Credit scores are on the decline, according to data collected by credit rating agency FICO. One-quarter of consumers — that's over 40 million people—have credit scores below 600. Lower scores can make it difficult to secure attractive interest rates or even obtain credit cards, car loans and mortgages at all. FICO's scale ranges from 300 to 850.
While this trend of falling credit scores is problematic for all borrowers, it's a particular concern for those either approaching retirement or already well into it. One study of debt levels found that the average family headed by someone 55 or older saw its total debt more than double, to $70,370, between 1992 and 2007. Higher borrowing costs can eat away at savings, a big problem for anyone living on a fixed income.
If your credit score could stand to gain a few points, here are some ideas to get you moving in the right direction. Taking action now to improve you credit score will make it easier to borrow in the future under more favorable terms.
Check credit reports for errors. You're entitled to request and receive a free credit report once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. Do so by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com or by calling 1-877-322-8228. Beware of misleading credit report ads that claim to offer free copies — there's usually a hidden fee. Review each credit report carefully and follow instructions for correcting any errors. You'll probably need to pay extra for your actual credit score.
Pay bills on time. Chances are that many negatives on your credit report are due to falling behind on payments. While late payments can remain on your credit report for many years, lenders tend to be more forgiving if it only happens sporadically and your recent history shows on-time payments. So your most important task is to make on-time payments every month. Early payments are better, even if you can only afford to send in the minimum amount.
Keep loan balances low. The objective here is to be able to show lenders that you're making steady progress at managing your financial obligations. Be particularly careful about outstanding loan balances on credit cards, home equity lines of credit and the like. Keep the outstanding balances as low as possible, ideally under 25 percent of the maximum limit, and certainly no more than 50 percent. Eventually, though, you'll want to get into the habit of paying off the entire balance each month, if possible.
Pay cash when you can. Any time you are paying at a cash register, use cash or a debit card to avoid running up credit card balances on day-to-day expenses. If you have a lot of credit cards, you may want to stop using some of them. The fear that canceling a credit card will harm your credit score is overblown. In general, your score will be affected by just a few points, if at all. Getting unwanted credit cards (and credit card companies) off your back is well worth whatever short-term hit you need to take to your credit score, in my opinion. One notable exception: If you plan to apply for a loan in the near future, you might want to delay canceling credit cards until after the loan is approved.
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