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Even if credit wasn’t top of mind during the winter months and you found yourself slightly off track—overspending around the holidays, for example—spring is the perfect time to get back in the habit of practicing creditworthy behavior.
Use this credit spring-cleaning checklist to help you clean up your financial house:
1. Pay down your debt.
If you’ve had debt pile up, or if any of your accounts have been sent to collections, create a budget to help you pay everything off as soon as possible. This may mean that you’ll have to trim your budget elsewhere—cutting out that daily cup of coffee from your favorite coffee shop, for example—but it will pay off in the long run. As you start paying off your debt, you’ll open up your available credit, which you can then start to use responsibly.
If you are having trouble getting your debt under control, consider contacting your lender to explain your situation and negotiate a payment plan.
2. Pay your bills on time.
Payment history is the largest factor that influences your credit score, so paying your bills on time and in full each month could help you boost your score over time. If paying your bills tends to slip your mind, consider signing up for automatic payments or setting a calendar reminder.
It’s important to note that just one late payment could ding your credit score, and one delinquent payment that is 30 days late can remain on your credit report for up to seven years.
3. Keep your balances low.
Your credit score also takes into account your debt-to-credit ratio, or how much of your available credit you are using. In general, a low debt-to-credit ratio—meaning you are only using a small portion of your available credit—will reflect more positively on your credit score.
Experts tend to agree that you should avoid carrying a balance of more than 30 percent of your credit limit in order to be viewed most favorably by lenders. Make sure you are aware of the credit limits on all of your revolving accounts, and closely monitor your charging habits in order to keep your balances low.
4. Only open new credit accounts when you really need them.
Before you open a new account or respond to a credit card offer you receive in the mail, evaluate your financial situation to ensure the new account is necessary.
Opening multiple credit accounts within a short timeframe can actually lower your credit score. This is because the length of your credit history is factored into your score, and opening a new account shortens your average account age.
5. Regularly check your credit report.
If you aren’t in the habit of regularly reviewing your credit report, now is a good time to start. You can order one free copy of your credit report from each of the three national credit reporting agencies once a year through AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also obtain your credit score by paying a nominal fee.
Once you’ve pulled a copy of your credit report, carefully comb through it to ensure that all of your personal and financial information is accurate and up to date. Make sure the payment history, balance amount, and account age are correct for all of your credit accounts and that your personal information—such as your name and address—is accurate.
6. Correct errors on your credit report.
An error on your credit report could lower your credit score, and it could even be a sign of fraud or identity theft. If you do find a mistake, file a dispute with the credit reporting agency reporting the error as soon as possible. At Equifax, you can file a dispute online, by mail, or by phone. You can also directly contact the creditor involved with the error.
(Read more: How to find and dispute errors on your report)
7. Ask for help if you need it.
If you are having trouble managing your credit, there are resources out there that can help. Consider contacting a reputable nonprofit credit counseling agency in your area through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
8. Don’t give up.
While practicing positive credit behavior—such as paying your bills on time and keeping your debt-to-credit ratio low—can help you improve your creditworthiness over time, you can’t change your credit score overnight.
Be patient as you implement your credit spring-cleaning checklist, and designate a day each month to check in with your credit and finances so you know where you currently stand.
Diane Moogalian is vice president of operations for Equifax Personal Solutions. Prior to joining Equifax in 2007, Diane held several strategic roles with leading financial services companies. Diane graduated from the University of Richmond with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (Marketing and Economics) and earned a Certificate in International Business from Virginia Commonwealth University.
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