10 Strategies for Beginners To Start Building Credit

 February 1, 2021
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Learning how to start building credit isn’t easy, especially when you’re starting from scratch. Fortunately, there are tried-and-true steps you can take to increase your credit score.

Although you won’t get a perfect score overnight, these moves will help you build good credit, slowly but surely. Read on to learn how to establish credit while also building solid financial habits that will keep you from falling into debt.

How to establish credit: 10 strategies

If you’re wondering how to establish credit from scratch, these steps will help:

1. Learn the fundamentals of credit
2. Become an authorized user on your parent’s credit card
3. Sign up for a secured credit card
4. Pay your balance in full every month
5. Upgrade to a traditional credit card
6. Keep your credit utilization low
7. Don’t open too many accounts at once
8. Pay all of your bills on time
9. Avoid student loan default
10. Keep your accounts open, unless they’re costing you

1. Learn the fundamentals of credit

When you’re thinking about how to start building 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. This might be a loan from a bank or a line of credit from a credit card company.
  • 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. Your score is not on your credit report, but there are ways to check it for free.
  • 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 (e.g., bankruptcy)
  • Number of inquiries on your credit report

2. Become an authorized user on your parent’s credit card

Once you understand how credit works, you can use this knowledge to build your credit. One easy tip on how to establish 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 for you 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.

3. 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.

4. 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 Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) helps you see what to look for on your monthly credit card bill.

5. 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.

6. Keep your credit utilization low

Maxing out your available credit won’t do your credit score any favors. As mentioned, you don’t want to charge more on your credit cards than you can afford to pay back each month. But keeping your charges low isn’t just about staying out of debt.

Your credit utilization also impacts your credit score. A good rule of thumb is to keep your credit utilization under 30%.

So if you have $1,000 in available credit, you shouldn’t owe more than $300 at any one time. If you have $10,000 in available credit, keep your charges under $3,000.

By keeping your credit utilization under 30%, you can avoid dragging down your credit score.

7. Don’t open too many accounts at once

Although you need lines of credit to build your credit score, opening too many accounts at once can hurt your score. I know, it’s a bit of a Catch 22.

To avoid hurting your score, don’t incur lots of hard credit inquiries in a short period of time. Even if lenders or credit cards are sending you preapproval letters in the mail or cashiers are offering you store credit cards, you don’t have to open an account.

Open your accounts strategically, rather than signing up for every offer that comes your way. Note that when you’re shopping for a car loan or a mortgage, you usually do have a window of time where you can check your rates with multiple lenders without harming your credit score.

And some lenders will let you check your rates without pulling a hard inquiry on your credit, such as when you’re comparing offers to refinance student loans.

8. 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.

9. 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 cosigner.

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.

10. Keep your accounts open, unless they’re costing you

The length of your credit history also factors into your credit score, which is why it can be so challenging when you’re learning how to start building credit for the first time. Once you have some accounts open, avoid closing them unless you have a good reason to do so.

It’s fine to close an account if it’s charging you a big annual fee or if it’s a loan you want to pay off as fast as possible. But if the account isn’t costing you, closing it could shorten your credit history and ding your score.

Best practices for checking your credit

Now that you know how to establish credit, here’s how you can monitor your credit score to ensure your efforts are working. Here are three ways to do it:

1. Get your free annual credit report
2. Dispute any errors or fraudulent accounts
3. Get your free credit score

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 after that.

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.

Why building credit takes time

One of the most important pieces of advice someone can give to someone who’s learning how to establish 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 finances, there’s a good chance they’ll be good for your credit.

Don’t forget: it takes time to learn how to start building credit 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.

Rebecca Safier contributed to this report.

Interested in refinancing student loans?

Here are the top 9 lenders of 2022!
LenderVariable APREligible Degrees 
1.74% – 6.52%1Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Splash

1.99% – 5.89%2Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Earnest

2.50% – 6.85%3Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit CommonBond

1.89% – 5.90%4Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Laurel Road

1.74% – 7.24%5Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit SoFi

1.90% – 5.25%6Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Lendkey

1.88% – 5.64%7Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit NaviRefi

1.86% – 6.01%Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Elfi

2.13% – 5.25%8Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit PenFed

Check out the testimonials and our in-depth reviews!
1 Important Disclosures for Splash Financial.

Splash Financial Disclosures

Terms and Conditions apply. Splash reserves the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. Rates and terms are also subject to change at any time without notice. Offers are subject to credit approval. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. If approved, your actual rate will be within a range of rates and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, income and other factors. Refinancing or consolidating private and federal student loans may not be the right decision for everyone. Federal loans carry special benefits not available for loans made through Splash Financial, for example, public service loan forgiveness and economic hardship programs, fee waivers and rebates on the principal, which may not be accessible to you after you refinance. The rates displayed may include a 0.25% autopay discount

The information you provide to us is an inquiry to determine whether we or our lenders can make a loan offer that meets your needs. If we or any of our lending partners has an available loan offer for you, you will be invited to submit a loan application to the lender for its review. We do not guarantee that you will receive any loan offers or that your loan application will be approved. Offers are subject to credit approval and are available only to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers will receive the lowest rates, which are available to the most qualified borrowers. Participating lenders, rates and terms are subject to change at any time without notice.

To check the rates and terms you qualify for, Splash Financial conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, if you choose a product and continue your application, the lender will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit pull and may affect your credit.

Splash Financial and our lending partners reserve the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen and meet our lending partner’s underwriting requirements. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. This information is current as of January 19, 2022.

2 Rate range above includes optional 0.25% Auto Pay discount. Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

Interest Rate Disclosure

Actual rate and available repayment terms will vary based on your income. Fixed rates range from 2.69% APR to 6.04% APR (excludes 0.25% Auto Pay discount). Variable rates range from 1.99% APR to 5.89% APR (excludes 0.25% Auto Pay discount). Earnest variable interest rate student loan refinance loans are based on a publicly available index, the 30-day Average Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The variable rate is based on the rate published on the 25th day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month, and using the daily interest rate based on actual days in the year and rounding up, plus a margin and will change on the 1st of each month. The rate will not increase more than once per month. The maximum rate for your loan is 8.95% if your loan term is 10 years or less. For loan terms of more than 10 years to 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 9.95%. For loan terms over 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 11.95%. Please note, we are not able to offer variable rate loans in AK, IL, MN, NH, OH, TN, and TX.

3 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restriction. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900), NMLS Consumer Access. If you are approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your credit profile, your application, the loan term selected and will be within the ranges of rates shown. ‍All Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) displayed assume borrowers enroll in auto pay and account for the 0.25% reduction in interest rate. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 0.15% effective Jan 1, 2021 and may increase after consummation.

4 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.

Laurel Road Disclosures

All credit products are subject to credit approval.

Laurel Road began originating student loans in 2013 and has since helped thousands of professionals with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees consolidate and refinance more than $4 billion in federal and private school loans. Laurel Road also offers a suite of online graduate school loan products and personal loans that help simplify lending through customized technology and personalized service. In April 2019, Laurel Road was acquired by KeyBank, one of the nation’s largest bank-based financial services companies. Laurel Road is a brand of KeyBank National Association offering online lending products in all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. All loans are provided by KeyBank National Association, a nationally chartered bank. Member FDIC. For more information, visit www.laurelroad.com.

As used throughout these Terms & Conditions, the term “Lender” refers to KeyBank National Association and its affiliates, agents, guaranty insurers, investors, assigns, and successors in interest.

  1. Checking your rate with Laurel Road only requires a soft credit pull, which will not affect your credit score. To proceed with an application, a hard credit pull will be required, which may affect your credit score.
  2. Savings vary based on rate and term of your existing and refinanced loan(s). Refinancing to a longer term may lower your monthly payments, but may also increase the total interest paid over the life of the loan. Refinancing to a shorter term may increase your monthly payments, but may lower the total interest paid over the life of the loan. Review your loan documentation for total cost of your refinanced loan.
  3. After loan disbursement, if a borrower documents a qualifying economic hardship, we may agree in our discretion to allow for full or partial forbearance of payments for one or more 3-month time periods (not to exceed 12 months in the aggregate during the term of your loan), provided that we receive acceptable documentation (including updating documentation) of the nature and expected duration of the borrower’s economic hardship. During any period of forbearance interest will continue to accrue. At the end of the forbearance period, any unpaid accrued interest will be capitalized and be added to the remaining principle amount of the loan.
  4. Automatic Payment (“AutoPay”) Discount: if the borrower chooses to make monthly payments automatically from a bank account, the interest rate will decrease by 0.25% and will increase back if the borrower stops making (or we stop accepting) monthly payments automatically from the borrower’s bank account. The 0.25% AutoPay discount will not reduce the monthly payment; instead, the discount is applied to the principal to help pay the loan down faster.

Assumptions: Repayment examples above assume a loan amount of $10,000 with repayment beginning immediately following disbursement. Repayment examples do not include the 0.25% AutoPay Discount.

Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): This term represents the actual cost of financing to the borrower over the life of the loan expressed as a yearly rate.

Interest Rate: A simple annual rate that is applied to an unpaid balance.

Variable Rates: The current index for variable rate loans is derived from the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) and changes in the LIBOR index may cause your monthly payment to increase. Borrowers who take out a term of 5, 7, or 10 years will have a maximum interest rate of 9%, those who take out a 15 or 20-year variable loan will have a maximum interest rate of 10%.


This information is current as of April 29, 2021. Information and rates are subject to change without notice.

5 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

Fixed rates range from 2.49% APR to 7.59% APR with a 0.25% autopay discount. Variable rates from 1.74% APR to 7.24% APR with a 0.25% autopay discount. Unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law, Variable Interest rates on 5-, 7-, and 10-year terms are capped at 8.95% APR; 15- and 20-year terms are capped at 9.95% APR. Your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on the term you select, evaluation of your creditworthiness, income, presence of a co-signer and a variety of other factors. Lowest rates reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. For the SoFi variable-rate product, the variable interest rate for a given month is derived by adding a margin to the 30-day average SOFR index, published two business days preceding such calendar month, rounded up to the nearest one hundredth of one percent (0.01% or 0.0001). APRs for variable-rate loans may increase after origination if the SOFR index increases. The SoFi 0.25% autopay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. This benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit lowers your interest rate but does not change the amount of your monthly payment. This benefit is suspended during periods of deferment and forbearance. Autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi.

6 Important Disclosures for LendKey.

LendKey Disclosures

Refinancing via LendKey.com is only available for applicants with qualified private education loans from an eligible institution. Loans that were used for exam preparation classes, including, but not limited to, loans for LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE preparation, are not eligible for refinancing with a lender via LendKey.com. If you currently have any of these exam preparation loans, you should not include them in an application to refinance your student loans on this website. Applicants must be either U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents in an eligible state to qualify for a loan. Certain membership requirements (including the opening of a share account and any applicable association fees in connection with membership) may apply in the event that an applicant wishes to accept a loan offer from a credit union lender. Lenders participating on LendKey.com reserve the right to modify or discontinue the products, terms, and benefits offered on this website at any time without notice. LendKey Technologies, Inc. is not affiliated with, nor does it  endorse,  any educational institution.

Subject to floor rate and may require the automatic payments be made from a checking or savings account with the lender. The rate reduction will be removed and the rate will be increased by 0.25% upon any cancellation or failed collection attempt of the automatic payment and will be suspended during any period of deferment or forbearance. As a result, during the forbearance or suspension period, and/or if the automatic payment is canceled, any increase will take the form of higher payments. The lowest advertised variable APR is only available for loan terms of  5 years and is reserved for applicants with FICO scores of at least 810.

As of 11/15/2021 student loan refinancing rates range from 1.90% APR – 5.25% Variable APR with AutoPay and 2.49% APR – 7.75% Fixed APR with AutoPay.

7 Important Disclosures for Navient.

Navient Disclosures

1. NaviRefi loans are made by Earnest Operations LLC, a member of the Navient family of companies, subject to individual approval and underwriting criteria. California residents only: Loans made or arranged pursuant to a California Finance Lenders Law license. Additional terms and conditions apply.

– To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen or non-citizen permanent resident of the United States, reside in a state we lend in, and satisfy our minimum eligibility criteria. You may find more information on loan eligibility here: https://www.navirefi.com/help-and-questions. Not all applicants will be approved for a loan, and not all applicants will qualify for the lowest rate. Loan terms are subject to eligibility. Approval and interest rate depend on the review of a complete application. Loan approval is subject to confirmation that your debt-to-income, free cash flow, credit history and application information meet the minimum requirements. You must have a minimum FICO score to be considered.

– You can choose between fixed and variable rates. Fixed interest rates are 2.75% – 6.04% APR (2.50% – 5.79% APR with Auto Pay discount). Starting variable interest rates are 2.13% – 5.89% APR (1.88% – 5.64% APR with Auto Pay discount). Variable rates are based on an index, the 30-day Average Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) plus a margin. Variable rates are reset monthly based on the fluctuation of the index. We do not currently offer variable rate loans in AK, CO, CT, HI, IL, KY, MA, MN, MS, NH, OH, OK, SC, TN, TX, and VA.

– You can take advantage of the 0.25% Auto Pay interest rate reduction by setting up and maintaining active and automatic ACH withdrawal of your loan payment. The interest rate reduction for Auto Pay will be available only while your loan is enrolled in Auto Pay. Interest rate incentives for utilizing Auto Pay may not be combined with certain private student loan repayment programs that also offer an interest rate reduction. NaviRefi rate ranges are current as of June 1, 2021 and are subject to change based on market conditions and borrower eligibility.

– Loan cost examples: These examples provide estimates based on payments beginning immediately upon loan disbursement. Variable APR: A $10,000 loan with a 20-year term (240 monthly payments of $72) and a 5.89% APR would result in a total estimated payment amount of $17,042. For a variable loan, after your starting rate is set, your rate will then vary with the market. Fixed APR: A $10,000 loan with a 20-year term (240 monthly payments of $72) and a 6.04% APR would result in a total estimated payment amount of $17,250. Your actual repayment terms may vary.

– The information provided on this page is updated as of 06/1/2021. Earnest Operations LLC reserves the right to modify or discontinue (in whole or in part) this loan program and its associated services and benefits at any time without notice. Check www.navirefi.com for the most up-to-date information. Terms and Conditions apply. Call 855-284-4893 for more information on our student loan refinance product.

– Earnest Operations LLC – NMLS #1204917, CA CFL #6054788 – 535 Mission St., Suite 1663, San Francisco, CA 94105.
Navient Solutions, LLC – NMLS #212430 – 123 Justison St., Wilmington, DE 19801. Visit https://navirefi.com/lending-licenses for a full list of licensed states.

8 Important Disclosures for PenFed.

PenFed Disclosures

Annual Percentage Rate (APR) is the cost of credit calculating the interest rate, loan amount, repayment term and the timing of payments. Fixed Rates range from 2.89%-4.78% APR and Variable Rates range from 2.13%-5.25% APR. Both Fixed and Variable Rates will vary based on application terms, level of degree and presence of a co-signer. These rates are subject to additional terms and conditions and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. For Variable Rate student loans, the rate will never exceed 9.00% for 5 year and 8 year loans and 10.00% for 12 and 15 years loans (the maximum allowable for this loan). Minimum variable rate will be 2.00%. These rates are subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change.

Published in Credit & Debt,