If you think your credit score doesn't matter too much to you because you're not planning on getting a mortgage or applying for a credit card anytime soon, think again. Credit scores affect more aspects of our lives than you may realize (just ask these singles). That's why it's important to keep your score as high as possible.
Paying your bills on time and staying well below your credit limits are the best ways to build and maintain good credit. Together they account for more than half of your overall credit score.
A healthy payment history is the biggest contributor to your credit score, accounting for 35 percent of the total. Miss even a single deadline, and you could see your credit score drop as much as 100 points or more. To avoid those dreaded "overdue" notices and the credit blemishes they bring, set up automatic payments for any regular bills so that your lenders get the check on time, every single time.
Another 30 percent of your credit score is based on the amount of debt you carry, as measured against the amount of available credit you have -- otherwise known as your credit utilization ratio. It's a good idea to keep your outstanding balances to less than 25 percent of the money available to you to spend. If you are not able to pay down your balances ASAP, you can go at the problem from a different angle by calling your lenders and asking them to raise your credit limit.
But beyond these basic rules of smart credit management, there are some lesser-known strategies that can help you boost your score.
6 Smart Moves to Boost Your Credit Score
6 Smart Moves to Boost Your Credit Score
Check your credit reports and correct errors. Of course, you want to make sure that everything is being accurately reported, from your current address to your closed accounts. (For more guidance on how to dispute an error on your credit report, look to this guide from the Federal Trade Commission.)
But you also want to check the details about what is being reported about your current accounts. For example, it can make a big difference to your score if your credit limit for a card is understated. Imagine that you owe $5,000 and your limit is $15,000. That means you owe 33 percent of your limit. If your credit limit is incorrectly listed as $8,000, though, it will look like you've borrowed 63 percent of your limit.
When you fix errors or take actions that should boost your score, make sure that all three of the main credit-reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) know about it. By law, you can get a free copy of your credit report from each of them once a year -- do so, in order to spot errors and find other score-boosting opportunities.
One gambit few people think of is simply asking for what you want. In order to help you pay down your debt more quickly, you might ask your lender to lower your interest rate. If the lender refuses, see if you can find a lower-rate card and transfer the debt.
If you've got one or two glaring late payments on your credit record, you might ask your lender if they could be erased, in what's called a "goodwill deletion." Lenders are likely to be especially responsive to their best customers. And if you're dealing with a collection agency over some debt, see whether they'll delete it from your record if you pay it off. That can be well worth it.
If you're planning on closing some of your accounts, think twice. It's often a sensible thing to do to simplify your financial life, but closing an account can actually ding your credit score. One reason is that it actually reduces your available credit. Oddly enough, a host of seemingly sensible moves can hurt you -- such as using just one card for most of your charges. Even if you prefer using a newer card, keep older accounts open and use them occasionally to keep them active. Over time, that will give you a longer history and help improve that part of the credit score calculation.
Opening multiple accounts in a short period of time may boost your available credit, but it sends the wrong message to potential creditors, as it makes you look desperate to get credit from any available source.
Here's a valuable tip for anyone selling a home for less than they owe on it: What you're looking at is called a "short sale," and if you end up owing many thousands of dollars to your mortgage lender, you might get it in writing before the sale closes that the debt won't go on your record. Ending up with a big balance owed can be a black mark on your record, reportedly as costly as a foreclosure.
If a high credit score is important to you -- and for most of us it should be -- always consider how your financial actions will affect your score. For more information on credit scores, be sure to look at this guide from myFICO.com, which is the consumer division of the company that is responsible for the popular FICO credit score.