Q&A: How to boost your credit scores in the next year

Dear Liz: I am 36 with a 535 credit score and about to move back to the U.S. from Colombia with my future wife. I’d like to increase my score by 100 or 200 points within eight to 12 months. Is it possible?

Answer: Increasing your credit scores to the mid-600s within a year or so is probably a reasonable goal.

Most consumer credit scores are on a 300-to-850 range. The higher your scores, the easier it will be to get approved for loans and credit cards, plus you’ll be offered better rates and terms.

What’s considered a good or bad score depends on the lender and the scoring formula. In general, scores below 630 or so are considered bad while scores in the mid-600s are usually considered “fair.” Good scores typically begin around 690.

Consider a credit builder loan from a credit union or online lender. The money you borrow is placed in a certificate of deposit or a savings account for you to claim after you’ve made 12 on-time payments. You’ll pay interest to the lender but be building your savings at the same time.

Secured credit cards are another way to build credit. You deposit a certain amount with the issuing bank, often $200 to $2,000, and get a credit line in the same amount. If you use the charge lightly and pay it off in full each month, you can build credit without paying interest.

Q&A: Unexpected credit upswing

Dear Liz: I know there are different factors involved, but I find a recent upsurge in my FICO score inexplicable. My score went from about 740 to 815, according to a note in my most recent credit card statement. Yet I’ve done virtually nothing in the way of major credit activity — no purchases, no change in my already-low credit card use. I transferred about $800 from one card to another, and that’s it. If such small matters can affect the FICO score, it makes that score seem ridiculous. Can you offer any possible explanations?

Answer: Credit scoring formulas are a bit of a black box, but they are sensitive to how much of your available credit you’re using.

If you transferred the balance from a card with a very low credit limit to one with a higher limit, your scores typically would improve — although perhaps not as dramatically as the increase you’re describing.

Your scores might also improve if your balances dropped on other accounts or something that was negatively impacting your credit “fell off” or stopped being reported. The simple passage of time can improve your scores, as well, increasing the age of your credit accounts and the time since your last application for credit.

It’s impossible to say exactly what combination of factors may have affected the score you saw, but at least it moved in the right direction.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 4 common winter home insurance claims and how to prevent them. Also in the news: How long it will take to pay off your MBA debt, huge Disney park changes for 2022 and tips on how to fund your trip, and why the catch with Buy Now Pay Later could be your credit.

4 Common Winter Home Insurance Claims and How to Prevent Them
Winter-induced home damage can sometimes be prevented, but sufficient insurance coverage may cover even the most bitter disaster.

How Long Will It Take to Pay Off Your MBA Debt?
Your student loan repayment strategy will determine how long it takes to pay off your MBA debt.

Huge Disney Park Changes for 2022, and How to Fund Your Trip
Disney announced a slew of new rides and shows during its Destination D23 event in November at Walt Disney World.

The Catch With Buy Now, Pay Later Could Be Your Credit
Buy now, pay later plans promise no interest or hidden fees, but they don’t typically help you build credit.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Care about your credit score? Get strategic with card limits. Also in the news: Buy now, pay later traps, and what to know about bitcoin as it approaches $70,000.

Care About Your Credit Score? Get Strategic With Card Limits
Actively managing how much of your credit limits you are using can make a big impact on your credit score.

Watch Out for These Buy Now, Pay Later Traps
Among its pitfalls, buy now, pay later can tempt you to take on too much debt, and it may not help your credit.

What to Know About Bitcoin as It Approaches $70,000
Bitcoin is trading near all-time highs and crossed a record $68,000 at the beginning of this week.

Q&A: When mortgage shopping, does checking your credit scores lower them?

Dear Liz: We’re trying to refinance a mortgage. All of the mortgage lenders claim that checking our credit scores will not affect the scores. However, that is not true. What gives? The three credit bureaus all list “too many inquiries” and penalize us. Does calling them do any good or make it even worse?

Answer:
Checking your own scores is considered a soft inquiry that has no effect on your scores. When a lender checks your scores, there can be a small ding, but credit scoring formulas also have a feature that reduces the effect when you’re shopping for a mortgage.

Essentially, all the mortgage inquiries made within a certain amount of time are grouped together and counted as one. In addition, the formulas ignore any mortgage inquiries made within the previous 30 days. The amount of time you can shop varies with the credit scoring formula, so it’s generally a good idea to concentrate your shopping into a two-week period.

What you don’t want to do when you’re in the market for a mortgage is to apply for other credit. Those inquiries are not grouped with your mortgage inquiries. The effect of these inquiries fades quickly and is usually pretty small — typically 5 points or less for FICO scores, for example. But even a small ding could cause you to pay more in interest if your scores aren’t already excellent.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How gratitude can help your financial life. Also in the news: What’s being fixed with student loan forgiveness, a new Smart Money podcast deep dive on investing strategies, and what happens when you’re too sick to pay your credit card bills.

How Gratitude Can Help Your Financial Life
Taking stock of what you have.

Student Loan Forgiveness: What’s Getting Fixed?
Public service loan forgiveness is being repaired.

Smart Money Podcast: Nerdy Deep Dives: Investing, Part 3
Exploring investment strategies.

I Was in a Coma and Couldn’t Pay My Credit Card Bills
After a medical emergency, your card issuer may be able to make accommodations to lessen the financial strain.

Q&A: Business credit card dilemma

Dear Liz: I am a sole proprietor and have two business credit cards. I used my Social Security number to apply for the cards and put $2,000 to $3,000 a month on these cards, yet all this credit card activity is not reported to Experian, thereby hurting my credit score, and I now have “stale credit” per Experian. Is my credit card activity not reported because my cards are considered business cards?

Answer: The short answer is yes. Although you used your personal credit history to apply for the cards, business cards typically don’t report activity to the consumer credit bureaus (although negative activity may be reported, such as if the account is delinquent).

You can remedy the situation by getting and using a personal credit card or two. If your credit report has become so stale that it can’t generate a credit score at all, you may need to start with a secured card or look into a credit builder loan.

Q&A: How a card switch affects your credit score

Dear Liz: I have one American Express card and two Visa cards, all of which I have held for many years. I received notice that my American Express card was being converted to a Visa card. I do not want a third Visa card but have no choice. For credit score purposes, will this conversion appear to be a closing of my old card and an application for a new one? Obviously, closing a long-held credit card and applying for a new one will affect my excellent credit score, which is 830. If I decided to apply for a new American Express card, how would that impact my score?

Answer: Conversions from one issuer to another can have a temporary negative impact on your credit scores as one account is closed and another opened. The effect should be minor as long as you have other open, active accounts.

Within a month or two, the new account should show the same history as the old one, and your scores should recover. (You have more than one credit score, by the way, and your scores change all the time. As long as they’re generally above 760 or so, you should get lenders’ best rates and terms.)

The type of card usually matters less than the benefits associated with the card. If those benefits are useful to you and are enough to offset any annual fee, consider keeping the card. Its long history and credit limit are likely helping your scores.

That doesn’t mean you have to keep a card you really don’t want. The fewer cards you have, though, the more careful you probably need to be about closing one.

You can still add an American Express or other card to your portfolio. Adding a new card typically dings your scores less than five points. The effect is temporary, and the new account could contribute positively to your scores over time.

Q&A: Finding your real credit score

Dear Liz: I’ve been thinking of buying a house, and I want to get a good deal on the mortgage. To do this, I’ve been working on getting my credit score high. I only have one credit card and have had it for less than two years. This credit card has gotten my FICO score to 788. I’ve never had a loan. Would you recommend getting a credit builder loan, to try to increase my score and get a better mortgage deal? Or is 788 good enough?

Answer: Mortgage lenders typically use older versions of the FICO scoring formula. The resulting scores can be quite different from the free scores you can find online, or even the FICO 8 or FICO 9 scores that your bank and credit card companies may show you.

You can get your mortgage credit scores, along with FICO scores used for auto lending and credit cards, for $19.95 per credit bureau at MyFico.com. (Be sure to click on the tab that says “one time reports,” because otherwise you’re signing up for a subscription service.) Be sure to get all three bureaus’ scores, because mortgage lenders use the middle of the three numbers to determine your interest rate. If your scores are 800, 740 and 720, for example, the lender would use 740 to determine your rate and terms.

If the middle of your three mortgage scores is 740 or higher, you should get a mortgage lender’s best deal. If it’s not, the MyFico.com report should give you some clues how to get it higher.

Q&A: Credit scores and card limits

Dear Liz: I have a 780 credit score but noted that one of my cards doesn’t count in the percent of credit used. I have had this card for 44 years and I could charge a couple hundred thousand dollars on a single purchase if I chose to, yet credit scoring formulas don’t figure in the “credit I have available” from Amex. Seems unfair?

Answer: As credit cards with six-figure limits are rare, what you’re describing is probably a charge card. Unlike credit cards, charge cards don’t have preset spending limits. They also don’t allow you to carry a balance from month to month, typically.

The “percent of credit used” you mention is called credit utilization, and it’s a large factor in credit scoring formulas. Credit utilization measures how much of your available credit you’re using, and the bigger the gap between your credit limits and your balances, the better.

But the credit utilization calculation can’t be made if one of the numbers — the credit limit — is missing. The only way the formulas would be able to calculate credit utilization in that case would be to assume that whatever amount you charged is equal to your credit limit, and that would be disastrous for your scores.