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A credit score can be key to unlocking many firsts — an apartment, a car loan, or a mortgage. But when you’re starting out, getting a score is maddeningly elusive. Many lenders are reluctant to extend credit unless you already have experience with credit.
Credit bureau Experian wants to ease that Catch-22 for credit novices with a free product called Experian Boost. Boost lets consumers opt to include their cell phone and utility payments into the calculation of their credit score using data from Experian.
The idea is to help thin-file customers — those who have less experience with credit — by incorporating signs of responsible financial behavior that traditionally aren’t seen by credit reporting bureaus. Boost also may help people who are rebuilding their credit after financial setbacks. Experian estimates the product could affect up to 100 million consumers’ scores.
How Boost works
Consumers who want to use Boost must allow the product to scan their bank account transactions to identify utility and cell phone payments. Information about payments will appear in their Experian credit report and be used when certain credit scores are calculated from that data.
Boost will count only positive payment history, Experian says, so missed utility or cell phone payments will not hurt your score. That’s different from how credit scores usually work, where missed payments are recorded in your credit report and can reduce your score.
To use Boost, consumers have to sign up for a free membership on Experian’s website and grant permission to connect their online bank accounts. Boost then identifies utility and cell phone payments. Once a consumer verifies the data and confirms they want it added to their Experian credit file, an updated FICO score is delivered in real time, the bureau said in a news release.
In the six months since Boost rolled out, Experian said, 2 out of 3 consumers using it saw their FICO scores rose. The average increase was more than 10 points and 13% of users on average moved up a credit band.
How to know if Boost might help you
When a lender checks your credit, it may pull your credit score or view your credit report from any or all of the three major credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
There are different versions of your credit scores, such as FICO 8 (the most commonly used score) and VantageScore 3.
Lenders would see the effects of Boost only if they view your Experian credit report or pull your FICO 8, FICO 9, VantageScore 3 or VantageScore 4 credit scores using Experian data.
One potential con of using Boost: Since all lenders may not be familiar with it, they may see utility and cell phone payments on your credit report and consider it part of your debt load, which could affect your odds of qualifying for a loan or credit card. Experian says it is "working with lenders to ensure they understand these positive payments."
Boost vs. UltraFICO and other ways to strengthen your credit
Experian is testing another product in conjunction with FICO, also aimed at helping thin-file consumers. The UltraFICO score, which launched as a pilot in 2019 and will roll out in the spring of 2020, also requires access to your bank account data to gauge financial behavior. Instead of utility payments, the score factors in how much you have in savings and whether you incur overdrafts in your checking account.
Right now, both Boost and UltraFICO influence only your Experian credit report and scores built using that data. You can do other things to strengthen your credit, and the effect of these steps can extend to all three credit bureaus:
Become an authorized user on someone else’s credit card. When someone with an established credit line adds you as an authorized user, you benefit from their good credit habits. Make sure the card reports authorized-user status to the credit bureaus.
Apply for a secured credit card. This starter card is backed by a deposit that also serves as your credit limit. It’s best to put a small, recurring charge on it and set up autopay. The small charge means you’re not using too much of your credit line, which can hurt your score. The automatic payment guards against a late or forgotten payment, which also can damage your score.
Use a credit-builder loan. Credit unions typically offer this type of loan, which builds your credit and savings at the same time. It requires a monthly payment that’s held in a separate savings account until you pay off the loan.
Use a rent-reporting service. Some companies offer to have your rent payments reported to the credit bureaus, allowing you to build your credit file.