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How to Have a Winning Credit Score

posted Jun 19, 2011, 8:56 AM by Massey Kouhssari
It's that time of year again - when the discipline of maintaining our New Year's Resolutions begins to fade. But your credit score doesn't have to. Check out these helpful tips on how to turn your credit score into a winner.

Create a Winning Streak

If you have sparse credit history, one of the best ways to establish a history and bring up your credit score is to pay your bills on time for many consecutive months, says Wayne Sanford, a credit expert with New Start Financial Corporation in Dallas. "After three payments in a row, you start to establish a payment history," Sanford says.

It's best to have one or two credit card payments in that mix of bills, to show that you can handle debt responsibly. However, charging large sums on the cards isn´t necessary. In fact, you'll probably want to keep the amounts small enough to pay off every month, in order to avoid costly finance charges.

"Say one person charges up their credit card buying furniture for their house, while another just charges $50 a month for gas," Sanford says. "The $50 a month is going to score more favorably on [the credit bureaus'] scoring models, because they're not abusing the card."

Consider Your Long-Term Financial Plan

Retail stores commonly offer customers 10 or 20 percent off their purchases in exchange for applying for a line of store credit. But these accounts can lower your credit score by affecting your "card utilization" - the credit limit on a particular card versus how much is owed on that card. Store credit is usually extended in small amounts - say, $250 - so a purchase of $100 uses almost half of that card's limit, which can negatively affect your credit score.

"Credit bureaus used to look at overall debt utilization, but now they look at the individual cards," says Scott Kuhn, a mortgage banker in Philadelphia who works to improve credit scores for potential clients. "You can have 10 credit cards, nine with no balance, and one with a $100 limit and a $100 balance - just that one card can bring down your score."

To avoid this pitfall, resist the short-term temptation to save a little at the register with a store credit card. Pay cash or use one of your current credit cards. Your long-range strategy will prevail in the end.

Pay Close Attention to Medical Bills

Collection attempts for medical bills can lower your credit score, even if the bills are paid, Kuhn says. Many medical offices will turn accounts over to collection agencies if balances aren't paid - sometimes when they're as little as one month overdue. The agencies then place negative marks on the customers' credit reports, and don't always remove them when the debt is settled.

The solution? Pull your credit report and look for negative entries. If you spot one for a medical bill that's been paid, contact your doctor's office and ask them to send a letter to the credit bureau on company letterhead confirming the payment. "That alone can add as many as 100 points to a person's credit score," Kuhn says.

Don't Dwell on the Past

If you've made mistakes in the past with credit, a good way to bring up your score is to seek out secured credit cards and loans, which are guaranteed with money up front. A secured credit card, for example, may require a deposit of $500 to give you a $500 line of credit. Interest charges may apply to any balance you carry, but the score improvement it provides is often worth the cost.

"You have to do the math and say, 'Is an investment of $100 or so worth me having good credit?'" Sanford says.

Before you open one of these "safe" credit accounts, however, make sure that the lender will report your on-time payments to the three major credit bureaus, and don't close the accounts too quickly.

How you pay your bills today counts more than how you paid them five years ago. Accounts that are currently open and being paid on will score more heavily than ones that are closed.

Finally, know that your credit scores follow you throughout your life. Making winning credit decisions today could help make your financial goals easier to reach in the future.

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