Recently, we highlighted 5 reasons credit scores matter for seniors. As Freddie Huynh, Freedom Financial Network’s vice president of credit risk analytics, points out, a good score gives seniors options. On the flip side, he cautions that a low score can limit choices. So what can you do when your score is lower than you’d like?
Here, Huynh offers 8 practical steps seniors can take to boost a bad score—or make a good one even better.
1 – Access your free credit reports.
Did you know that you have more than one credit report? That’s because there are three major credit reporting agencies—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—and each one generates its own report for you. You can access all three reports once per year (for free!) from AnnualCreditReport.com or by calling 877-322-8228.
2 – Review and correct each credit report.
Now that you have your reports, take a few minutes to review each one carefully. “If any shows an error—from an address to an incorrect outstanding balance on a credit card—correct it,” says Huynh. Follow the directions listed on each agency’s website to make those corrections. “The credit bureaus must investigate any disputed items and remove them from the credit report if they cannot be verified,” he confirms.
3 – Understand the difference between credit reports and credit scores.
The information on your credit reports is used to calculate your credit scores. Based on the information in its report, each agency develops its own credit score for you. “So,” Huynh says, “your credit scores will be slightly different from each of the agencies.” Credit scores take several factors into account, including credit history, amount of credit available and used, number of late and on-time payments, and whether any payments are in default.
4 – Pay all your bills on time.
It’s easy to get behind on payments, especially when your Social Security check doesn’t seem to stretch as far as you need it to. But late payments can hurt your credit score, especially if they become habitual. As Huynh affirms, “on-time payments are the most important factor in developing a good credit profile—they account for 35 percent of credit scores.”
5 – Pay down your debt.
If you’re dealing with debt, you’re not alone. According to a Government Accountability Office report, people over 50 are the fastest-growing group with student loan debt. Medical debt is also a major factor for seniors. But it pays to get a handle on debt of any kind—particularly when it comes to credit cards, which typically carry high interest rates. “Getting rid of credit card debt is one of the best investments you’ll make,” says Huynh. “It’s also a key factor in improving credit profiles and scores.”
6 – Use credit.
Contrary to what you may have heard, credit cards aren’t the root of all evil—they can actually work to your benefit. “Credit agencies rely on past payment history to gauge how borrowers will do in the future,” says Huynh. “If you don’t borrow, they have no information to rely on.” That doesn’t mean you have to use a handful of credit cards, though. Using one card wisely can be enough to help you boost your score. Just be careful with retail store cards, which tend to have high interest rates.
7 – Watch your credit utilization ratio.
This is a fancy way of saying, “Don’t charge close to your limit.” A good rule of thumb is to charge less than 30 percent of your total credit limit. So if the sum of all your credit card limits is $10,000, you should charge less than $3,000 each month. “Credit card utilization can be very influential to your credit score, so you want to keep your credit card balances and utilization low,” affirms Huynh.
8 – Keep your cards.
Do you have a bunch of credit cards you never use? That’s OK. Store them someplace safe, but don’t close the accounts. “The longer you hold a card, the more valuable it is in your credit score determination,” says Huynh.
Follow these steps to work toward the kind of credit score that allows you to live your life to the fullest—and let us know how it goes!
WEIGH IN: What steps have you taken to boost your credit score?