items that are incorrect

Take the right steps to repair your credit

By law, you can dispute items in your credit file that you believe are inaccurate. You simply contact the credit bureau and ask them to verify the item. They have 30 days to verify that the information is correct with the creditor. If it can’t be verified, they must remove it and provide a new copy of your report showing the correction.

That is the sum total of what credit repair is, despite any rip-offs or horror stories that you heard. It’s not the credit repair process that’s shady – it’s many credit repair companies. These companies often make bold guarantees about improving your score by a certain amount. That’s not possible to guarantee, which is why these companies get into trouble.

That’s not to say that there are no legitimate third-party credit repair services either. However, if you decide to use a paid credit repair service, just check the company’s background thoroughly. In order to legally repair your credit on your behalf, they must have a state-licensed attorney on staff that is authorized to make a dispute. Check independent review websites and make sure a company has a proven record before you sign up for anything.

However, just to be clear, even a legitimate credit repair company cannot do anything that you can’t do yourself. If you hire a company, they will review your reports, identify potential discrepancies and make disputes on your behalf. It’s the exact same thing as free credit repair, just without the hassle of doing it yourself.

Depending on the number of items you need to dispute and how promptly you correspond with the credit bureaus, these first three steps generally take anywhere from 1-2 months.

Video Transcript

How to improve your credit score.

Credit scores affect so many aspects of a person’s life – from interest rates on loans, what kind of mortgage you’re eligible for to the job you can get. So how can you improve your credit score?

Here are’s top tips for raising your credit score.

The most important tip is to simply make your payment on time – this alone accounts for 35 percent of your score. Credit scores are determined by what’s in your credit report. If you’re late paying your bills it damages your credit and hurts your credit score.

Another major factor in determining your credit score is how much revolving credit you have versus how much you’re actually using. The smaller that percentage is, the better it is for your credit rating. The optimum is 30 percent or less. To boost your score, pay down your balances, and keep those balances low.

If you have multiple credit card balances, consolidating them with a loan or consolidation program could help your credit score.

It is also good to keep old accounts on your credit reports. The longer your credit history is, the better it is for your score.

If you’re shopping for a home, car or student loan, it pays to do your rate shopping within a short time period.

Every time you apply for credit, it can cause a small dip in your credit score. However, with three kinds of loans — mortgage, auto and student loans — scoring formulas allow for the fact that you’ll make multiple applications but take out only one loan.

Sometimes, the best way to improve your credit score is to not do something that could damage it – like missing payments or paying less than the amount due.

Be sure to go to www DOT Annual Credit Report DOT Com to pull your credit reports for free every year. And remember, if you pay your bills on time and use credit responsibly your credit score will reflect these smart spending behaviors.

If you would like more information on how to make your credit score better fill out our form or better yet, call us so we help you find the best solution for your situation. We are A-plus rated by the better business bureau and have helped thousands of people become financially stable.

When life happens, we’re here for you.

Step 2: Rebuild

Evaluate the negative information you’re up against

Once you remove all the errors, any negative information left gives you an idea of how much work you have. This step begins the slower part of the process: rebuilding your credit. There’s no quick fix here. In order to achieve the credit score you want, it takes effort and time.

The focus here is about taking positive actions that help you build credit while avoiding negative actions that hurt it. This works because the impact of negative information on your score decreases over time. In other words, a missed payment last month hurts you much worse than a missed payment six years ago. So, although most negative items stick around on your credit for seven years, they don’t carry the same weight over that time.

As a result, you can offset negative items incurred in the past with positive actions now. At the same time, you avoid taking any actions that could decrease your score. This means:

  • Making all payments on time
  • Keeping credit utilization low by not running up balances on your credit cards
  • Gradually opening credit to avoid opening too many accounts at once
  • Maintaining a good, healthy mix of good types of debt
  • Avoiding account closures that could decrease the length of your credit history

Get professional help to clean up errors in your credit report.

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Ways to get to an 800 credit score

The right way to build credit is incrementally and gradually; that’s true whether you’re new to credit or rebuilding after bankruptcy. You don’t want to take on too much new debt at once and you don’t want to overextend yourself. So, you take baby steps to better credit.

Reduce credit card debt

Did you know that how much credit card debt you have can lower your credit score? That’s because your credit utilization rate — the percentage of revolving debt you have to available credit — accounts for about 30 percent of your total score. To help raise your score, pay credit card balances down.

Ideally, your credit utilization rate should be below 30 percent. For example, if you have $15,000 in available credit on all your credit cards, your total credit card balances should be less than $4,500. Reducing your credit card debt amount even more will also have a positive impact on your credit score.

Make all payments on time

Payment history is the biggest factor in your credit score calculation, accounting for 35 percent of the total score. So, if payment history is dragging down your score, making all payments on time will likely improve your credit. It may take time, since late payment information stays on your credit report for up to seven years or up to seven or ten years when you file bankruptcy.

That may sound like a long time, but think about it. Some old accounts may have already been on your credit report for years. As each negative payment history drops off after seven years, your score should gradually improve — as long as you keep making timely payments on other accounts.

Keep older accounts open

If you have an old credit card account that you never use, don’t close the account. That card’s credit limit and zero balance and credit limit work in your favor when it comes to your credit utilization ratio. To make sure the credit card issuer doesn’t lower your credit limit for non-use, charge a small item every six months to a year and then pay it off with the next statement.

Get new credit

Even if your credit is already good enough to be approved for lots of credit cards, don’t go crazy applying for as many as possible. When you open several new accounts within a short period, creditors and credit reporting agencies may see you as a greater credit risk, which can lower your score slightly.

  1. Start by getting a secured credit card that’s designed to help people with low scores build credit.
  2. You open this credit line with a small cash deposit, then you typically have a credit line equal to the deposit you made.
  3. Make practical, reasonable charges that you can pay off in full at the end of every month.

This system keeps your net utilization ratio a 0%—that’s the second biggest factor in credit score calculations. It also builds a monthly positive payment history, which is the most important credit factor.

After about six months with this account, consider taking on more debt. You can either open another credit card or apply for a loan. Creditors consider traditional loans to be good debt, so they help your score. If you need a car, apply for an auto loan you can afford. If not, consider a personal loan and use the funds for an investment, home renovation project, or even a vacation.

Once you secure the new loan or credit card, continue making payments. If you take on multiple credit cards, always make sure to keep your utilization ratio below 10%. That means if your total credit limit is $1,000, then you should never carry a balance of more than $100. To be clear, you do not need to carry any balance over a month to month to achieve a good score. Paying off your balances in full every month allows you to use credit interest-free, avoid debt problems, and still build credit.

Mistakes to Avoid When Trying to Improve Bad Credit

Having good credit can be very helpful when taking out loans or applying for credit cards. Your credit is the report card major financial institutions use when making decisions about lending money or extending consumer credit.

This is why it’s important to stay on top of your credit score and review your credit report regularly. According to data that credit bureau TransUnion pulled for, more than a quarter of consumers have bad or subprime credit. This is defined as having a credit score between 300 and 600.

While a number of behaviors that hurt your credit are pretty obvious such as being late on payments, others can be quite surprising. Some of the ways you think you’re helping your credit may actually be messing with your score.

Not reviewing your credit report

Before you can improve your credit score, you need to know the factors on your credit report that are dragging down your score. For example there could be errors on the report that you can correct to improve your credit score.

You can get a free copy of your credit report at You can also get one free copy a year from each of the three major credit bureaus Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.

Not correcting mistakes on your credit report

One in 5 Americans has a mistake on their credit report, says a Federal Trade Commission report. These types of mistakes can be damaging to your credit score. They could affect your likelihood of receiving credit or the terms of credit received.

Make sure you review your credit report annually and keep an eye out for anything that looks unfamiliar or incorrect. When you see errors on your credit report, always contact the creditor in writing to have the inaccuracy removed from the report. Not much of a letter writer? Then use this sample credit report dispute letter to compose your own dispute letter.

Falling for a credit repair scam

If a for-profit company tells you that it can remove negative information from your credit report for a fee, don’t sign up for its services. “The truth is that no company can legally erase information from your file if it’s accurate,” according to major credit bureau Experian.

Credit repair scammers are eager to prey on desperate people, but you can remove errors yourself for free by contacting the creditors who reported the inaccurate information.

Making late payments

A major factor in your credit score calculation is payment history, which accounts for around 35% of your credit score. To improve your credit score, build a positive payment history by making all credit card and loan payments on time.

Paying a credit card or loan a few days late once or twice isn’t likely to lower your credit score. However, when you make late payments that exceed 30 days late, late payments can show up as negative credit history and lower your credit score.

But what about those old accounts that have been dogging you for the last five years? The good news is that negative payment history on a credit account automatically drops off your credit report after seven years, so the passage of time – in conjunction with making timely payments on current accounts – can raise your credit score significantly.

Making a payment on an ancient debt

One of the worst things you can do while trying to improve your credit is make a payment on a “time-barred” debt that falls outside your state statute of limitations. Making a payment can restart that debt, keeping that negative payment history on your credit report for years longer than if you hadn’t made a payment.

Statute of limitation laws on debt vary by state and average three to six years, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). To find your state statute of limitations, contact your state attorney general’s office.

Find out: 7 Mistakes That Can Bring Old Debt Back to Life

Having a high credit balance

Did you know that your credit utilization ratio – the percentage of revolving credit debt to your available credit –accounts for around 30% of your credit score? A high credit utilization rate lowers your credit score while a lower credit utilization rate typically raises the score.

Ideally, it’s wise to keep your credit utilization rate at no more than 30%. So, if you are running balances on one or more credit cards, pay as much as possible on them to get those balances down or paid off.

Even if you make your payments on time every month having a high credit balance can hurt you. It goes back to that credit utilization rate, which affects how lenders view your creditworthiness.

Having a low credit utilization rate will earn you a better score than if you’re close to maxing out your cards. Paying off your card every month doesn’t guarantee a low credit utilization rate.

Your available balance and credit limit are generally reported when your billing cycle closes. This means that even if you pay off your balance in full each month, getting close to reaching your credit card limit can lower your score.

Closing old credit cards you’re no longer using

While it may seem logical that you should close some of the old credit cards you no longer use, the opposite is true. One of the factors that determine your credit score is your length of credit history. If you close an old credit card, your credit history becomes much shorter, which can affect your score.

Additionally, closing a credit card reduces your available credit, which is another criterion used to calculate your score. Having less available credit will increase your credit utilization rate.

For example, if you have an old credit card with a $5,000 limit and a new card with a $2,000 limit, your total available credit is $7,000. If you have a $1,000 balance on the new card, your credit utilization rate is roughly 14 percent. However, if you close the old credit card, your rate will shoot up to 50 percent.

Find out: How and When Should You Cancel a Credit Card

Opening several new credit cards in a short amount of time

Did you open a new credit card at the mall, so you can get 10 percent off your purchase? Then you got home and saw a credit card offer promising you free travel, so you applied? While these cards can seem like good deals, proceed with caution.

Any time you open a new credit card, the card issuer will check your credit. It’s called an “inquiry” and it shows up on your credit report where it will stay for two years. Too many of these types of inquiries on your report can be a red flag for lenders since it could be an indicator that you may get in over your head with debt.

Additionally, every new card lowers the average age of your credit, which is another important factor in determining your score. Having a long credit history makes you more creditworthy in the eyes of lenders who value a successful track record of managing debt. Be especially careful about opening new credit cards if you plan to take out a big loan such as a mortgage.

Becoming a cosigner on a credit card or loan

You may want to help someone with poor credit by cosigning on a car loan or adding a friend or one of your kids as an authorized user on your credit card. Those are risky endeavors for your credit score (and your relationship with that person), however.

That’s because if your friend, kid, or other relative pays late frequently or defaults on payments, you’re the one ultimately responsible for the amount owed and the effects of those late or missed payments on your credit history.

Instead of cosigning, do your friend a favor and advise them to save a few hundred dollars to work as a deposit on a secured credit card. With a secured credit card, the issuer restricts the credit limit to the amount of the deposit to reduce the credit card issuer’s risk.

Suggest the person with poor credit also meet with a credit counselor at a nonprofit credit counseling agency. The credit counselor can help them create a budget and/or debt payoff plan. The credit counselor can also help them create better money habits and suggest ways to improve their credit score.

Not using credit at all

If you don’t use credit, you don’t need to worry about having bad credit, right? Wrong! While it may seem financially responsible to put off using credit until you actually need it, not having credit history is a red flag for lenders.

To build your credit history, you need to use credit. However, this doesn’t mean you have to go in debt to establish your creditworthiness. If you open a single credit card and pay off your balance in full every month, you can slowly but surely build your score.

Find out: How to Build Credit Without a Credit Card

Paying with a debit card for your car rental

Using your debit card to pay for your next car rental may cost you more than the price of the rental itself. According to credit bureau Equifax, some rental companies will pull your credit report if you use a debit card instead of a credit card.

This, in turn, can show up on your report as an inquiry, hurting your credit. In addition, if your credit does not meet the rental company’s criteria, you may not be able to rent from them. Review your car rental agreement closely and check for any verbiage about pulling your credit if you use a debit card. You can also just ask what their policy is in these types of situations.

Saving up to pay cash for a car instead of taking out a loan

Saving up to pay cash for a car may seem smart. However, avoiding installment loans such as car loans can hurt your credit. That’s because lenders look for a history of paying installment loans on time when reviewing your creditworthiness.

Having a good mix of revolving credit, such as credit cards, and installment loans, such as a car loan or a mortgage, are important for your credit score. Being too heavily skewed one way or the other can affect what loans you can get down the road or the terms of any credit you receive.

Paying off an installment loan

Did paying off your loan hurt your score? You’re not alone. Paying off a loan can temporarily lower your credit score, according to credit bureau Experian. The temporary dip is caused by the way lenders view active vs. paid off loans.

Making regular, timely payments on an active loan shows lenders you can handle credit properly. However, when the loan is paid off, this effect diminishes, causing your score to dip temporarily. It should be back up after a couple of months. The paid off loan will stay on your credit report, bolstering your score in the long run.

Settling your debt for less

Debt settlement involves negotiating with your creditors to pay less than the balance due to satisfy your debt. For example, you may owe $10,000 but negotiate a debt settlement which allows you to pay just $5,000 to satisfy your debts.

While lightening your debt load may seem like a prudent thing to do, using a debt settlement to do it can have a negative impact. That’s because credit scoring is designed to reward those who pay all debt in full per the original terms of the credit agreement. Other lenders may take notice and be cautious of extending you credit in the future.

Find out: Debt Settlement: What is It and How It Works

Doing a balance transfer

Moving all of your credit card debt to a new credit card with a low or no interest rate offer can seem like a smart move. Except when it’s not. While the move can save you a boatload in interest charges as long as you pay off the balance on time, it can hurt your credit score.

This happens for two reasons. First, opening a new credit card shows up as an inquiry on your report and dings your score. Additionally, credit utilization rate models look at how much credit you’re carrying on individual cards as well as across all accounts. Doing a balance transfer offer can get you very close to the credit limit for your new card, causing your utilization rate (and your score) to take a dip.

Doing a balance transfer can still be a good move if you can pay off the balance quickly. Once your card is paid off, your credit score should recover. However, make sure you can pay off the full balance before the promotional rate expires and avoid running up new charges on your old card.

Improve Your Credit Score FAQ


How long does it take to improve my credit score?


If you follow the five steps above, you should achieve a better credit score within six months to a year. How much your credit improves and how fast really depends on your profile:

    1. Where your credit score was when you started

    1. The number of negative items in your report

    1. When each of those items was incurred
    2. So, for instance, let’s say you filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy six years ago and you’ve had no negative credit activity since. In this case, you can work to build better credit over the next year. Then when that bankruptcy penalty expires seven years from the date of final discharge, your score should improve more.

      However, if you filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy last year, then there’s no way to get rid of that penalty early. You can still take steps to build credit, but you won’t see that big jump described above for another 6 years. That’s not to say you can’t build your way to at least a fair score; it’s just going to take more effort and time.

      In general, if you had a low credit score to start, the method we describe here takes about six months to a year to see a notably better score. Just keep in mind, the higher your score is when you start, the more work it takes to move the needle.


How is it possible to improve my score without knowing it?


You’ll notice in the method above, we don’t mention anything about paying for your credit score. So, if you do the completely free method of improving your credit, you could be working blind. But that’s not a roadblock to achieving better credit. Just because you don’t know the exact three-digit number, it doesn’t mean the steps above won’t work. You can trust the system, you just won’t know the exact numeric improvement.

That being said, if you want to know your score when you start and as you progress, then you need credit monitoring. These services vary on what they provide and how much they cost. At a basic level, they all alert you when there are changes in your score. Most only track one or two scores, but keep in mind that you have many. FICO scores are used in about 90% of all lending decisions. However, even if you use a service that monitors a different score, they all follow the same calculation structure. So, good actions that increase one score will never negatively impact another. They often just vary by how many points your score changes.


How can I improve my score faster?


Legally, there is no way to improve your credit score faster than the organic method described above. There’s no magic bullet that will take a score from 500 to 750 in the blink of an eye. The only time you may see significant numeric jumps is when a hefty negative item like bankruptcy or foreclosure naturally falls off your report. And even then, a jump of 250 points would typically be unlikely.

If a company promises that they can improve your credit score instantly or even within just one month, run. It’s a scam. They’re almost certainly going to tell you to do something illegal that can lead to criminal prosecution. This usually involves fraudulently creating a completely new credit profile for you, using a fake Social Security number; in some cases, they advise you to use an Employer Identification Number (EIN) that’s supposed to be for business credit.

Both of these practices are 100% illegal and amount to credit fraud; you can be criminally prosecuted, right alongside the company that told you to do it (if they haven’t disappeared). An instantly better score is not worth costly fines and the possibility of jail time. Report any company that gives you this advice immediately to the FTC.

What is the fastest way possible to improve my credit score?

Question: Five years after college, I finally got a job with a decent salary. So now I’ve been able to handle my student loans and even pay down some of my credit card debt. I met a great woman, and we want to buy a house next year. Her credit score really stinks, though, so we need to use mine. (She has two collections on her credit report, one that’s paid off and the other she’s paying now.)

But I’m only at 692. I want to get it into the 700s or even 800s. I’m thinking of taking out some more loans and paying them back immediately, because I heard that can help. Or doing the same thing with credit cards. But what’s the fastest way to improve your credit score?

Kenny in Michigan

Howard Dvorkin, Founder and CPA, responds…

I admire your focus and drive, Kenny. Even with unprecedented access to credit scores – something you couldn’t easily do even a few years ago – Americans tend to be apathetic about looking up their scores, much less improving them.

That said, your credit score of 690 isn’t bad. Literally, it’s considered “good.” Credit scores range from 300 to 850, and they traditionally break down like this…

  • 300-629: bad credit
  • 630-689: average credit
  • 690-719: good credit
  • 720 and up: excellent credit

So improving your credit score in a year is definitely attainable. First, however, you need to learn how that score is decided – because some of the ideas you floated above will actually hurt your score.

The five factors that impact your credit score

Your credit score is split into five sections, and not all of them are equal. In fact, two dwarf the others.

The biggest chunk (at 35 percent of your credit score) is your “payment history.” That simply means how often you pay your bills on time – and how often you’re late. Simply put, paying your bills before the due date will hike your score more than anything else.

Along those lines, the second-biggest chunk (at 30 percent) is “credit utilization.” That’s just the fancy way of saying: How much do you owe on the credit limits you have? If you max out your credit cards, your score will be lower.

Next up, at only 15 percent, is “length of credit history.” Lenders love to see that you’ve had loans and credit cards for a while and that you’ve been paying them regularly and early. So if you’ve had a credit card for years, keep it.

There’s “new credit” and “credit mix,” each at 10 percent. You want to avoid opening any new lines of credit because that looks like you’re in financial trouble. Credit mix is a much more vague category but usually means you have a credit card, an auto loan, and maybe a personal loan—because many lenders figure this shows you can deftly handle whatever payments you need to make.

The best way to raise your credit score

As you can see, taking out some loans and paying them back immediately won’t really make a dent in our score. First, you’ll be dinged for taking out a lot of “new credit,” and while you’ll earn a few points for paying them back—your “payment history”—it’s important to look at everything else going on in your financial life.

My suggestion? Pay off your credit cards but keep them open. Use them only in amounts you know you can pay off each month. Those are the two biggest steps.

Why hasn’t my credit improved after I paid off my debt?

Question: I ran up almost $6,000 on a half-dozen credit cards – buying women clothes and my buddies beer. I was late on payments and got lots of unfriendly calls from bill collectors.

Then last year, I grew up and got engaged. I got a better job and a weekend job and paid off all of those bills. But my credit score still sucks! How long before it doesn’t suck? And is there anything I can do to make it not suck faster? We’re getting married next year, and we want to buy a house. Help!

— Bryan in Pennsylvania

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

First off, congratulations. Not only did you realize you had a problem, but you also buckled down and fixed it. You will be rewarded with a higher credit score. Sadly, I can’t tell you exactly when.

Why? Because you’re dealing with a lot of variables. Here are some questions for you…

1. Have you checked your credit report for errors?

It’s more common than you think. The Federal Trade Commission says one in every five credit reports has some kind of mistake on it. How do you find and fix these mistakes? Use the step-by-step guide above.

2. Do you still have your credit cards? Or did you cut them up?

Credit scores are simple numbers with complicated mathematics behind them. Broadly speaking, there are five factors that determine your credit score—the biggest being your payment history, which makes sense. But a big chunk is the length of credit history. So if you didn’t close out your credit cards, keep them open.

3. How long has it been since you paid everything off?

Depending on your circumstances, it can take months for everything to register. You might want to consider a credit repair service just to make sure your messy situation is cleaned up. Be careful, however: This is an industry that’s seen its share of unscrupulous businesses.

Bottom line, Bryan: You did the right thing, and with a little effort and patience, your score will reflect your hard work in just a little while.

What tricks can I use to improve my credit score?

Question: My credit score stinks. I got a 679, which I hear is really in the toilet. I want to buy a house in the next few years. Will I be able to get a mortgage with that? Can I get a decent rate? I still have a car to pay off, and about $10,000 on several credit cards (six, I think).

What can I do to raise my credit score? Got any tricks? 

I heard a neat one: Report my credit card stolen. They close the account and create a new one. Not sure exactly how this helps, but it’s supposed to. What else can I do?

— Peter in Oklahoma

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

Don’t take this the wrong way, Peter, but you’ve just written one of the most depressing letters I’ve received this year. Let me explain why.

First, you want to buy a house but are focused exclusively on your credit score. 

What you don’t realize, Peter, is that your credit score isn’t just a random number. It’s based on the money you have and the money you spend. So if you’re already struggling with five-figure credit card debt on top of a car loan you don’t see paying off before you buy a house, you’re heading for a debt disaster.

Second, you don’t have a grasp on your credit card debt.

You have “about $10,000.” In my experience, such estimates are usually low, because cardholders fail to appreciate just what 16 percent interest (and that’s just the average these days) can do to a monthly balance.

Even worse, you’re not exactly sure how many credit cards you have. You “think” it’s six.

Third, you’re trying to fix your credit score by lying.

Setting aside the ethics of reporting a card stolen when it isn’t, this “trick” won’t significantly help you. In fact, you’re not even sure how it works. (It doubles your “tradelines,” which I won’t bother explaining.)

Even if it does work, “credit age” comprises just 15 percent of your overall credit score. A credit score is based on five factors, but “payment history” is 35 percent of it. The next biggest chunk is the “level of debt” at 30 percent. So that’s 65 percent combined. Anything else you do is expending a lot of effort for minor results.

If you pay your bills on time and reduce your debt, you’ll be in a much better position to buy a house—and keep it.

By the way, Peter, you’re not too far from your goal if you apply yourself. Your credit score of 679 is only a shade under the national average of 682. That’s considered only “average,” but if you can make some minor changes, such as budgeting and taking these five steps to lower your credit card debt, you might get that house you wanted, and at the interest rate you want, too.

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