I get a lot of questions on AskTheMoneyCoach.com from people who want to improve their credit scores or fix issues with their credit reports. This doesn’t surprise me, since your credit can determine everything from your ability to rent an apartment, to your auto insurance rates, to whether you get hired for a job.
If you want a high FICO credit score or you’ve been thinking: “I really need to improve my bad credit,” then you’ve come to the right place for the truth.
Here are 10 of the most common FAQs about credit scores and credit reports – along with some quick and honest answers that will improve your credit rating.
1) Where can I get a truly free credit report?
Answer: Go to http://www.annualcreditreport.com for a truly free credit report – no strings attached. You don’t have to pay anything, give a credit card number or sign up for credit monitoring or any trial offers. By law, all adults in the U.S. are entitled to one free credit report every 12 months from each of the three main credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. The credit reporting agencies must also maintain the annualcreditreport.com website to provide those credit files to consumers.
2) How can I remove erroneous or negative items from my credit report?
Answer: There’s a difference between trying to get rid of credit information that is negative and incorrect versus credit data that is negative but correct or factually accurate. So you first need to establish whether you have a legal right to get certain information removed. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, any info that is erroneous, outdated or that can’t be verified must be removed if you dispute it. The credit bureaus have 30 days to act on your request.
On the other hand, if you simply want to get negative information removed, but it is not actually erroneous, outdated or it can be verified by some source, then you need to go to that source, which is known as a credit “furnisher.” A credit furnisher is any entity that has supplied information to the credit bureaus. You could try to get negative information removed by negotiating a payment agreement, asking for a goodwill adjustment of your account, or requesting a pay for deletion.
Related: How to Build Your Credit Score
3) How long will it take negative items to fall off my credit report?
Answer: In general, negative information such as late payments can legally stay on your credit report for seven years from the date of last activity (as in, when you last made a payment). Other credit mishaps like collection accounts, charge-offs or judgments can also remain on your credit records for seven years. More severe credit problems, like bankruptcy, can remain on your credit report for 10 years.
4) How can I quickly raise my credit score?
Answer: If you’re in a hurry to raise your credit score, the quickest ways to get it done are by disputing negative information or trying a process called “rapid re-scoring.”
If you have negative information that is holding down your credit score – and that data is also inaccurate, outdated, or it can’t be verified for any reason – then you can petition the credit bureaus to get the info wiped from your credit reports. The fastest method of contesting negative information is to file an online dispute with Equifax, Experian or TransUnion. Each of these “Big 3” credit reporting agencies will accept your dispute electronically, which is faster than going through snail mail.
Here are the links to each credit bureau’s online dispute resolution service.
The second tactic to very quickly raise your credit score only works for those trying to obtain a mortgage. If you’re in the market for a home loan, you can utilize a service known as “rapid re-scoring” or “credit re-scoring.” Read this post about rapid re-scoring to discover how credit “re-scoring can eliminate errors removed from your credit report in just 48 hours.”
Everyone else must use other tactics. For instance, paying down credit card debt will usually boost your credit scores. Often, so will raising the limits on your credit cards. Both of these strategies work because they lower your credit utilization rate. To further improve your credit, don’t miss any payments at all, refrain from applying for new credit unless you truly need it, and keep credit accounts with a longer history open; don’t close them, because the longer your credit history, the more beneficial it is for your credit scores.
5) If I have no credit, how can I establish a credit history?
Answer: If you are a student, a recent immigrant to the U.S. or even a spouse or older person who has never had credit in your own name, you may find it difficult to establish a credit history. That’s because the credit system is kind of like the job market.
Just like many employers frequently don’t want to hire someone who has never had a job, credit issuers, like banks and car lenders, often don’t want to extend credit to someone with no credit history or a “thin” credit file. The result is that you’re in a “Catch 22.” You want credit but you can’t get it because you’re a credit newbie.
Fortunately, there are some ways around this dilemma. If you have absolutely no credit, you could try piggybacking off of someone else – a parent or a spouse, for example. Piggybacking lets you get the benefit of another party’s credit when you are added as a joint or authorized user on that person’s account.
If you’ve not applied for a regular credit card, you could seek out a card designed specifically for those with low credit scores or who lack a lengthy credit history. Alternatively, you could also simply apply for a secured credit card – which anyone can get – and then use the secured card as a way to build credit over time.
6) Will co-signing a loan hurt my credit score?
Answer: There are several ways that co-signing a loan could hurt your credit score or impact your credit worthiness. For starters, the person you’re co-signing for might fail to repay the loan on time. If that happens, you both get dinged. Also, when you make an application for credit as a co-signer, there will be a “hard” pull or an “inquiry” generated. So you will likely see at least a temporary dip in your credit score as a result of that hard inquiry.
Finally, don’t forget that co-signing for someone else (whether it’s for a credit card, auto loan, student loan or something else) will impact your overall debt to income ratio (DTI) in the eyes of lenders. If you later want something, such as a mortgage refinancing, the bank will look at the loan for which you’ve co-signed and include that in your DTI, which could jeopardize your ability to get the loan.
Related: What Is a Home Equity Loan?
7) Will my bad credit hurt my spouse’s or my fiancé’s credit?
Answer: It’s a common myth that once you tie the knot, your credit histories somehow miraculously merge as well. But that’s not true. You each still have your own credit rating and history. Marrying someone with bad credit doesn’t automatically lower your credit score either. But if you co-sign loans together, those obligations will be listed on both your credit reports, and you’re both legally responsible for those debts -- even if you divorce.
8) How can I get on the same page as my spouse or partner when all we do is fight about credit, debt and finances – or just ignore money issues altogether?
Answer: I have a three-step solution for couples that works really well. I call it: Disclose. Discuss. Decide. It all starts with being financially honest with your mate – that’s the disclose part. For example, couples that are serious (i.e. married, contemplating marriage or living together) should ask at least these two basic questions:
When you grew up, how were finances handled in your home?
Explanation: This will tell couples a lot about their significant others. In some homes, one person handled all the financial affairs. In other instances, there were shared responsibilities. Either way, your spouse may have expectations based on their own upbringing.
What is your credit score?
Explanation: No, it's not a romantic topic ... unless you consider good credit sexy like I do! :) But knowing about your mate's credit standing is crucial to getting off to a good financial start together. If neither of you knows your score, take time to get them together. Again, you can obtain your free credit reports - from Equifax, TransUnion and Experian - online at annualcreditreport.com. You have to pay for your FICO score, available at myfico.com. However, some credit card issuers and banks will give you a FICO score or other credit scores for free.
Then comes the truly hard part – actually discussing issues that most people don’t talk about or would rather sweep under the carpet. For example, how did each of you get to this point (whether your credit history is good or bad)?
The final thing is to decide how to move forward together. Marriage is about partnership and building a life as one unit. So you both have to be committed to moving in the same direction. If you can think in those terms, and avoid the blame game or having to be "right" all the time, it makes communication far better and it improves the personal and financial health of the relationship.
9) Which credit card should I pay off first?
Answer: You’ve probably heard countless financial experts recommend first paying off your credit cards with the highest interest rate. I don’t subscribe to that philosophy, and I happen to be someone who paid off a ridiculous amount of debt - $100,000 in credit card bills alone – in just three years.
Frankly, I think many people become debt free faster and fare better by focusing on cards with either the lowest dollar balances or even cards with the highest dollar balances – and not fretting too much about interest rates. I suggest these alternative payoff methods because they usually give you more immediate, visible, tangible results – which keeps you emotionally motivated to stick to your debt payoff efforts.
You can read more here about why I don’t agree with the “pay your high rate debt first” school of thought – and how new research backs up what I’ve been saying for years.
10) Should I pay off credit card debt or save more money first?
Answer: The reality is that even as you’re trying to get out of debt, you must also save money at the same time. One may take priority over the other; in other words, you may devote more cash towards reducing your credit card bills than savings. But you still need to do both – pay off credit card debt and save – simultaneously.
Why is this?
If you don’t have any savings cushion, at the first sign of financial trouble (even a small blip, such as getting a flat tire), you’ll have no other options (outside of crazy things like high-cost payday loans) than to rely on your credit cards to cover that expense. Just like that, you’re sucked back into debt – and it’s possibly debt you can’t afford to quickly repay.
Rather than constantly using plastic to bail yourself out of every financial emergency, a far smarter strategy is to work on building an emergency savings account over time. And I do mean an account for emergencies only! No shopping, loaning the money out or spending it on frivolous things. Just save whatever you can each month and stick to it (the key to financial independence!). Be consistent and save no matter how much or how little.
Ultimately, you’ll find that your growing savings account will help you reach your goal of becoming debt-free – and that will be a big boost to your credit score as well.
This article originally appeared on AskTheMoneyCoach.com.
Copyright © Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, The Money Coach®