Understanding and managing your credit is a fundamental part of personal finance. A good credit score can open doors, providing you with the best interest rates when you need to borrow money for a home, a car, or any other significant purchase.
On the contrary, a poor credit score can close those same doors, making it harder to get a loan or a credit card, and if you do, you’ll likely pay a higher interest rate. But, what if your credit is less than stellar? Fortunately, you can engage in do-it-yourself credit repair to improve your financial standing.
What is DIY credit repair?
DIY credit repair involves a series of steps, starting with obtaining your free credit reports, analyzing them for errors or negative items, disputing any inaccuracies, and then working on strategies to improve your credit health. It’s not an overnight process, but over time, you can see significant improvements in your credit score.
Can you fix your own credit?
Yes, absolutely. While it might seem like an intimidating task, especially if you have a poor credit score, the truth is that many of the strategies used by professional credit repair companies can be implemented by individuals. You just need a solid understanding of the credit repair process, some organizational skills, and a bit of patience.
Do-It-Yourself Credit Repair: The Benefits
The most obvious benefit of DIY credit repair is the potential cost savings. Hiring a credit repair company can be expensive, and unfortunately, there are many credit repair scams out there. Doing it yourself means you can avoid these costs and potential pitfalls. Plus, taking an active role in repairing your credit helps you understand how credit works, which can benefit you in the long run.
Understanding Credit Reports
A credit report is a detailed summary of your credit history, compiled by a credit bureau. It includes information such as your credit accounts, payment history, and outstanding debts. In the United States, there are three major credit bureaus – Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax – and each provides a free credit report once a year through the website AnnualCreditReport.com.
Analyzing Your Credit Report
Once you have your credit reports, it’s crucial to review them for errors or discrepancies. These could include incorrect credit limits, inaccurate payment history, or fraudulent credit accounts opened in your name – a sign of identity theft. You should also highlight areas for improvement, such as high credit card balances or late payments.
Understanding Credit Scores
Your credit score is a numerical representation of your creditworthiness, based on the information in your credit report. The most commonly used credit scores are FICO scores, developed by the Fair Isaac Corporation.
Factors that influence your credit score include your payment history, total debt, length of credit history, new credit accounts, and your credit mix. Having a bad credit score can lead to higher interest rates or being denied credit altogether.
|FICO Score Range
|300 – 579
|580 – 669
|670 – 739
|740 – 799
|800 – 850
When applying for new credit or loans, creditors evaluate your credit reports and credit scores to assess your creditworthiness. This assessment, along with other financial data, dictates your qualification for credit cards or loans. Poor credit history could lead to higher interest rates, as lenders perceive a higher risk of default.
Excellent credit scores, conversely, typically secure the best terms and conditions, making it crucial to maintain a high credit score for lower interest payments. But what factors influence your credit score? Let’s break it down.
The biggest chunk of your credit score is determined by how well you pay your bills each month. In fact, payment history accounts for 35% of your credit score! You’ll see this history listed on your credit reports through different credit accounts you’ve had over the last seven years.
Under every loan, credit card, or mortgage you’ve had, you’ll see how much you’ve paid each month for an extended period of time. You’ll also see your total balance.
Other creditors like cell phone carriers or utility companies can report late payments, but they typically don’t report payments that are made on time.
If you do have a late payment listed, it’ll be marked with exactly how late it was. This can range from 30 days to 150 days (or more, if the account went into default). So naturally, the later the payment, the more your credit score will drop as a result.
Next, 30% of your FICO score relates to how much debt you owe. Installment loans like a mortgage or student loan aren’t weighed as heavily as revolving debt like credit cards.
Lenders look at your debt-to-credit ratio, or credit utilization. It basically shows how much you owe compared to your maximum line of credit on your credit cards.
If you’re close to being maxed out, your credit suffers. Since it’s a ratio, two people with the same credit card balances could have different FICO scores if one has higher credit limits.
For example, a person with $3,000 charged on a credit card with a $10,000 credit limit only has a 30% debt-to-credit ratio. But someone else with $3,000 charged on a credit card with just a $5,000 credit limit would have a 60% ratio and — all other things being equal — a much lower credit score.
Length of Credit History
15% of your credit score hinges upon the length of your credit history. Lenders can’t gauge your ability or willingness to repay a loan if you have a limited credit history. The FICO credit scoring model considers how long your various credit accounts have been open, including loans and credit cards.
Unfortunately, rent payments aren’t included in the FICO score. However, there are rental reporting services that you could use as additional documentation in your credit application.
New Credit Accounts
Another section you’ll see on your credit reports is called Inquiries. This refers to each application for new credit you’ve submitted in the past two years. It accounts for 10% of your FICO score.
Each hard inquiry drops your credit score by about five points during the first year. This is unless you’ve made multiple credit inquiries for the same product within a few weeks of each other. That just indicates you were rate shopping for a loan or credit card and in this case, they’re treated as a single inquiry.
The final 10% of your credit score is determined by the types of credit you have. We mentioned that revolving credit like credit cards or retail cards hurt your credit score more than installment debt. Installment loans have some sort of asset tied to them, like a house or a car.
You are more likely to repay these loans than unknown purchases from a credit card, since you own something of value.
Student loans are also viewed more favorably than credit cards because they indicate an investment in your future earning power. They figure the more money you make, the faster you can pay off your loans!
The Impact of Negative Information on Your Credit Report
Negative credit history, including charge-offs, collections, late payments, bankruptcies, foreclosures, judgments, and repossessions, can considerably influence your credit score. These items can remain on your report for seven to ten years, but their impact lessens over time.
The FCRA sets limits on how long negative items can stay on your credit report, but positive credit history and neutral items are usually reported indefinitely. While some negative accounts can be removed from your credit history before their standard timeframe, this isn’t always achievable or desirable.
Let’s take a closer look at each type of negative account you may encounter and their expected duration on your credit reports.
A charge-off is a debt deemed uncollectible by a creditor, who then removes it from their reportable past due accounts to improve their accounts receivable report. However, the debt usually persists, often being sold to a “debt buyer” who will attempt to collect the full amount. A charge-off can stay on your credit report for seven years plus 180 days from the original delinquency date.
Collections can be tricky since paying them might inadvertently harm your credit score by resetting the start date. They can stay on your credit report for seven years from when you first fell behind with the original creditor.
Any payment over 30 days late can appear on your credit report, but some creditors don’t report this until a second payment is missed. Delinquent accounts can stay on your report for seven years from the date of the last scheduled payment.
Bankruptcies stay on your credit report for no more than ten years. If the court dismisses your case, the ten years will start from the date of dismissal.
The amount of time also depends on the type of bankruptcy you filed. For example, chapter 13 bankruptcies stay on for only seven years, while Chapter 7 bankruptcies stay on your credit report for the full ten years.
Foreclosures can remain on your credit report for seven years, but you may qualify for a mortgage sooner than that once you regain your financial stability.
Although judgments can stay on your credit report for up to seven years, the three major credit bureaus no longer include them. The actual duration depends on the statute of limitations in your state.
Repossessions can stay on your credit report for up to seven years. However, you remain liable for any remaining debt after a property has been repossessed, regardless of whether it appears on your credit report.
The DIY Credit Repair Method
Do-it-yourself credit repair is certainly possible without hiring a professional credit repair company. Before you begin, though, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). You need to know your rights when dealing with credit bureaus, creditors, and even collection agencies.
Credit repair starts with disputing errors on your credit report. If you find inaccuracies, you can send a dispute letter to the relevant credit bureau, which will then have 30 days to investigate. Be sure to send any supporting documents via certified mail for a record of your dispute. The credit bureau must then correct the information or remove it from your report.
Follow these step-by-step instructions to learn how to identify negative entries like late payments, delinquent loans, and others. This will give you the best chance of getting them eliminated from your credit history.
Step 1: Access Your Free Credit Reports
Hopefully, you’ve already accessed a copy of your credit report from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. If not, the FCRA allows you to get one free credit report from each credit bureau at AnnualCreditReport.com every twelve months.
You can download your reports in minutes after entering some personal information and answering a few security questions. You can also send a request for a hard copy of your credit report to be sent in the mail if you prefer. Or you can call 1-877-322-8228.
Step 2: Review Each Credit Report Carefully
Once you have your free credit report in hand, you should check each one for accuracy. Your credit reports won’t always be the same, since some creditors and lenders only report to one or two credit bureaus.
Even if they do report to all three credit bureaus, one credit bureau may make a mistake when entering your payment history. So, you must look at all three credit bureaus with a fine-tooth comb, instead of just assuming that the information is the same on each one.
First, make sure your basic personal information is correct and that no other individuals are listed on your credit reports. Then, carefully scroll through each page and look at all of your account information.
Look at everything from the opening date of your account to the highest balance you’ve had. Make a note of any account that looks incorrect or even questionable, especially if there’s a negative mark like a late payment.
You also want to confirm that you own each of the lines of credit to make sure no one has fraudulently opened an account under your name. If there are any accounts you don’t recognize, you may have been a victim of identity theft.
Collections & Public Records
Once you’ve looked at all of your open and closed credit accounts, pay close attention to the negative records section of your credit report.
Here you’ll find any accounts you haven’t paid as agreed, collections, or public records you’ve had. Anything listed in this section causes the most damage to your credit score. It should likely be on your list of items to dispute.
Step 3: File Disputes and Request to Have Negative Info Removed
If you find any inaccurate, untimely, misleading, biased, incomplete, or questionable items on your credit report, it’s both your right and responsibility to dispute the information and get it removed. Plus, removing negative items on your credit history can also positively impact your credit score.
While many people still don’t realize that it’s possible to have them removed, thousands of consumers are successfully disputing such items with the credit bureaus every day. So, it’s easier than you might think. It’s also a much better alternative to simply waiting years for negative information to drop off your credit report.
Writing a Credit Dispute Letter
Start by mailing a credit dispute letter to the credit bureau listing the negative item. You can find a sample dispute letter here. Keep a copy for yourself, and make sure you send it by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you have proof they received your letter.
From that point, the credit reporting agency has 30 days to respond to your request. If you ordered your credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com, they have an additional 15 days to respond, making it a total of 45 days.
Some people will tell you that you can dispute online. However, we’ve found that people get much better results disputing through the regular mail. To find out more, please refer to Why You Should Never Dispute Credit Report Errors Online.
What to Include
In your dispute letter, make sure you detail all the incorrect information in your credit report. If you have supporting documentation, include copies — not the originals. But, it is not necessary to include supporting documentation. Remember, the burden of proof is on the credit bureaus and creditors reporting the information about you.
Moreover, be sure to include your name, phone number, and current address. Use a polite and professional tone without injecting any opinion. You can either list the reasons why you’re disputing or simply state that you wish to dispute it.
Once you request the dispute, federal law requires the three credit reporting agencies to investigate, and the relevant creditor must provide proof of the item’s accuracy.
You might have to go back and forth several times between the creditor and the credit reporting agency. It can take a lot of time and effort, but the effects on your credit score could well be worth it.
Dealing With Collection Accounts
Handling collections requires caution to avoid inadvertently resetting the statute of limitations. As part of your DIY credit repair strategy, start by focusing on recent collections; newer debts carry more weight.
Nonmedical debt affects your credit score more significantly than medical debt, so prioritize those. Aim to make full payments, as partial ones can reset the time these accounts stay on your credit reports.
Negotiating a settlement to pay less than owed is a viable option. However, remember that the forgiven amount may be reported as income on your tax return, potentially resulting in higher taxes or a higher tax bracket.
Ensure the collection agency acknowledges your payments. Get payment agreements in writing and retain copies of all account-related documents to protect against potential scams. These steps can help avoid long-term damage to your credit history.
7 Quick Tips for Boosting Your Credit Scores
Getting negative items on your credit report removed can significantly improve your credit score. However, the credit repair process can take a lot of time.
If you’re looking for quick improvements, you can still use a few strategies. Some are minor fixes, while others can still have a significant impact. So, check the whole list to see which ones you can try today to fix your credit.
1. Lower Your Credit Utilization Ratio
Remember that credit utilization ratio we talked about earlier? The closer you are to maxing out your credit cards, the lower your credit score will be.
So, it makes sense that paying down high credit card balances can lower your ratio and increase your credit score. Focus on maxed-out credit cards rather than those with low balances. By keeping your credit card balances low, you could see as much as a 100 point increase over a few months.
2. Request a Credit Limit Increase on Credit Cards
If you can’t afford to pay off the extra debt to decrease your credit utilization, you still have a chance for improvement. Call your credit card issuer and request a credit limit increase on your credit card.
You don’t want to actually charge any more than you already owe. Instead, you simply want to have a higher credit limit so that your existing credit card balance consists of a smaller percentage of your available credit.
Here’s an example. Say you owe $5,000 on a credit card with a $10,000 limit. You’d be utilizing 50% of your credit. But if you got your limit up to $15,000, then your $5,000 balance would only be using 33% of your limit.
When making the call to credit card issuers, it helps if you have made regular, timely payments in the past. More than likely, they’ll value customer loyalty enough to help your credit line.
3. Become an Authorized User
Building your credit history takes a lot of time, but there is a shortcut available. You can become an authorized user on a friend or family member’s account who has long-standing, strong credit. That credit card account will automatically be added to your credit report in its entirety.
There’s a bit of risk involved with this move. If your friend or relative stops making payments or carries a large balance, those negative entries will be added to your credit history.
Likewise, if you rack up high balances and don’t make your payments, the other person’s credit will suffer. Of course, they don’t even need to provide you with access to the credit account for this to work. They just need to put your name on the account. This can be a great tactic, but it does require some caution.
4. Consolidate Your Credit Card Debt
Another quick way to repair your credit is to consider getting a debt consolidation loan. It’s a type of personal loan that you can use to pay off your various credit cards, then make a single monthly payment on the loan.
Depending on your interest rate, you might be able to save money on your monthly payments by getting a lower loan rate. Shop around using pre-approvals to see what kind of rates you qualify for and how they stack up compared to your current credit card rates.
Even if your monthly payment stays the same, your credit score will still see a boost because installment debt is viewed more favorably than revolving debt.
5. Take Out a Credit-Builder Loan
Smaller banks and credit unions often offer credit-builder loans to help individuals repair their credit. When you take out the loan, the funds are deposited into an account that you’re unable to access.
You then begin making monthly payments on the loan amount. Once you’ve repaid the entire loan, the funds are released for you to use.
It may seem strange to make payments on money you can’t even spend, but it’s a way for the financial institution to feel protected while you get a chance to prove yourself as a responsible borrower.
Once you complete your payments and receive the money, the lender reports your on-time payments to the three credit bureaus, which helps your credit score.
Here are the best credit builder loans for 2024.
6. Get a Secured Credit Card
Secured credit cards can be a stepping stone towards better credit. These cards require a security deposit, serving as your credit limit. Regular, timely payments on your card can gradually build a positive payment history, leading to improved credit scores.
Here are the best secured credit cards for 2024.
7. Strategies for Debt Management
Managing your debt is a critical part of the credit repair process. You could consider methods such as the snow ball or avalanche strategies, both of which focus on systematically paying down your debts. The snowball method involves paying off the smallest debts first to build momentum, while the avalanche method prioritizes paying off debts with the highest interest rates.
Maintaining Credit Health: A Lifelong Commitment
Once you’ve addressed past financial issues impacting your credit, it’s essential to focus on the future. Here’s a concise guide to maintain your improved credit score and avoid reverting to old habits.
Budgeting: Live Within Your Means
One key to financial stability and sound credit is living within your means. Regularly saving a portion of your income can help manage unexpected expenses. Resist the urge to charge extra expenditures on a credit card, and monitor your spending daily. Consider using cash for day-to-day expenses to avoid impulsive purchases.
Pay Bills On Time
Timely bill payments significantly influence your credit score. Just one late payment can negatively impact your score. Keep track of all due dates, and consider setting up automatic payments to ensure punctuality.
Credit Monitoring: Keep an Eye on Your Credit
Consider subscribing to a credit monitoring service to regularly track your credit report and score. Some services are free, like Credit Karma, while others charge a small fee. Regular monitoring can help you stay aware of your credit standing and quickly address any potential issues.
How else can I get help to repair my credit?
Consumer protection agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), provide resources and guidance for those looking to repair their credit. They can also assist if you have complaints about a credit repair company or credit reporting agency.
When to Consider Professional Help
While DIY credit repair is an option, there might be times when you need professional help. If your credit issues are complex or if you’re not making progress on your own, you might consider hiring a reputable credit repair service. Be sure to understand the costs associated with these services before you decide to use them.
Free Credit Consultations from Credit Repair Professionals
Reputable credit repair companies often offer free initial consultations, providing personalized advice tailored to your specific circumstances, and actionable plans to improve your credit score. Don’t hesitate to reach out to multiple credit repair companies, comparing strategies and prices to make an informed choice.
Ready to Raise Your Credit Score?
Learn how credit repair professionals can assist you in disputing inaccuracies on your credit report.
Remember, a reputable credit repair company won’t pressure you to sign anything prematurely. Under the Credit Repair Organizations Act, consumers are protected from deceptive practices. Be cautious of companies promising to eliminate accurate, timely negative credit history or demanding upfront payment.
Repairing your credit is a journey, not a sprint. It requires commitment, patience, and an understanding of your financial habits. But the rewards are worth it – better credit scores can lead to better loan terms, lower interest rates, and more financial opportunities. So, take the first step today, and before you know it, you’ll be on your way to a healthier financial future.