As anyone who’s applied for a loan lately knows, if you don’t have gold-plated credit, you may have a tough time borrowing. Lenders have responded to their own difficulty accessing credit –– as well as increasing customer defaults –– by tightening lending.
Now more than ever you need to closely monitor your credit scores and avoid behaviors that might trigger higher interest, cancelled accounts or reduced credit limits, any of which can lower scores.
A few precautions:
• Check credit reports and scores. The three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) track your credit history and compile credit reports showing a snapshot of your credit behavior. They also use the information to create three-digit credit scores that help lenders (and landlords and employers) determine if you’re a good credit risk.
In a recent Visa, Inc. cardholder survey, nearly half said they check their score once a year or more and 18 percent every few years. But alarmingly, 30 percent have never checked their score. That’s the financial equivalent of driving with your eyes shut.
You can order one free credit report per year from each bureau at www.annualcreditreport.com. You can also purchase copies of your credit scores for about $15 each at www.myfico.com.
• Know what credit scores measure. The Visa survey also uncovered misconceptions about factors impacting your score: Although the majority correctly identified bill payment history, current level of debt and interest on current debt as measurable factors, around a quarter incorrectly believed that race, gender and national origin also play a role.
Basically, five factors determine your score: payment history, amount owed, length of credit history, newly opened accounts, and types of credit used. Scores take into consideration both positive and negative information in each category.
• Read your mail. Account terms, including interest rates, credit limits and payment deadlines, are subject to change, pending notification. So always read any correspondence from lenders or retailers where you have accounts.
A few additional tips:
• If you can’t make a payment, contact the lender before you’re past due to work out a compromise.
• Don’t use more than 30 percent of any one card’s available credit.
• Be cautious opening or closing accounts. Some experts recommend occasionally charging small amounts to older, unused accounts so they’ll remain open, to keep available credit constant.
Alderman directs Visa’s financial education programs.