Baby Steps Can Get Your Credit Life Rolling

You may have been avoiding the world of credit because you don’t want one more thing to worry about. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Taking these baby steps can help you build a good credit score.

Know where you stand

You may be surprised to know you already have a credit score or that you have items listed on your credit reports, like student loans or an auto loan.

Check your score: Many apps, websites and banks offer free credit scores. A credit score is a three-digit number based on how you’ve handled borrowed money in the past. Where you fall on the basic 300-850 scoring range will determine how easily you can get credit.

Check your credit reports: These data files hold your track record with borrowed money, and they’re used to calculate your score. Three major credit bureaus gather that data, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You can request one free annual credit report from each, says Christine Centeno, a certified financial planner at Simplicity Wealth Management near Richmond, Virginia.

Pick a starter credit product

Once you know where you stand, look for a card or loan that’s easier to qualify for when you’re new to credit.

Secured credit card: Secured credit cards require an upfront security deposit, typically a few hundred dollars. The deposit also acts as your credit limit. You don’t need to charge much to the card; use it to show responsible credit behavior by paying on time and in full each month.

“Start paying one-time and recurring bills with your newly obtained secured card — think Netflix or a cup of coffee,” Centeno says. Making small charges on the card ensures you do not use up a lot of your available credit. A big part of your credit score is based on how much of your credit limit you use on any card; experts say to use less than 30%, and less is even better.

Retail cards: If you shop at a particular store often, consider applying for the in-house credit card. “Retail credit cards are normally pretty easy to get, but they come with high interest rates so it’s very important they are paid off every month,” says Heather Townsend, a certified financial planner at Townsend Financial in Scottsdale, Arizona. Also, the credit limits tend to be low, so remember the guideline not to use more than 30%.

Credit-builder loan: As its name suggests, this loan — typically offered by credit unions —  is designed to help you build credit. You apply for a loan, but the money is deposited into a savings account that you can’t touch until the loan is paid off.

The lender reports your monthly payments to the credit bureaus. Repay the loan as agreed and you kill two birds with one stone: build a credit history and get a lump sum of money at the end.

Beef up your credit history

Having more positive information on your credit reports can help you build credit.

Authorized user: If you have family members or friends with good credit, ask them to add you as an authorized user on a credit card. Check that the card issuer reports authorized user accounts to the credit bureaus. This adds their long credit history to your credit reports, which can help your score, but you are not responsible for making payments.

There’s no rule of thumb for when you should stop being an authorized user, Townsend says. If you are brand new to credit, she suggests staying on as a user for at least five years, assuming you also manage other credit or loans responsibly in that time.

Rent reporting: “Ask your landlord if they report your payments to credit bureaus,” says Eric Roberge, a certified financial planner and founder of Beyond Your Hammock in Boston.

Many landlords do not, so Roberge suggests using rent-reporting services, which charge a fee to report your rent payments to the credit bureaus.

Keep it simple

Pick a credit-building tool and stick to good habits: pay on time and keep balances low.

“Don’t feel like you have to take out a lot of new credit at once, or get different types of credit just for the sake of building your score,” Roberge says. “Using just one card will help you build a positive credit history without overwhelming you.”

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