The NFCC often receives readers questions asking us what they should do in their money situation. We pick some to share that others could be asking themselves and hope to help many in sharing these answers. If you have a question, please submit it on our Ask an Expert page here.
This week’s question: I took on too much debt and went without a job for 23 months. I am now employed and currently paying off my last, charged-off credit card. Should I open a new line of credit or just continue to pay my debt to rebuild my credit?
Getting back on your feet after a period of unemployment and high debt is a huge accomplishment. Rebuilding your credit depends on multiple factors and on where you stand with your overall credit and finances. So, in your situation, I recommend doing it all: pay all your bills on time, continue to pay down your debt, and rebuild your credit health with positive account activity and a new line of credit.
As you work to improve your credit, you should know which factors influence your score and learn how to use them to benefit your score. These factors include paying your bills on time, keeping your utilization ratio low, how often you get new credit, the types of credit you have, and for how long you’ve had credit.
Ways to Improve Your Credit
Arguably, the most important thing you can do for your credit is always paying your bills on time. This should become second nature so that you build your credit now and maintain a good score in the future. Then, if you don’t have an active account on your credit files, you could apply for a new credit card in order to generate a positive credit history on your credit reports. One sure way to open a new account is to apply for a secured credit card. Secured credit cards are offered by many banks and have a variety of perks and fees. Apart from looking and acting like any other type of credit card account, the primary differences are that you are approved without a credit check and you need to send a security deposit when you open the account. This deposit typically becomes collateral that establishes your credit limit and it’s returned to you if you close the account or if your account is upgraded to an unsecured credit card.
Once you have your credit card, use it strategically. This means paying on time and keeping your utilization ratio below 30%. Your utilization ratio is how much of your available credit you are using. So, when you have high credit card debt, you appear at risk of losing control of your financial stability, which brings your score down. That’s why you should continue to pay off your debt in order to reduce your utilization ratio.
The other factors—the age of your credit, the types of credit you have, and how often you use your credit—are also important to a lesser degree. How old your credit is only will improve with time, so be patient. The mix of credit looks at the type of credit you have—credit cards and loans. But, right now, let’s focus on the primary factors. And last but not least, that’s how often you apply for new credit. When you ask for a new credit line, a hard inquiry is generated, and it remains on your report for 24 months. Too many inquiries bring down your score. So, you must be selective and strategic about getting new credit lines.
As you can see, building your score comes down to being strategic about how you use your credit in every transaction. When you have the tools and the right plan to improve how you manage your credit, it becomes easier to make financial decisions that build a stronger credit rating. If you need help with more personalized strategies to work on your credit, you can reach out to an NFCC Certified Financial Counselor.