5 Smart Ways to Protect Your Credit Score
From getting a loan to landing a job, so much is riding on this one number
Even if you’ve never seen a copy, your credit report is one of the most important documents in your life.
Along with your credit score — a number based on the information in the report — your credit report can determine whether you qualify for a mortgage or a credit card and the interest rate you’ll pay if you do. It also can affect your insurance costs, your ability to rent an apartment and even whether you get a job or a promotion.
With all that on the line, it makes sense to keep your credit report and score as strong as possible. Here are five ways to protect it.
1. Pay your bills on time. If you don’t, they may be reported as late on your credit report. According to Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO), the company behind the most widely used credit score, your payment history is the single largest factor in determining your score. If you have trouble paying on time because you travel a lot, forget or are just too busy, one option is to set up an automatic payment plan for your regular bills, such as utilities.
2. Watch your credit limit. Your credit score will suffer if you get too close to maxing out your credit cards. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau suggests keeping the amount you owe to less than 30 percent of your credit limit.
3. Keep that old credit card. Long-established accounts with good payment histories work to your favor, according to FICO. By contrast, having a lot of new accounts can lower your score. If you’re just starting to build a credit history, get a card with a low credit limit and build a record of regular payments, suggests Eric Tyson, a financial planner and author of the book “Personal Finance for Dummies.” “But only do it if you’re going to pay in full every month, and don’t let it cause you to spend more money than you would otherwise,” he adds.
4. Check your credit report regularly. By law you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion).
5. Correct any errors. If you find any mistakes on your credit report, notify the credit bureau and ask that the information be corrected. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website explains the steps and provides a sample dispute letter. If you find a late payment on your report that’s accurate, but for which you have a good excuse, you have the right to submit an explanation, which will be added to your report, Tyson says.
What if you can’t pay your bills?
If you find you’re unable to pay your bills, contact your creditors and ask if it’s possible to arrange an extended repayment plan. Then try to resume normal payments as soon as possible. While it can take time to totally restore your credit history, a late payment that was months or years ago carries less weight than a more recent one.
You might want to consult a credit counseling agency, but be on guard against scam artists posing as credit counselors. The FTC offers guidelines for finding a legitimate agency. Also be wary of companies that claim they can “repair” your credit for a fee. That field, too, is rife with scams, the FTC says.
If your financial situation becomes so difficult that you file for bankruptcy, bear in mind that while it can eliminate some of your debts, it will be reflected on your credit report for seven or 10 years, depending on which type of bankruptcy you chose. Your credit report should indicate that the discharged debts are “included in bankruptcy.” However, according to recent news reports and lawsuits, some creditors will continue to report the debts as if they hadn’t been discharged, causing then to remain your on credit report indefinitely. That’s all the more reason to review your credit report regularly and challenge any inaccuracies.