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What is a low credit score?

If your credit score is hovering around 650 FICO, you're in good company. The average FICO credit score in the fourth quarter of 2015 was at an all-time high of 695, so while 650 is below average, it still ranks in the “fair” category. Still, while it's a far cry from the “bad” credit range of 600 FICO and below, a 650 FICO or even 700 FICO score isn't enough to earn you all the plum benefits of a really good or even excellent score, so it's definitely worth your while to do what you can to earn a few more points and rise to that next level – from a “fair” score to a “good” one.
If your credit score is low – around 500 FICO or 550 FICO, in fact – you need to address it right away.  While there are plenty of others in the same boat, that probably doesn't make you feel a whole lot better. Your low FICO credit score means decisions like buying a car or a home will have to wait, because lenders think you're just too much of a risk.  It also means:

  • you can wind up paying more for insurance;
  • lose out on that new apartment;
  • you miss out on job opportunities that could give you a better future;
  • plus, if an emergency pops up and you need a personal loan, you'll never qualify for low rates - instead, the most you can hope for are high-interest subprime or payday loans with restrictive fees and huge penalties.

Why do you need a good or fair credit score?

  • You'll pay higher interest: With a score of 650 FICO or 675 FICO, any loans or cards you do qualify for will probably have fairly high interest rates, and your cards may require annual fees.
  • You may have trouble getting major loans: the chances of getting a mortgage are pretty slim, and if you need a new car, any loan you qualify for will likely have a pretty high rate, and that can boost the “true” cost of your new car by thousands of dollars.
  • Your refinancing dreams may need to be put on hold: As with a conventional “new home” mortgage, getting a refinancing loan is going to be much more difficult, and if you do manage to qualify, the rates you pay will be higher – and that means you could end up paying tens of thousands of dollars in extra interest over the life of your loan.
  • Your insurance rates may be higher: Insurance companies are in the “risk” business, and they often use the FICO score to decide if you're a good or a bad risk when it comes to providing you with insurance. Lower credit scores – yes, even those that are considered “fair” - can jack up your premiums significantly.
  • Your job search could be affected: Fair or not, plenty of employers use your credit score as an indicator of the type of employee you're going to be, with those with lower scores generally considered riskier when it comes to making new hires.
  • You might not get that great apartment you've been considering: Just like lenders and insurance companies, landlords consider risk when it comes to handing over the keys to their properties. Apartment complexes and private landlords almost always use credit scores to decide if they want to rent to you or to someone with a better risk profile.

What goes into the FICO score?

There are five primary components to the FICO score, and each one is weighted differently when it comes to determining your score. Here's a quick rundown of the “essential five” and what you can do to improve your habits and your score in each area:

Payment history

This is the biggie, accounting for a little more than a third of your score. All you have to do to score big here is pay on time, every time. It may sound simple, but even if you mess up a couple times and wind up paying late, it can have a major impact on your score, so being vigilant is essential. Plus, payment history doesn't just include your history of paying credit cards and other loans – it also includes any accounts that go to collections as well as any court decisions rendered against you – like, say, if you have a foreclosure or you don't pay your credit bill for a long, long time and the credit card company pursues payment in court. Unfortunately, not only is payment history the biggest factor used in determining your score, it's also the one that takes the longest to repair. Only time can improve your payment history significantly, which means you need some techniques to keep your payments on time and on track.

How to improve:

  1. Build an emergency fund. Of course, the most obvious thing to do here is pay all your bills on time. Duh. But while it sounds obvious, it's not always that easy. We've all had those unexpected expenses that cause us to overextend ourselves from time to time, and if you're living near the edge of your credit limits, it's even easier to start making a late payment here and there. If you can, try to set aside a little money each week to fund an emergency account so you can pay for unexpected expenses without turning to your credit card. Even $10 a week is a start. Have it set aside with direct deposit from your check so you won't even know it's missing.
  2. Speaking of automatic deposit, if your bill has an autopay option, use it. By having your monthly payments deducted automatically from your checking account, you won't have to worry about being late. Just be sure you have enough money in your account to cover your bills when the deduction occurs, or you could be hit with overdraft penalties.

Amounts owing

This is the second biggest factor, accounting for about 30 percent of your score. Amounts owing refers to how much you owe on each of your outstanding loans, especially with regard to the credit limit; that means if you have a card with a $10,000 limit and you owe $1,000 on it (10 percent), it won't have as much impact on your score as if you have $1,000 owing on a card with a $2,000 credit limit (50 percent). Again, the key to improving in this area is obvious: Pay down your debts. But, like payment history, just because something sounds easy doesn't mean it is easy to implement.

How to improve:

  1. Try to put any extra money you have toward paying down your cards (but try NOT to touch your emergency fund; if that's gone, you may wind up using credit more often, which means you could end up carrying an even bigger balance). The goal is to get your credit usage down to around 20 percent of your available credit on each card. (Well, OK, your actual goal is to pay off your credit cards entirely, but 20 percent sounds a lot less daunting.) Some people decide to pay down the card with the smallest balance first – seeing one card reach 20 percent usage or less can provide powerful motivation to keep going – while others choose to pay down the card with the highest interest rate to save more money. The choice is yours, but whichever approach you use, there's one more thing you can do to increase the impact of our pay-down strategy by using ...
  2. The “snowball” method. The snowball method uses the analogy of a snowball that picks up more and more snow as it gathers momentum rolling down a hill, with the hill representing your decreasing remaining balances on your credit cards. In practice, what it means is this: You choose a card to pay off, and you make a note of the minimum amount due each month – say it's $300. You pay that $300 every month as well as throwing any spare cash at the balance until you pay off your card. Once you start paying down your balance, something happens: Your minimum amount due will also decrease. That's how credit card companies extend the amount of time it takes you to pay back your debts – and increase the amount of interest they're earning. But instead of adjusting your payment down along with that lower minimum amount due, you keep paying your original minimum amount due – $300 – which means you'll reach your goal faster without changing the impact on your budget. Yay! You reached your goal, and now you have an extra $300 to spend each month, right? Wrong. Once you reach your goal with that card, you take that $300 you had been paying on that card to the next card in line for rapid repayment. Say you've been paying the minimum amount due of $200 each month on card #2; the added $300 means you're now paying it down by $500 so you'll see your balance shrink much more quickly. And that's the snowball method.
  3. Get another job. One of the fastest ways to pay down your balances is to get a part-time job and devote the ENTIRE paycheck to paying down your balances. Willpower is critical here, as in every aspect of paying down debt. Do NOT be tempted to take that “extra” income to splurge on something, and be careful it doesn't get absorbed into every day spending. Remember: Autopay is your friend. If the cash comes out of your account to pay bills automatically before you ever get a chance to hold it in your hand, it can be a lot easier to stay on track.

Length of credit history

This factor accounts for about 15 percent of your score, and it's a good thing because there's really no way to improve it except by getting older and keeping your accounts open.
How to improve:
  1. As noted, the longer you have credit, the more this factor will improve. The length of credit history is based on an average age of all your accounts, so if you start closing old accounts (or have them closed for non-payment) or if you take out a new account, this factor is negatively affected. The best strategy here is to avoid closing your oldest accounts and avoid taking out a lot of new credit lines (which you should do anyway if you're trying to boost your credit score).
  1. The length of time since you last used an account can also factor in here, so if you have any cards sitting idle, you might want to charge a VERY SMALL amount on them now and then so they remain active. Otherwise, the account may wind up being closed.

Types of credit

This factor “only” accounts for about 10 percent of your FICO score, and what it reflects is your ability to secure different types of credit or loans – home loans, car loans, student debt loans, personal loans, credit cards – each represents a different category of credit, and FICO thinks that by having different types of credit, it demonstrates you're a better risk.
How to improve:
  • Just live life. Over time, you'll probably amass different types of loans. Do NOT be tempted to take out a loan in a different category simply to improve in this area. The interest you'd wind up paying would far outweigh any potential modest benefit you might see in your score, and having another loan would count against you when calculating total amounts owing, so any benefit could wind up being canceled out anyway.

New credit

Like types of credit, new credit accounts for about 10 percent of your score. Generally speaking, FICO looks at how you shop for credit to help determine your relative risk level: If you open a lot of accounts or take out a lot of loans within a short period of time, it can make you look desperate for cash, and in the eyes of FICO, that's not good. “Serial” applications for loans and credit can cause your score to drop – even a single application can cause a drop of a few points. The good news is, as long as you pay your accounts on time and keep your balances low in relation to the credit line, the points will come back, usually within a few months.
How to improve:
  • If you're trying to boost your credit score, the best way to avoid having your account dinged and losing more points is to stop taking out new credit. Right now, your focus should be on improving your payment habits and paying down existing accounts, not taking out new credit.

Undoing what's been done

Before beginning any journey, you have to know where you're going and you have to have a plan to get there. The “knowing where you're going” part is easy – your ultimate “destination” is a better credit score. How to get there is a little trickier, but once you understand some basics, you'll be surprised how easy your journey can be.

Making a map to your future

Of course, before you get started, you need to know where you are right now so you can make a plan – a map – that's designed just for you. To get started, all it takes are two important steps:

  • Gather all your bills together
  • Order copies of your credit reports.
In the medical world, this is known as “triage” - finding out specifically what's wrong, deciding what needs to be done, and then prioritizing all those tasks so you can rebuild your credit over time, as quickly as possible.
Your bills and your credit report let you see where you are in black and white. If you've just been throwing your bills away, STOP. Save any that arrive and put them in your “I CAN DO THIS” credit repair file or box, or wherever you're going to keep your bills and credit reports while you rebuild your score.

Ordering credit reports is simple - and free!

In the meantime, you can see a lot of your bills right on your credit reports, including:

  • collections accounts
  • personal loans
  • installment loans
  • credit cards
  • other types of unsecured loans and consumer loans
Plus, you can get a free credit report every 12 months from the three major credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – just by visiting You can order all three at once, or spread them out – one every four months – during the course of the year once you're in the monitoring phase.

But for triage, you're going to want to get all three of them at one time. Why? Because each agency can report different items, so if you only order one, you won't have a complete picture of the factors that are contributing to your credit score. Once you get your reports, you'll want to review them very closely and look for errors – any errors – that need to be fixed. You can do that online, too, at the bureaus' websites, and since the correction process can take one or two billing cycles, the sooner you get started making any needed corrections, the better.

Your credit report: A snapshot of bad habits, and good ones too
In addition to making sure your reports are as accurate as possible and seeing which accounts are in trouble, there's another important reason for getting your credit reports right away: Having your credit history condensed to a few pages can help you see and understand more clearly the poor financial decisions you've made and their consequences on your life.

That doesn't mean you should feel guilty about those mistakes – not at all! Learning to handle finances isn't easy, and the school systems don't provide us with a lot of tools, if any, before we graduate. Instead, it should make you feel empowered – maybe even a little bit angry – and ready to take back control of your financial future. After you're through looking for errors, make a list of all your bad habits that landed you that 550 score – overlimit spending, late payments, having too many consumer loans or unsecured loans like credit cards, letting accounts go to collections, foreclosures, and just plain spending more than you earn. 

Now, it's time for action!

Once you know what's on your report, you need to know what you can do to improve the negative entries and to supplement the positives. You can do it! Just take one step at a time:

First, make a list.

Knowing where you are financially begins with writing down every consumer loan, unsecured loan, installment loan, personal loan and any other type of loan or account with a balance owing. Use a notebook to write everything down and keep it organized, or use a spreadsheet if it's easier for you. Here's what to include:
  • the name of the creditor;
  • the type of debt - credit card, car loan, etc.;
  • the total amount you owe on each account;
  • your monthly payment if the debt is an installment loan;
  • for installment loans, include the amount due right now, including any fees or penalties;
  • whether or not the account is late – and if so, how late;
  • the interest rate you're paying;
  • whether the bill is poised to go to collections;
  • the phone number and email address of the account;
  • any other important information about the account.
Once you've got your list completed, it may look bleak, but don't dwell on it; you've got this, and you can take the steps needed to turn all of this mess around – and it's going to be easier than you think.
Next, you need to do the same sort of triage for your finances. That means you need to know how much you're bringing in each month and how much you're paying toward housing, utilities and other items. You don't need to go into nitty-gritty details, but having a ballpark figure will help when you move on to the next step, which is ...

Setting up a repayment plan

This is where it gets a little more complicated – but just a little – because you have some decisions to make. Different debts may require different repayment schedules, so you're going to need to contact your creditors and find out what kinds of payment arrangements you can make. Is this a fun process? No, but just like going to the dentist for a root canal, it has to be done, and after a little bit of discomfort, you'll be in much better shape. And if you don't do it, your account will go to collections or worse – court – and you'll be in much worse shape. So make the decision right now to do it and get it over with. Once you're done, you'll feel a lot better because you will be more in control of your own life and your own future.
  • Don't sweat it: A lot of people dread the thought of calling creditors, but it's really not nearly as bad as all that. After all, most creditors and collections agencies are used to setting up payment plans, so in most cases, a request to pay over time isn't going to result in a batted eyelash. Even lump-sum debts like cable bills, phone bills, utilities and medical bills can be paid over time in payment plans. After all, these folks want their money, and if the only way they can get it is over time, in most cases they'll take that option over the protracted collections and court process any day.
  • Know before you call: Before picking up the phone, you'll need to have a rough idea of what your income is after necessary bills, because while some creditors will tell you what your bottom-most limit is for repaying each month, others may ask what you can afford to pay each month to help them establish your plan. If you say “I don't know” or if you overestimate, you could wind up with a plan that's difficult to pay back. Is there an alternative to calling each and every creditor? Yes – it's called a debt consolidation loan, and you can read more about it in the next section.

The two-job shuffle: Is it right for you?

That's one way to start paying more on your bills and provide some breathing room in your budget. The second way is to take on another job – and that can be a double-edged sword. Getting a second job can provide you with some much-needed income for debt repayment – as long as you devote the entire check to the debts. But when you're already faced with paying down a large amount of debt and taking other steps to repair your credit, getting another job right away could be enough to send you back into the overspending spiral. Try the budgeting route first, and once you've got that under way, revisit the second job idea if it makes sense.

Debt Consolidation Loans: The Secret Weapon

Right about now, it's probably starting to look like a lot of work, and it is - but it's all doable; no "rocket science" involved. But if you want an even easier solution to get you back on the right track,  there is one more thing you can do, and it's a biggie: Consider a debt consolidation loan.

Debt consolidations loans look at all your debts and roll them into one loan with a single interest rate, so you can pay back your creditors right away for a major impact on your score. Shop around with before choosing one option.  These loans offer plenty of attractive benefits for consumers:

  • One monthly payment means your entire repayment plan just got a whole lot easier. Just one date to keep track of instead of many.
  • You don't have to worry about missing a payment date and getting another red mark on your credit report – just one payment each month is all you'll have to think about.
  • If you really want to make it simple, you can have that payment automatically deducted form your account for even more peace of mind.
  • Applying for a debt consolidation loan means you don't need to contact your creditors to set up payment plans, because your new loan can pay them of in full.
  • Most debt consolidation loans have low rates compared to the rates you're paying on your overdue credit cards.
  • You can apply for debt consolidation loans online in your own home. What could be easier?
In fact, with so many benefits, you might want to explore this option before you even look at cutting back, just to give you the “jump-start” you need to start feeling hopeful about your finances and your credit. Once you have your loan in place, you can – and should – still look for ways to cut expenses – and you can divert your extra cash to building an emergency fund so you can avoid the credit trap in the future.

So how long will this take?

Your credit score didn't get where it is over night, and getting it where you want it to be isn't going to be an instant process, either. Plan on seeing some real upward movement in your score within just a few payment cycles, especially if you opt for the debt consolidation route – and don't use your repaid credit cards to rack up more debt.

Humans, like all animals, respond to positive reinforcement, so you might want to consider subscribing to a credit monitoring service that offers frequent score updates. Click above to find out which one works best for you.

What about debt settlement?

Lots of people wonder if debt settlement is a good option, and while on the surface, settling your debts for less than you owe may seem like a good deal, in fact, it can wind up doing serious, long-term damage to your credit. Here's what a lot of companies don't tell you:
  • Debt settlements show up on your credit report, often as “chargeoffs,” which can have huge consequences to your credit score for as long as seven years.
  • Most debt settlement companies charge big fees for their services – sometimes thousands of dollars.
  • Many companies “front load” their fees, meaning your first several months of payments could go to paying those fees rather than paying down your debts; in the meantime, late fees and penalties can continue to mount up with your creditors – and don't think your bad behavior won't be reported to the credit bureaus.
  • Plus, you may actually wind up owing taxes on the amount of debt that was forgiven.

Psych yourself out - in a good way

And there's another important reason to avoid debt settlement: Paying back your own debts without resorting to partial payments through debt reduction and chargeoffs has powerful psychological advantages. When you pay back your own debts through a plan you devise, either over time or with a debt consolidation loan, you have that pride that comes from knowing you're in control, and you have the skills to take responsibility for your actions and turn your bad finances around all on your own. That's a benefit that can have amazing effects on the rest of your life, boosting your confidence and helping you feel more positive about your ability to handle other complex situations that may come your way. That's a benefit you can't put a value on, and it's one a lot of people tend to overlook.

Finally, we come to the “D” word. 

And by that, we mean discipline.

Discipline is huge in life – it's discipline that helped you learn how to walk, made you go to school, go to work – even brush your teeth. In fact, nearly every habit you've learned is based on discipline; most of those habits are so routine, you don't even think twice about doing them.

When it comes to having healthy finances, you need discipline too. In fact, discipline is critical in helping ensure you don't get back into the same downward spiral of overspending, overcharging and cringing when the phone rings or the mail is delivered. Once you have your repayment plan in place – whether that means doing it yourself over the long haul or opting for the once-a-month convenience of a debt consolidation loan – you still need to cultivate the smart steps like setting a budget or spending plan, building up an emergency fund and learning to live life a little “smaller” and a little simpler. It's good for your finances, it's good for your future, and it's even good for your health.

Right now, though, you need to reach deep and channel all your energies into taking these first critical steps to get your credit back where it should be:

Your 8-Step Plan to a Higher Credit Score and Better Financial Future

  1. Make the decision to take control of your finances today, right NOW. (Boom – you just completed the most difficult step.)
  2. Order your credit reports and gather your bills.
  3. Make a list of your debts and understand the errors that got you to this point – then make a commitment to practice better financial habits.
  4. Look into consolidation for a convenient solution that can have a big impact on your score.
  5. Identify areas to cut back on spending or bring in more money.
  6. Avoid debt settlement at all costs.
  7. Subscribe to a credit monitoring service.
  8. Continue practicing wise spending habits.
That's it. Eight steps to a better financial future, a higher credit score and better financial opportunities, including those low rates you've been longing for. And it all starts with the decision you make right now. So get moving! You CAN do it, and the sooner you start, the sooner you'll reach your destination. Your better, brighter future is just a few months away.

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