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  • Gilbert Nozoliny

Do you have bad credit?

Updated: Apr 6, 2019

Do you have bad credit?

Most credit cards are available to people with good or excellent credit, but that leaves out a substantial number of potential new applicants. If you have bad credit, you can still qualify for a type of credit card called a secured card. Secured cards work just like standard credit cards, except applicants must submit a refundable security deposit in order to open their account. The amount of your deposit then becomes your credit limit. Nevertheless, these cards usually have all of the same protections of a standard credit card, some even offer rewards, and will help you to build or rebuild your credit.

How to Use Credit Cards to Improve Your Credit Score

There are a lot of myths racing around online about how your credit cards impact your credit score. It can be confusing because the way credit scores are computed doesn't always match with actual credit-worthy behavior. So you might think that canceling all but one of your credit cards is a smart financial move for you, but it would actually hurt your credit score a lot. So here's the skinny on how to properly use your cards to help, not harm, your credit score.

Rebuild Your Credit in 8 Steps

When you have bad credit, many doors are closed to you. A poor or bad credit score is one that falls at or below 619 on the FICO score. You might not qualify for loans, or you might have to settle for less-than-desirable terms that cost you thousands of dollars during the loan’s terms. In some cases, poor credit can result in higher insurance premiums, and some employers check credit reports before deciding to hire you.

Many lenders are also wary of those with an “average” credit rating of between 620 and 679. You might qualify for a loan, but you won’t get the best terms; instead, you are likely to pay a higher interest rate, costing you hundreds – or thousands – of dollars over the life of the loan. Until you achieve a good score of 680 to 739, you will likely pay the price. And if you want the best terms on some loans (particularly mortgages), you need an excellent credit score of 740.

Most of us could use a little improvement in our scores. If you have average credit, you might want to bump it into the “good” range. Someone with good credit might want a credit score upgrade to an “excellent” rating. And, if your credit rating is poor, it’s especially important that you work to improve your situation.

Rebuilding your credit, whether you have been through a bankruptcy or divorce, or whether you have made mistakes with your finances, doesn’t have to be complicated. As long as you have patience and create a plan, you can rebuild your credit and eventually obtain an excellent credit rating.

Check Your Credit Report

Know where you are at financially. Check your credit report to see exactly where you need to improve. Do you have a lot of missed or late payments? Is your debt utilization too high? These clues can help you figure out what items to tackle first. You are entitled to a free report from each of the credit bureaus one a year (so, three total). You can visit (the official site run by the three credit bureaus) for your free reports. You can also order reports directly from each of the three bureaus:




Check your credit report for errors and fraudulent accounts as well. Errors can bring your credit score down. If something is inaccurate, dispute it, and fix the problem. The FTC offers great information on disputing inaccurate information, as well as a helpful sample dispute letter you can use as a template. This can be one of the easiest ways to give your credit score a little bump higher. Don’t forget to bring fraudulent accounts to the attention of the credit bureau and have them removed. If you are concerned about fraudulent accounts and identity theft, can place a freeze on your credit to avoid further identity theft problems. Each bureau has its own procedures, and you can learn more about how to place a credit freeze on your report by visiting the bureaus’ web sites. Understand that a freeze needs to be placed with each bureau individually.

Arrange to Catch Up on Your Payments

Payment history accounts for the largest factor affecting your credit score. If you are behind on your payments, you won’t be able to improve your credit situation. Try to bring all of your accounts up to date. If you can’t afford to bring everything up to date at once, you can contact your creditors and work out a payment plan. Be up-front when you contact your creditors, explaining your situation and letting them know that you want to pay your obligation. Let your creditors know how much you can pay, and how long you expect to pay it. In many cases, it’s possible to work out an arrangement that all parties can live with.

You can also seek the services of a legitimate credit counseling agency to help you create a plan. The FTC has some good information on managing your debt and contacting creditors, and finding legitimate credit counselors.

Pay Your Bills on Time Moving Forward

Going forward, pay your bills on time. This includes non-credit bills. Your missed utility payments and late rent payments can be reported to the credit bureaus. Because payment history is so important, establishing a reliable pattern is vital to rebuilding your credit. At the very least, you want to avoid reports that you are missing payments, or paying habitually late. Consider setting up automatic withdrawals in order to avoid missing payments in the future.

Try to Avoid Closing Credit Card Accounts

When possible, avoid closing credit card accounts. The longer your credit history, the better your score. However, if you are very far behind in your payments, you may not have a choice. A payment plan may require you to cancel your credit card. If possible, though, keep your older accounts so that you have a substantial credit history on your side. (See also: How to Avoid Getting Your Credit Card Cancelled)

Pay Down Debt

The second most important factor in your credit score is your credit utilization. Your credit utilization is a measure of how much debt you have. It is expressed as a portion of the available credit you are using. If you have a total credit availability of $10,000, and you are using $7,500 of it, your credit utilization is 75%.

If you are using a great deal of your available credit, it can count against you. Create a plan to pay down your debt a little faster. Honestly evaluate your expenses, and cut back. Use the money you save to reduce your debt. Try to get your credit utilization down to 30% or less. If you can reduce your debt, the credit utilization portion of your score will improve, and help your credit overall.

Use a Secured Credit Card

One of the best ways to quickly build a payment history is to use a credit card. A secured credit card can help with this step if your poor credit precludes you from qualifying for a “regular” credit card. A secured card requires that you keep money in a linked savings account as collateral. Because the money is already there, it is easier to get approval for a secured card — especially when you have poor credit. In either case, your payments are reported to the bureaus every month, so it makes a big difference in showing that you pay regularly — and on time.

Pay on Time

Your payment history is 35% of your credit score. That's the largest impact any single factor is going to have on your score. Set up alerts or auto payments. Do whatever you have to do to make those payments on time, every time. It's not the late fee that's going to hurt you the most.

Pay It Off

The next biggest factor contributing to your score is your credit utilization ratio. That's how much you owe versus how much credit you have. The lower the ratio, the better your score. Paying down your debts will definitely lower the ratio. This is also something to watch out for when you apply for a loan. To get a good interest rate, you want the highest credit score possible, and that means lowering your debt and no splurges on credit (even if you have the cash to pay it off). (See also: This One Ratio Is the Key to a Good Credit Score)

Ask for Credit Limit Increases

If paying down your debt isn't possible immediately, you can lower your credit utilization ratio another way: Get more credit. Call your credit cards and ask for a credit limit increase. If you've been a good customer (which basically means you've been paying on time), you can probably get an increase immediately. (You can also apply for a new credit card but that temporarily lowers your score due to it being a new account.) However, if you raise your credit limit and then raise your debt by the same amount or more, you're dinging your score. Keep your eye on the ball.

Keep Your Accounts Open

When you close a credit card account, it lowers the amount of credit you have, so it raises your credit utilization ratio, which then dings your credit. If you really must cancel some cards, choose cards with a lower available credit. If you have several cards with the same bank issuer, you may be able to transfer the available credit from the card you want to cancel to the card you want to keep. That way, you are able to close an account without impacting your ratio as much. (See also: Surprising Ways to Hurt Your Credit)

Keep Your Oldest Accounts

How long you've had credit makes up 15% of your score. If you applied for a credit card when you were in college, whether you use it or not, keep that account open. You can sign up for better credit cards that offer rewards and use those, but don't cancel your oldest one.

Follow these basic tenets to help keep your score as high as possible. I always recommend checking your credit history once per year to make sure that all of the information is accurate. You can do this free of charge with each of the credit bureaus and it won't affect your credit score.

Most of us think about our checking account in only one way: Is there enough money in it? While that's certainly the most important piece of the puzzle, there are plenty of other things to consider to ensure that you're getting all the bangs for your bucks. Beware of these common, costly mistakes you might be making with your checking account.

Maintaining a lower balance than you need to cover your expenses

Your top concern regarding your checking account should always be that you have enough money in there to cover your expenses — even more so if you subscribe to direct deposit and/or autopay services. By engaging in the latter, you're essentially putting machines in charge of your finances, which, while convenient, are not always accurate. If you don't have enough money to cover your bills, you know what happens — you dip into the negative and you're slapped with insufficient funds or overdraft charges, further dragging you into the red. This oversight also can affect your credit score if you miss the payment for 30 days or more.

The best you can do for yourself is to commit to keeping your bills covered by your checking account and staying on top of your auto-deposit payments to maintain a positive and accurate balance.

Keeping more money than you need in your checking account

Keeping enough money in your checking account to cover your expenses should be your main focus, but you also may be doing yourself a disservice by keeping too much money in that account. It's a balancing act, for sure — but if your surplus can benefit you someplace other than your checking account, you need to move it.

Says Michael Banks, founder of personal finance blog The Fortunate Investor, "Money that sits in a checking account accumulates very little in interest. [Some banks], however, offer investor checking accounts that allow you to invest your checking account funds to maximize growth. You don't need to invest all of your money, and it's easy to keep two accounts and transfer as much into your investing account as you feel comfortable with; but the more you invest the more you stand to gain in the long run."

If the idea of an "investment" account gives you anxiety, then consider opening a Roth IRA or at least finding a high-yield savings account instead.

Limiting your access to in-network ATMs

When I first moved to Manhattan, there were only a handful of my bank's in-network ATMs on the entire island, none of which were near my apartment. I was never close enough to one when I needed cash, so the fees added up quickly (some out-of-network ATMs charged up to $5 per transaction). This went on for a few months before I wised up, did my research on the most abundant ATM locations in New York City, and switched banks. If you're banking someplace and the ATM locations are prohibitive to you, consider banking elsewhere; you could save a bundle in time and fees. (See also: 8 Ways to Make Sure You Never Pay an ATM Fee)

Paying fees just to have a checking account at a particular institution

Some banks charge a monthly checking account fee if you don't keep a minimum balance in it — say $1,500, for example. If you don't like keeping excess funds in your checking account, it does not make sense to pay a premium to bank with an institution that charges you for moving money around. Another option you have is opening a free checking account at a credit union.

According to a 2016 Bankrate survey, 76 percent of credit unions offer free checking accounts. This is good news in a time when free checking at banks continues to decline almost every year. The survey also noted that an additional 22 percent of credit unions are willing to waive their monthly fee for meeting certain requirements such as signing up for direct deposit or paperless statements.

Spending without checking your balance

Do you know exactly how much money is in your checking account right now? What about a close estimate? If the answer is no, you're not staying on top of your money well enough — and you definitely shouldn't be pulling out your debit card when your balance is in flux. Before you make a purchase that you even think could compromise your balance, log into your account (easy to do with your mobile app; I log into mine with a fingerprint), and manage your money wisely.

Ignoring your transaction history

You need to stay on top of what payments are being deducted from your checking account, even if they haven't actually been deducted yet. Continuing to spend when payments are pending could spell disaster.

"Check your account every couple of days to ensure transactions have been posted," advises Natasha Rachel Smith, personal finance expert at Top Cashback. "Be aware of holds on your account as a result of a retailer or merchant requesting authorization of a purchase. For example, gas stations and hotels could put a hold on your account until the actual transaction clears, so be mindful of these transactions when viewing your available funds. I also recommend checking on your transactions for fraudulent charges and reporting them as soon as possible."

Not subscribing to overdraft protection

Banks typically charge a $35 overdraft fee, and it's important to keep that in mind when you know your checking account is getting low. You also should fortify your account with overdraft protection if it makes sense for you.

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