If you’re anything like me, your early 20s were not your most financially sound years. With a low-paying job, rent and bills to pay, and plenty of shiny gadgets tempting you at every turn, credit cards often seem to magically make it all work… until they don’t anymore.
Sadly, once you get your act together and want to start making adult purchases such as cars and houses, those foolish financial missteps can come back to haunt you. Thankfully, there are many ways to help repair your credit scores, which in turn will allow you to secure better financing on those large, milestone purchases your more mature mind is now focused on. Here are 5 suggestions to help you get there.
1. Consider Debt Consolidation
Not to be confused with debt forgiveness or bankruptcy, debt consolidation simply refers to the idea of moving all of your outstanding debts to one place in an effort to make paying them off easier. There are a few reasons why this could be a good idea, not the least of which is the path to financial freedom it provides you. Additionally, depending on how you choose to consolidate, it could serve to boost your credit scores.
The two most popular forms of debt consolidation are personal loans and balance transfers, both have their pros and cons. First, personal loans can be good for boosting your credit scores because they will move your debt from revolving lines of credit to installments. That’s significant because your maxed out credit cards will carry more weight than installment loans when it comes to your credit utilization ratio. Since credit utilization/available credit makes up 30% of your FICO scores, paying off your credit cards with a loan should give you boost.
Sound good? Well, there are a couple of snags you should know about. As you’re undoubtedly aware, banks aren’t really in the business of lending you money for free. Because of this, you’ll want to ensure that the interest rate and APR (annual percentage rate) you’re offered on a loan doesn’t exceed what you’re paying on your credit card(s). On top of that, many lenders will charge what’s called an origination fee—a percentage of your loan amount that you pay to the lender and don’t get back. For these reasons, it’s a good idea to do the math or use a personal loan calculator when exploring your options.
Another form of debt consolidation is a balance transfer. Typically this is done by opening a new credit card with a 0% introductory rate and then transferring the debts from your other cards to your new one. Although this might save you a good amount of money in interest if you’re able to pay down the entire debt quickly, it could end up hurting even worse if you let that introductory offer end. Additionally, be aware that most cards charge you a balance transfer fee – as high as 5% of the amount you are transferring. Lastly, opening a new card will actually ding your credit temporarily since it’s a new credit inquiry, but the added credit availability will help you down the road.
2. Keep Your Cards Open
Regardless of what method of debt consolidation you use (or don’t use, for that matter), you may be surprised to learn that closing your paid off cards is actually a terrible idea. Sure, it might feel good to call up your credit card company and tell them where to go, but closing your account can hurt your credit scores big time.
Part of the reason for this goes back to the idea of credit utilization. If you close your accounts, you’ll have far less available credit, which is a disadvantage in the eyes of FICO. Plus, a lesser (but still important) factor affecting your scores is your length of credit history. Unfortunately, when you close an account, the time you held that card no longer gets added into this average. It’s a much better idea to leave your cards open and just use them responsibly.
3. Try A Secured Credit Card
Didn’t get the “don’t close your cards” memo until it was too late? If you’ve really tanked your credit, it may be difficult to get approved for a new credit card at first. Even more frustrating, without a credit card, rebuilding your scores can be tricky. That’s where secured credit cards come in.
What makes secured cards different from the ones you’re familiar with is that they require a deposit. The size of that deposit will depend on the card issuer and the credit limit you’re seeking, but it’s typically a few hundred dollars. Since you’re giving the card issuer collateral, these cards are far easier to obtain than unsecured ones, making them a good choice for those who are nearly out of options.
4. Pay Your Bills On Time
This may seem obvious, but it’s a huge help. Although any overdue payments you’ve made in the past will stick to your credit report for seven years (much like swallowed gum), putting those behind you and establishing a clean streak will serve you well. Additionally, while you will still see those errant payments on your report, their damage to your scores will diminish with time, so don’t fret too much.
5. Monitor Your Credit
Even if you abide by all of these tips in hopes of repairing your credit scores, how will you know if any of your efforts are paying off if you don’t bother to check? Thanks to modern technology, keeping up with your credit scores is now easier than ever, and often free.
One place you should start is AnnualCreditReport.com, which provides you with your Equifax, Experian, and Transunion credit reports free once a year. The bummer here is that, in order to actually view your scores, you’ll have to pay. However, reviewing your report is extremely important because you may catch errors that are dragging your scores down unfairly.
As far as your scores are concerned, some credit cards now provide you a FICO score on your statement or on their website. If not, you can also try sites like Credit Karma to get a rough idea of what your scores look like. I say “rough idea” because Credit Karma utilizes the Vantage model for calculating credit scores as opposed to the more common FICO model. Because of this, you may see discrepancies, but at least you’ll be in the ballpark.
Yes, it’s true: adulting is hard. Alas, many of us make some major financial mistakes in our 20s that affect us as we attempt to be real adults a decade or so later. The good news is that, even if you’ve trashed your credit scores in the past, they do change and can recover. By paying off your debts, looking for secured forms of credit, paying on time, and keeping an eye on your credit, it will only be a matter of time before those dark fiscal days are finally behind you.
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