Learning how to build credit for the first time isn’t always easy, even for the most seasoned consumer.
The good news is it’s a pretty straightforward and simple process, though getting there won’t happen overnight. But if you follow the steps below, you can learn how to establish first-time credit while also building solid financial habits that will keep you from falling into debt.
What is credit?
When you’re thinking about how to build your credit for the first time, there are a few things you should know. Let’s first focus on some terminology. Those are some of the main terms you need to know when it comes to building credit:
- Credit: Money that has been lent to you by a financial institution.
- Creditor: A financial institution, retailer, or other company lending you money via a loan or line of credit.
- Credit Report: A report that reflects the credit accounts you have, your payment history, your balances, and other key information that reflects your borrowing behavior.
- Credit Reporting Agency (CRA): Companies responsible for compiling and maintaining your credit report. The three most common CRAs are Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax.
- Credit Score: A score of your behavior as a borrower, not to be confused with your credit report. It’s also not on your credit report.
- FICO and VantageScore: Two top credit score developers in the U.S.
- The Fair Credit Reporting Act: This act protects the accuracy of the information on your credit report. It legally binds CRAs to only report accurate information on your credit file, among other things.
While we’re at it, here are the major factors that play into your credit score, as described by Experian:
- Payment history
- Credit utilization
- Length of credit history
- New credit
- Type of credit
- Public records (bankruptcy, tax liens, etc.)
How to build credit for the first time
1. Be an authorized user on your parent’s credit card
One easy tip on how to establish first-time credit is to ask your parents to add you as an authorized user on their credit card. If your parents are responsible with their credit cards, pay their bills on time, and don’t max them out, then this is an easy way to start building credit fast.
The best part is you don’t need to use the card. Instead, you can enjoy a budding credit score just by having your name on the account.
2. Sign up for a secured credit card
When you’re ready to try credit on your own for the first time, a secured credit card is a great way to do it. Secured credit cards are just like normal credit cards, but they require you to put down a deposit to get approved.
Below are a few benefits of this type of credit card:
- It’s easy to get approved.
- It comes with a relatively low credit limit.
- The card won’t let you charge more than you paid as a security deposit.
It’s easy for someone to slowly build up charges on a credit card until they become almost impossible to pay back. Many begin a quick descent into credit card debt that way.
That’s why it’s so important to play it safe while you’re still figuring out how to build good credit habits.
Since secured credit cards don’t come with high credit limits, they allow you to try your hand at using credit cards without risking the possibility of falling deep into debt. You can use a secured card as your training wheels before you move on to traditional credit cards.
3. Pay your balance in full every month
The best habit you can build is to pay your card in full every month. If you nail this habit while you’re learning to establish first-time credit, you’ll be light-years ahead of many long-time credit users.
Remember, it only takes a few casual swipes on your credit card to raise your balance to more than you can afford. While small charges don’t feel like they’ll add up to much, they do – and fast.
What’s more, if you carry a balance over from month to month, then the interest charges can multiply your balances more than you could have imagined. So do yourself a favor and pay off your secured credit card every month.
Need help reading and understanding your credit statement? This template from the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) helps you see what to look for on your monthly credit card bill.
4. Upgrade to a traditional credit card
There’s another benefit to secured credit cards. After roughly six months to one year of responsible secured credit card usage, you can likely upgrade to a traditional credit card.
Not only that, many credit card issuers will review your account automatically to see if you’re able to upgrade sooner. Once you either close your secured credit card or upgrade to a traditional credit card, you’ll get your security deposit back as long as your balance was paid in full.
When you transition to a traditional credit card, you’re going to go from a small credit limit to a potentially much higher one. However, the best thing you could do at this point is to pretend you didn’t get a higher limit.
This is not a time to let the high limit tempt you into spending more than you can afford. Now, more than ever, it’s important to maintain those good credit habits you worked so hard to develop.
5. Avoid carrying a balance
When you carry a balance month-to-month, it’s way too easy to fall into a credit card debt hole and may take years to climb out.
While potential creditors want to see that you’re using credit, that doesn’t mean you have to go into debt. A credit score is all about showing how well you manage the money lent to you.
If you were lending your friend money, you’d want to be paid back, right? That’s what would tell you that your friend is responsible. The same goes for you and your credit cards.
Use them, then pay them in full each month. Avoid credit card debt like your financial future depends on it – because it does.
6. Pay all of your bills on time
Two factors that are the most influential when it comes to your credit score: paying on time and maintaining zero to low balances on revolving debt.
The first factor, payment history, is an easy win when it comes to learning how to build credit for the first time. After all, if you pay your bills on time every month, then you’re doing one of the best things you can to build good credit.
But that doesn’t just mean your credit card bills. That means your rent, your phone bill, your utilities, doctor’s bills, and just about any other bill you can think of. While not all of these things relate to credit, unpaid bills can be reported on your credit history by all kinds of companies.
Even worse, if your accounts go into full default and are sold to a collections agency, then your credit will suffer. Collections accounts stay on your credit for seven years. Don’t let this happen to you.
Pay all of your bills on time. And if you think you really won’t be able to make one, contact your creditor immediately and see if you can work out a payment plan.
7. Avoid student loan default
Of all the bills in the world that can become overwhelming, student loans can certainly top the list. But you want to avoid student loan default.
Unlike other types of debt, student loans are nearly impossible to discharge through bankruptcy. What’s more, student loans getting sent to collections will damage your credit. Plus, it makes it hard for you to know who’s servicing them when you are ready to start repaying.
If you have federal student loans and you’re struggling to pay them back, you have access to the following options:
And if you have private student loans and the payments are too high, see if you can refinance to get a lower interest rate. You’re not likely to get approved for this on your own if you’re still new to credit, but there is often the option to add a co-signer.
But if you refinance your student loans with the help of a cosigner, it’s more imperative than ever to pay your bill in full and on time every month. That’s because a delinquency on your part won’t just hurt your credit – it’ll hurt your cosigner’s credit too.
Best practices for checking your credit
1. Get your free annual credit report
Everyone is entitled to their credit report once a year from all three credit reporting agencies. You can get yours at AnnualCreditReport.com.
Because you have access to your credit report from each of the three CRAs, you could check several times per year by spacing them out. For example, you could check your Experian credit report early in the year, TransUnion a few months later, and Equifax a few months later.
That way you’re getting your eye on your credit regularly without having to pay anything extra to do it. Just keep in mind that these credit reports can vary slightly as different creditors might not always report to all three CRAs.
2. Dispute any errors or fraudulent accounts
Even though your credit reports from each of the CRAs can vary, that doesn’t mean you should ignore large inconsistencies. If you find that one or more of your credit reports is showing an error or a fraudulent account, immediately dispute it with the CRA showing the incorrect data.
Never ignore an error on your credit report. It could signify fraudulent activity or it could mean that someone else’s data is being included on your report. Either of these situations can greatly damage your credit, so take care of it early.
3. Get your free credit score
As you’re thinking about how to build your credit for the first time, your credit score might be the last thing on your mind. But after a few months of credit-building, it’s a good idea to start looking at your score to see where you stand.
There are many ways to get your credit score for free these days. But there’s one very important thing to keep in mind: the score you see isn’t necessarily the same one your lender sees.
Many companies who can show you your credit score only show you an educational credit score. That’s a score meant to give you an idea of what your score is.
However, lenders tend to use different types of credit scores, sometimes even proprietary ones or industry-specific scores. Since that changes how the calculations work, your score will be different.
As for where you can check your credit score for free, many banks and credit card issuers now let you see that information when you log into your account online, But if yours doesn’t, check out this list of places where you can get your free credit score.
One final word of advice
One of the most important pieces of advice someone can give to someone who’s learning how to establish first-time credit is to not obsess over their credit score.
The worst thing you can do is focus so much on your credit score that you end up making decisions that are bad for your finances.
In fact, an important principle of building credit is to focus on things that are good for your credit and your money, such as:
- Using revolving credit but never letting it turn into debt.
- Paying on time.
- Not taking on any new loans unless you need them.
If the decisions you’re making are good for your money, there’s a good chance they’ll be good for your credit.
Don’t forget: it takes time to learn how to build credit for the first time and maintain the good habits you’ve learned. Stay focused, stay responsible, and let time do its thing. Soon enough, you’ll have a good credit score and the tools to help you keep it that way.
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