Woman searching online for ways to improve her credit

Building credit can often seem like an exercise in magic or miracles. With such a complicated formula to determine each person’s credit worthiness, it’s difficult to even know where to start reforming your own credit. We’ve put together a list of tips you can use along the way.

1. Make a Budget

Start with the basics. There are no quick fixes for your credit score. Like a good nutrition plan, it’s about a whole lifestyle change. The most valuable weapon in your arsenal against bad credit isn’t a card or a loan. It’s a personal budget. Once you get this down, you’ll be able to make a realistic plan for debt repayment, keeping clear of financial emergencies, and more.

2. Build an Emergency Fund

Once you have your budget, you can begin saving an emergency fund. This will help you avoid the need for emergency loans or credit card debt. The US currently carries $829 billion of credit card debt, all of it accruing interest, and every missed payment hurting someone’s credit score. This may sound odd coming from us. After all, we offer small personal loans to help our customers through financial emergencies. But at Helix by Lead Bank, we also want you to be educated and stable.

3. Pull Your Credit Report

Before you get started with the Great Credit Fix, find out what your score actually is. It might not be as bad as you think. Or… it might be just as bad. But your report will still give you a starting point. You’re entitled to three free credit reports/checks per year, one from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus in America: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. Beyond these, you can pay for further checks.

It’s important, however, not to pull your score too many times. This can affect your score by as much as 5 points. This only applies to a hard pull, an official credit report by one of the aforementioned bureaus. You also have the option through some reporting agencies to get a soft pull, which won’t appear on any future credit reports, but also might not be as accurate.

4. Get the Most out of Your Credit Report

A credit score appears when companies and lenders report your payment activity to credit bureaus. Yet not every company will automatically go through the effort to do this. Sometimes you have to ask. This is why it’s important to pull and study your credit report a few times a year. If you’ve been paying utility bills, for example, that activity might show up on your credit report. If it doesn’t, call your utilities providers and ask if they’ll report your good behavior. Often they will.

5. Vary your Lines of Credit

A credit score incorporates many different factors, and one of them is how many different lines of credit you currently have open. Don’t go crazy with this, but also don’t take out a single loan or credit card and expect it to magically fix your credit.

6. Pay On Time

As much as 65% of your credit score is based on payment history and how you use your credit. So even if your utilities bills or other accounts have a grace period, you should always pay them on time or early. A credit score basically shows future lenders how good you’ll be at repaying loans, and those future lenders want to know that you’ll make your payments on time.

7. Pay off smaller debts now

If you have any smaller debts, especially ones you’re late in repaying, pay them off as quickly as possible. This will help knock out those monthly interest payments and transfer your credit-building efforts to accounts that won’t cost you anything, like credit cards. Check out our article on debt snowball to learn more about how to accomplish this.

8. Get a Credit Card

This is one of the best ways to build credit, but it also comes with some major risks. Or, rather, one major risk: You. For the most part, a credit card will cost you nothing to keep. Some credit cards have expensive annual fees, which is something to investigate when you apply, but otherwise, if it never leaves your wallet, it’s never going to cost you a penny. 

It’s also never going to help build your credit. You have to use your card regularly for it to benefit your credit score. The problem is that many people go way overboard with credit cards, buying things they can’t afford, without a plan for how to pay their monthly card bills. Not only can this cost you thousands in interest, it can also have a negative affect on your score. 

So we recommend using a credit card for normal, recurring expenses, like your cell phone bill or gas. These items are already in your budget, so you can just plan to pay them to Visa instead of T-mobile. 

The real benefit here is that if you pay your entire bill every month, it won’t cost you anything to build credit. Personal online loans like the ones offered by Helix will also help improve your score, but you will pay monthly interest. That’s just how fixed loans work. With a credit card, you’ll pay no interest if you get your account back to zero every month.

9. Don’t Max it Out

While we’re on the subject of credit cards, don’t max yours out. Experts recommend not exceeding 25% of the spending limit in order to get the best results on your credit report. This is good practice anyway, because a lower balance is easier to manage and pay off on time.

10. Get the Right Kind of Loan

Most personal loans, when repaid on time, will boost your credit score. At Helix, we’re thrilled to be able to help our customers advance their credit journeys. However, not all loans are easy to repay on time, and some loans for bad credit will do you more harm than good. Predatory lenders, such as payday lenders, often purposely make repayment more difficult in order to charge you more through fees and interest. 

At Helix, the terms and rates are very clearly laid out before you sign up. There are no hidden fees, and you won’t be penalized for repaying your loan early.

11. Don’t Count on PLUS Student Loans

Though student loans, when repaid on time, will work like other installment loans to improve your credit score, there is an exception. Any loan taken out by your parents, such as federal parent PLUS loans, won’t have any effect on your credit score. However, if you cosigned for these loans, they will. 

Also keep in mind this is only one line of credit, and as stated above, you need to diversify to really build your score. Finally, your student loans won’t start earning you credit until you start paying them back, which is generally after graduation. So even though you have four years of loans under your belt, they won’t necessarily affect your score.

12. Ask you family for help

If you have the option of getting a loan from your family with little to no interest, take it. Remember, they’re in this with you, and they want to see you succeed.

13. Be Patient

Building credit takes years, and though it would be nice to skip steps, it doesn’t always work that way. For instance, larger loans can do more to improve your scores than smaller loans. But you may need to build credit for a while before you can qualify for a substantial car or home loan. In fact, the credit needed to qualify for larger loans is the whole incentive to build it in the first place. Just remember to be patient during this process. It won’t happen overnight.

14. Don’t Give Up

In that same vein, you should come to terms with the fact that this system isn’t exactly fair. A corporation, FICO, studies your borrowing behavior and determines whether or not you’ll be good at it. This is obviously all computerized. Being reduced to a series of equations can feel cold and dehumanizing. Being “guilty until proven innocent” with a lack of credit history can be a major discouragement. Just remember to stay focused and handle each financial decision as it comes.

15. Use Autopay if You Can

You should take any opportunity you can to simplify your credit journey. Tools like autopay are great at this. If you know the amount you can repay on your loan every month, something you’ll find on your budget, you can simply set up an autopay withdrawal.

However, if you don’t have a fixed income or if you’re still on shaky ground, autopay might not be the best choice. Whatever you’re paying might have a grace period, but if you overdraw from your bank account, you could face some costly overdraft fees. Autopay is great. Just be sure the money will be there.

16. Avoid getting sent to collections

Finally, do everything you can to keep your bills from being sent to a collections agency. This has devastating effects on your credit score, and recovery can take ages. Whether you have to sell something, take a part-time job, or ask your family like we mentioned above, avoid collections. Talk to the lenders and services you owe and make a repayment plan. Most businesses have protocols in place to set up these plans. Sending you to collections also costs them a fee, so they’d rather avoid it if possible. 

We hope you find these tips and tricks helpful as you navigate toward higher FICO scores and financial stability.