Along with the New Year’s Resolutions about losing weight and learning a new language, plenty of Americans will be contemplating how to improve their credit in 2015.
Whether you’re trying to get a better credit score so you can qualify for a mortgage or a low rate on a car loan, are just starting to build your credit history or repairing it after a financial setback, experts say there are a handful of things you should be doing right now.
Consider a balance transfer. “January is the start of balance transfer season, [when] credit card issuers try to lure new customers with 0% APR promotional offers,” says Charles Tran, founder of the site CreditDonkey.com. While balance transfers can help people pay down a high debt load, you really need to read the fine print, Tran says. “Pay attention to the balance transfer fee and how long the promotional period is for,” he advises. Another thing you want to check is whether or not the promotional rate applies to new purchases or only to the balance you transferred onto the card. “Watch out, as a balance on the card will typically mean there is no grace period for purchases,” Tran warns.
Avoid applying for more. Applying for a credit card or loan dings your credit score just a bit, so if you’re planning a big purchase (say, a home or a car) where every point on your credit score counts, hold off on opening any other accounts for a while, says Odysseas Papadimitriou, founder and CEO of the sites CardHub.com and WalletHub.com. “Stop applying for other forms of credit at least six months in advance,” he advises.
Pay down any variable-rate debts. “It’s important to cut down your overall debt level as interest rates are predicted to rise,” Tran advises. Most credit cards these days are variable-rate cards with APRs linked to the prime rate, and right now the prime rate is unusually low. It literally has nowhere to go but up, which means more Americans will find themselves paying more to service their debts. For people who are already strapped, this could hurt their credit if they can’t make those higher monthly payments.
Check your credit reports. This is also especially important if you plan to buy a car or house this year, says Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at the site CreditCards.com. “Check for errors such as accounts that you don’t recognize and late payments that you didn’t actually pay late,” he says. “Cleaning up any mistakes on your report can make a big difference to your credit score.”
Build a cash cushion. You might think your paycheck is already stretched thin, but experts say it’s important to sock away money in a savings account that you can access if you have an unexpected expense or interruption in your income stream. Without an emergency fund to tap, even a small shock to your finances could knock you into an expensive and long-lasting spiral of debt. “Do not get into additional debt without first having an emergency fund,” Papadimitriou warns.