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While there's no shortcut to achieving a good credit score, there are small steps you can take to help your credit in the time it takes to watch an episode of your favorite Netflix drama. Options for building credit differ if you have an established credit history or if you’re new to credit.
If you already have credit
1. Pay down debt
One of the main factors in your credit score calculation is credit utilization, or how much of your credit limits you are using. If your credit cards are nearly maxed out, paying down the balances will lower your utilization and potentially help your score.
Credit experts recommend keeping all balances below 30% of the credit limit — and lower is better.
2. Make an extra payment in a billing cycle
If you cannot afford to pay your credit card balances in full once a month, making multiple small payments can also lower your balances and help your score, says John Ulzheimer, who has worked at credit scoring company FICO and credit bureau Equifax. Credit card issuers typically report payment activity to the bureaus once a month. Your goal is to regularly whittle the balance down with frequent payments so your utilization looks good no matter when the issuer reports.
3. Request a credit limit increase
If you regularly pay your bills on time, your credit card issuer may agree to increase your credit limit, effectively lowering your utilization. This is a double-edged sword, Ulzheimer says, and works only as long as you continue to keep the balance low.
Before you agree to a higher limit, ask the issuer if raising it requires a hard credit pull, which could temporarily ding your score by a few points. Ulzheimer suggests asking your issuer how much it can increase your limit without requiring a hard pull.
If you are new to credit
4. Become an authorized user on someone else’s credit card
You can make charges to the card, but the primary cardholder is responsible for paying the bill. “It’s like a credit card with training wheels,” Ulzheimer says. Your credit history benefits even if you don't use the card; the main account holder might be more willing to add you if you agree not to use or take possession of the physical card.
Most issuers report authorized user accounts to the three major credit bureaus, he says, but it’s worth checking with the issuer to be sure.
5. Apply for a credit-builder loan
A credit-builder loan, which some credit unions and community banks offer, works differently from a typical loan. Rather than borrowing money upfront, you make fixed monthly payments into a savings account for a specific period of time. The credit union reports your payments to the credit bureaus, allowing you to build a credit score. At the end of the loan term, you can access the money in the savings account.
6. Get a secured credit card
A secured credit card is designed for credit novices. You pay the credit card issuer a security deposit that is often equal to your credit limit, say $500. Then, you use the card and make payments as you would a regular credit card. The issuer reports your payments to the credit bureaus, which helps build your score.
If you miss payments, you may incur fees. If you are more than 30 days late, it will be reported to the credit bureaus, and that will hurt your score.
Once you have built your credit score to the point where you can get approved for an unsecured credit card, you can either close this account or graduate to an unsecured card with the same bank and get your deposit back.
The downside of a secured card, Ulzheimer says, is the credit limit is typically low, so it’s easy to run up a high balance that hurts your utilization. To avoid this, use the secured card to pay only for a small recurring expense, such as a Netflix subscription.
Not as quick, but worth the time
There is another way to work on your score, but it takes longer. Check your credit reports for errors that may be dragging your score down. If there are mistakes such as a loan you didn’t take or a bill reported as late that you know you paid on time, contact the credit bureaus to dispute them. It's also possible to hire someone to help scrub your credit report of inaccurate or outdated information.
Finally, consider signing up for a free credit score so you can monitor your credit. NerdWallet offers both a free credit score and a TransUnion credit report summary, updated weekly. Staying on top of changes can help you spot any problems sooner and address them right away.