5 Basic Credit Lessons to Teach Your Kids

Your parents may have prepared you as best they could for the financial realities of adulthood, or they could have left you to figure it all out for yourself. But if you were taught the basics of finance and credit before you left the nest, you may have encountered less of a learning curve than your clueless counterparts. No matter your level of understanding, you likely have to do some learning yourself.

But now, if you’re the parent, one of your priorities is to prepare your kids for adulthood. Just as you would teach your children to dress themselves, ride a bike or do their laundry, you may want to impart lessons about credit to them to help them become successful and financially independent.

Here are five credit lessons you may wish to impart.

1. It’s Important to Regularly Check Your Credit Reports & Credit Scores

Credit reports and credit scores may seem like abstract concepts to teach your children. But you can use simple metaphors. School-age children can understand the concepts of grades and report cards, and these concepts apply to credit. The work you put into your credit is reflected in your credit report and credit score, which “grade” your performance. These grades can then be used to help you get “rewarded,” like by getting the best rate on a credit card or a loan, like for a car or home. (You can check out your free credit report summary on Credit.com, which includes grades on how you’re doing in the five key areas that make up your scores.) This brings us to our next lesson …

2. Credit Affects Their Life

Once your child understands the concept of a credit report and credit score, you can demonstrate how credit has affected your lifestyle. Many of your possessions — your home, car or credit card, for instance — were obtained using credit, and are examples of the power of credit. Of course, credit is not just a way to get “things.” It’s a tool that can help provide shelter, comfort and freedom.

3. There Are 5 Main Influencers of Credit

As your kids get older and have a firmer grasp on these concepts, they may be able to better understand how they can make credit work for them. You can show them credit is determined by five main factors:

  • Payment history
  • Debt usage
  • Age of accounts
  • Types of accounts
  • Credit inquires

If you own credit cards, have loans and monitor your credit report, you have teachable moments built into your financial routine. When your children are old enough, you can involve them as you pay a bill or check your credit report, explaining the process as you go.

4. Mistakes Can Cost You

Mistakes can be valuable life lessons for young people. But when it comes to credit, mistakes can be costly and their effects can be long-lasting. One late payment can cause your credit score to drop dramatically. And negative items such as accounts in collections and judgments can stay on your report for at least seven years. To a young person, seven years can be a long time to have difficulty obtaining loans or credit cards. You can also show them how errors on your credit report can be fixed by using this guide.

5. Credit Cards Are Merely Tools

Credit cards are not a magic wand for reckless spending, but they are also not inherently risky items to be avoided. They are tools. They can be invaluable to build credit and financial independence, but they can also be damaging if wielded incorrectly.

It’s no secret that young people can have trouble with impulse control. But you may want to impart that credit cards can be used responsibly or irresponsibly. The results will depend on the user.

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9 Signs You’re on Your Way to a Perfect Credit Score

Because we get it: Sometimes you just have to have that A-plus.

Hey, there, overachiever. Are you really trying to attain a perfect credit score? Here’s the thing: You don’t need to. Any score over 760 will pretty much net you a lender’s best rates and terms. Plus, even if you do score that elusive 850, you probably won’t keep it for long. Credit scores are mercurial: They change as new information hits your credit report or, most notably, as your loan balances go up and down. (Translation: Perfection is fleeting.)

But we get it. Sometimes you need that A-plus. So, in the interest of indulging your financial dreams, here are nine signs you could one day see a perfect credit score.

1. You’ve Never Missed a Loan or Credit Card Payment …

Payment history is the most important factor of credit scores, accounting for 35% of most popular scoring models. Plus, one little slip can do big damage once it hits your credit report — and it can stay on record for up to seven years. In other words: Don’t expect to see the highest score ever if you’ve missed a payment (or two) in that time frame.

2. … Or Any Other Bill’s Due Date for That Matter

Sure, utility companies, doctors, gyms and other service providers don’t routinely report missed payments to the credit bureaus, but collection agencies do. And, if you leave any old bill unattended long enough, that’s where the debt might end up, with a credit score fall to follow.

3. Your Debt Levels Are Virtually Non-Existent

The rule you commonly hear involves keeping the amount of debt you owe below at least 30% and ideally 10% of your total credit limit(s), particularly when we’re talking credit cards. If you’re trying to achieve credit perfection, you’ll want to focus on the ideal part.

Expert Intel: It’s a bit of a misnomer that you need to carry debt to build credit — you simply need to have credit accounts on the books that are being managed responsibly. So, for instance, someone could conceivably build a good credit score with a single credit card they pay off in full each month. People with 850s tend to have more than one loan on the books (more on this in a minute), but you’ll be best served in the long run by adding financing as you truly need (and can afford) it.

4. You’ve Had Good Credit for a While …

There’s a reason older demographics tend to have higher credit scores: Credit history, or the length of time you’ve been responsibly using credit, accounts for 15% of most scores. Technically, though, this category doesn’t have anything to do with your age. Instead, your credit history “starts” when you open your first credit account.

5. … But Haven’t Applied for Any New Loans Recently

That’ll boost your credit history, which also factors in the average age of your credit accounts. Plus, loan applications generate credit inquiries, which can ding your score for up to one year and hang out on your credit report for up to two. (More on how long stuff stays on your credit report here.)

6. You’ve Got a Mix of Credit Accounts on the Books

Credit scores give you maximum points for responsibly managing different types of credit. That’s why having, say, a mortgage, an auto loan and a credit card (or two) — all in good standing — tends to be a common characteristic of people in the 850 club. In technical terms, this means you have revolving lines of credit, like a credit card, and an installment loan, like that mortgage, on the books.

7. Your Public Record Is Clean

Judgments and liens can wind up on your credit file, though there are indications that will soon be changing. For now, though, a matter of public record could wind up hurting your credit score.

8. Your Credit Report Is Error-Free

Credit report errors can happen for a number of reasons and most misinformation will needlessly harm your credit. To achieve perfection, your file needs to be pristine — which you can help to ensure by diligently pulling your free annual credit reports from each major credit reporting agency and disputing any error you see.

9. You Keep a Compulsive Eye on Your Standing

You know the old adage “if a tree falls in a forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, the same can be said about an 850 credit score. You’ve got to play all your credit cards right, and then you’ve got to be lucky enough to check your score at the precise moment perfection strikes. (Like we said earlier, that 850 probably isn’t going to stick around for long.) Fortunately, you can view two of your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.

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Will I Lose My Credit History If I Change My Name?

Here's how to ensure your name change goes as smoothly as possible.

Thousands of people change their names each year, often as a result of marriage or divorce, and less frequently, just for fun. In fact, one man, armed with $50 and a written deed poll application, secured the moniker Bacon Double Cheeseburger in the United Kingdom last year.

Although Mr. Cheeseburger may be perfectly satisfied with his colorful designation, he and others can experience some bumps after a name change. And while you won’t “lose” your credit history if you change your name due to marriage, divorce or even just for fun, there can sometimes be confusion about your identity if your information isn’t being accurately reported.

In general, your new name is added to your credit reports after you notify your mortgage lender, credit card issuers and other businesses of the change. They report the change, be it a first or surname change, to the three main credit bureaus and your new name replaces the old, which then remains on your credit history similar to old addresses and employers.

How to Smooth Your Name Change Process

Keep in mind that changing your name isn’t an automatic process. It requires lots of paperwork and contacting the necessary businesses to ensure a successful shift. Personal participation is key.

The best way to ensure that your name change is reflected on your credit report is to contact government agencies and credit issuers who provide personal data and account information to the credit bureaus. These include:

  • The Social Security Administration: Applying for a new Social Security card is a good place to begin your name change because it can be used to help verify your identity as you move forward. While your Social Security number (SSN) won’t change, your name will be updated.
  • The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV): If your name change is the result of marriage or divorce, you may need an original or certified decree before a change is allowed (rules vary by state). Visit the DMV to update your license.
  • Bank & Credit Accounts: Contact your lenders and credit card issuers to order new checks, debit and credit cards, and be sure any business accounts are updated as well.
  • Your Employer: In addition to updating their own records, your employer needs your new name in order to pay Social Security, unemployment and other taxes on your behalf.
  • Medical Providers: Medical bills rarely appear on your credit report unless you fail to pay it, but it’s a good idea to provide your doctors and dentists with your new name.
  • Insurance Companies: Insurance coverage is essential to protecting your home, car, business and other valuables. Make sure your providers have current information.

When you’re finished, it’s also a good idea to contact each of the three credit reporting agencies (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) to alert them of your name change and ensure it is accurately reflected.

Credit reporting isn’t a perfect system, and while changing your name shouldn’t erase or negatively impact your credit history, it’s a good idea to check your reports and scores in the months that follow. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com to order free copies of your TransUnion, Experian and Equifax reports. You can also view two of your credit scores for free, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.

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5 Big Credit Score Killers & How You Can Avoid Them

It's not just bankruptcy, foreclosure or short sale you and your credit score have to worry about.

Bankruptcy. Foreclosure. Short sale. These are the items that probably jump to mind when you hear the words “credit score killers,” but there are plenty of other line items that can really tank your credit — particularly if your score was stellar at the time they hit your credit report. But knowledge is power — and many credit score crushers can be easily circumvented or ultimately addressed. (You can see where your credit currently stands by viewing two of your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.)

Here are five big credit score killers — and how to avoid them.

1. A First Missed Payment

Blame it on the fact that payment history is the most important factor of credit scores, but, yeah, the first time you go past due, expect your numbers to take a dive. Per a FICO study, a single 30-day late payment can cause a good credit score of 780 to fall 90 to 110 points. An average score of 680, meanwhile, can fall by 60 to 80 points. And that blemish will stay with you for awhile —seven years from when the delinquency occurred, in fact. (Here’s the full list of how long stuff stays on your credit report.)

The good news? If you course-correct, your score should steadily rebound the further you get away from that date. Plus, no guarantees, but there are things you can do to avoid winding up with a missed payment on your credit file in the first place.

How to Avoid a Missed Payment: Set up auto-pay from a linked checking account each month. If that move makes you wary, sign up for alerts that’ll let you know when your bill is about to come due — or whether you’ve just missed one. And, if you do mistakenly skip a due date, call your issuer to make it right. They may be willing to waive the late fee and not report the missed payment to the credit bureaus “just this one time,” especially if you’ve never missed one before.

2. An Error

Because they happen. And more often than you think. Per a 2012 report from the Federal Trade Commission, one in five Americans had an error on their credit reports. Some of these mistakes are innocuous enough — a misspelled name, for instance, won’t drop your score. But a bunch of missed payments that don’t belong to you certainly will, as would new credit accounts used (and abused) by an identity thief.

How to Avoid an Error: You can’t, unfortunately. But you can certainly stay on the lookout for them by regularly checking your credit. If you find an error, be sure to dispute it right away with the credit bureau(s). And, if you’ve got more than one mistake weighing you down, check out our guide to DIY credit repair.

3. A Collection Account

It seems like such a small thing — a $132 utility bill forgotten just after you graduated college. Or a $200 medical bill you thought your insurance had paid. Unfortunately, when it comes to credit scores, a single collection account can be no joke. You could see your score drop 50 to 100 points once one winds up on your credit report — and that account can legally stay there for seven years, plus 180 days from the date of your first missed bill, whether you go on to pay the collector or not. (We say legally because some collections agencies have recently announced changes that could help you get collection accounts off of your credit reports sooner than you think.)  

How to Avoid a Collection Account: This can be a bit tricky, we admit (medical bills, in particular), but you’ll want to keep an eye on your mail and resist the urge to ignore any calls from a debt collector. While there are plenty of scammers out there and mix-ups do occur, the debt could prove to be legit. Quick tip: Request written verification to confirm before agreeing or handing out any payments.

Beyond that, keep an eye on your credit reports so you can readily catch any collection accounts that may pop up. And, if you do owe the debt, consider squaring it away. Yes, they can both hang around your credit reports, but scoring models generally weigh paid collections as less than unpaid ones — and some newer models even ignore paid collections entirely.

4. A Maxed-Out Credit Card

Credit utilization is the second most important factor of credit scores, so bumping right up against your credit card’s limit can be problematic, particularly if that’s the only card you’ve got or, worse, you’re maxing out multiple credit cards. Remember, for best credit scoring results, it’s recommended you keep the amount of debt you owe collectively and on individual cards below at least 30% and ideally 10% of your credit limit(s).

How to Avoid a Maxed Out Credit Card: Monitor your credit card statements regularly, so you know exactly how much you’re charging. Consider paying your credit card bill more than once a month in an effort to preclude a big balance winding up on your credit report. Or aim to pay as much off as you can by your statement billing date, not due date, since that’s generally the balance issuers report to the credit bureaus each month.

And, depending on your situation, you could also consider asking for a higher credit limit (say you’re paying off all your bills in full and on time on a starter or secured credit card with a seriously low credit limit). Just note: The request could result in a credit pull, which could lead to a hard inquiry on your credit report, which could ding your credit score. But that small dip could ultimately be offset by the increased credit limit — so long as you don’t use it, of course.

5. A Tax Lien

No, Uncle Sam isn’t in the habit of reporting your full payment history to the credit bureaus. But leave that government debt unpaid long enough and you could wind up with a tax lien on your credit report, which will do big damage to your credit score. Generally, the Internal Revenue Service will file a tax lien automatically if you owe them $10,000 or more.

How to Avoid a Tax Lien: Be sure to pay Uncle Sam. But, more pointedly, if you’re saddled with a tax bill you can’t afford, contact the IRS to see if you can work out a payment plan. If a tax lien is filed against you and you later pay the balance due, take steps to have the lien withdrawn from your credit reports. You can do this by filing IRS Form 12277.

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You May Be Able to Get Collection Accounts Off Your Credit Report Sooner Than You Think

A collection account can drag down your credit score for several years — but not always.

While shopping for a home to buy, Ryan discovered through his credit monitoring service that a collection account had hit his credit reports. His credit score dropped, and he was worried it could jeopardize this ability to get a mortgage. “I had no idea what it was,” he says. He wanted it off his credit.

After doing some research online, Ryan (he asked his last name not be used to protect his privacy) connected with Michael Bovee of Consumer Recovery Network, who helped him negotiate with the collection agency to resolve the account.

Bovee had good news for Ryan: The collection agency that had the account, Midland Funding, had recently made changes to their credit reporting policy. Because the account had been delinquent more than two years prior, if he resolved it he could get it removed from his credit reports and continue looking for a home to buy.

Collection Accounts Can Damage Your Credit for Years

One of the most frustrating things about collection accounts is that once they are on your credit reports, the damage is done. You can resolve them — settle them or pay in full — but they still can remain on your credit reports for many years, affecting your credit scores and flagging you as a higher risk to lenders. (You can see how much collection accounts are harming your credit by reviewing two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com. The scores are updated every 14 days.)

It can be a long time before you completely put them behind you. By law, collection accounts may be reported for seven years, plus 180 days from the date you first fell behind with the original creditor. So if you stopped paying a department store card in January 2015, for example, and it later wound up in collections, that collection account could be reported until June 2022. Ouch!

While the newest credit scoring models — FICO 9 and the latest version of VantageScore — ignore collection accounts with a zero balance when calculating credit scores, most lenders are using older credit scoring models that treat all collection accounts as negative, whether they are paid or not. That means consumers trying to get a mortgage, car loan, credit card, or auto insurance may wind up paying more because of a collection account that perhaps was resolved some time ago.

Worse, most consumers seem to believe that paying a collection account will help improve their credit scores and are often shocked to learn after that fact that it doesn’t.

So when Encore Capital, which owns Midland Funding, Asset Acceptance and Atlantic Credit and Finance, quietly changed its credit reporting policy late last year, consumers who were the beneficiary of this new, more lenient policy may not have realized how fortunate they were to have these items removed from their credit reports, sometimes years before they would have been previously.

Specifically, these companies announced they would:

  • Stop reporting accounts that were more than two years old if the account was paid in full or paid for less than the full balance, and
  • Not report new accounts if payments are made within three months of the initial notice and are made on time thereafter until the account is paid in full or paid for less than the full balance.

According to one source familiar with this action, over 1 million of these derogatory accounts have already been removed from credit reports as a result of this change. There are at least 30 million Americans with accounts in collection, according to the FTC, but some estimates put that number as high as 77 million.

Changes on the Consumer’s Side

Bovee has been encouraging the industry to adopt new reporting policies for some time. “If the newer (credit scores) say paid collections don’t really matter, then keeping them on there is just punitive,” he says.

It’s not just consumers that can be hit by collection accounts. According to a National Federation of Independent Businesses survey in 2012, nearly half of small business owners use their personal credit in some way, shape or form to finance their company, so entrepreneurs with collections on their credit reports may struggle to get credit when their business needs it because of a mistake years prior. (You can check your business credit reports for collection accounts that may be hurting your business credit scores.)

Last year, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) proposed a bill that would have reduced the time negative information stays on credit reports to four years and required that paid and settled debts be removed from credit reports within 45 days. However, that legislation stalled in Congress. (You can read more here about how to repair credit report issues and possibly improve your credit.)

Credit reporting is a voluntary system and no lender is required to report. But generally credit reporting agencies (and even some regulators) frown on removing accurate information early, as it may increase risk to lenders who are unaware of the consumer’s full credit history. So far, the change in collection account reporting by these major debt collectors hasn’t been met with public opposition from the bureaus.

Ryan appreciates this change. He knows that not all collection accounts are removed so quickly. “It’s very good to find out this will come off completely,” he says, “and makes you feel as if paying it off is well worth it.”

Bovee believes that other collection agencies are likely to follow suit in the not-too-distant future. After all, they want to get paid, and if consumers know that resolving their collection accounts will help get them removed faster, they are more likely to try to strike a deal.

“The cat’s out of the bag, and it needs to stay that way,” he says.

Image: PeopleImages

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Comcast Just Got Hit With a Record Fine

Comcast-fine

Comcast has agreed to pay the largest civil penalty the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ever assessed a cable operator to settle charges it billed consumers for equipment and services they never ordered.

I wrote a couple stories nearly two years ago about “drive-by” modem upgrades that Comcast was pushing on consumers around the country — complete with a box Comcast sent me despite my very public efforts to stop the firm.

Obviously, I wasn’t the only one. And Comcast’s unwanted service “upgrades” weren’t limited to these modems, apparently. The FCC consent decree, released today, cites complaints from consumers about unwanted channels, hardware, you name it — and folks’ sometimes futile efforts to get refunds. This practice sometimes referred to as “negative option billing,” meaning corporations sign consumers up for things without their consent, unless the customers proactively stop it. It’s generally against the law.

“Some Customers alleged they specifically declined the new Products offered by Comcast but were nonetheless charged for the unrequested Product on their Bills, while others simply alleged that they had no knowledge of changes made to their accounts until they received an email notifying them that changes were made, they received new equipment in the mail, or after they read their Bills and saw the charges for new Products,” the FCC wrote in its order. “And, some Customers alleged that they were unable to obtain redress from Comcast without substantial time and effort, including allegedly long telephone wait times, allegedly unreturned calls from Comcast customer service representatives, allegedly unmet promises of refunds, alleged travel to local Comcast offices to return unrequested equipment, and hours allegedly spent disputing charges while pursuing refunds.”

The penalty amount is $2.3 million, but the agreement also requires Comcast change its business practices, to stop negative option selling and to make getting refunds easier.

“It is basic that a cable bill should include charges only for services and equipment ordered by the customer—nothing more and nothing less,” Travis LeBlanc, chief of the Enforcement Bureau, said. “We expect all cable and phone companies to take responsibility for the accuracy of their bills and to ensure their customers have authorized any charges.”

Comcast, in a statement, said the FCC did not find any intentional wrongdoing, but only “isolated errors or consumer confusion.”

“We have been working very hard on improving the experience of our customers in all respects and are laser-focused on this. We acknowledge that, in the past, our customer service should have been better and our bills clearer, and that customers have at times been unnecessarily frustrated or confused. That’s why we had already put in place many improvements to do better for our customers even before the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau started this investigation almost two years ago. The changes the Bureau asked us to make were in most cases changes we had already committed to make, and many were already well underway or in our work plan to implement in the near future,” a Comcast spokesperson said in an email.

“We do not agree with the Bureau’s legal theory here, and in our view, after two years, it is telling that it found no problematic policy or intentional wrongdoing, but just isolated errors or customer confusion. We agree those issues should be fixed and are pleased to put this behind us and proceed with these customer service-enhancing changes.”

Meanwhile, you can file a complaint against Comcast, or any cable operator, on the FCC website.

[Editor’s Note: It’s important to remember that many service providers look at a version of your credit report when you subscribe to their services, so it’s a good idea to know where yours stands. You can see a free snapshot of your credit report, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.]

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Can Debts Just Magically Disappear From Your Credit Report?

debts-off-credit

Sometimes when you check your credit report, there can be some unpleasant surprises waiting for you — a bill you never knew about or an account that’s not yours. But other times, you may find a debt that you’ve known has been hurting your credit for a while has just magically disappeared.

Perhaps it’s a past-due bill you just couldn’t pay, or something that was settled but still leaves a data trail in its wake. But after a certain period of time, you check your credit report and — voila! — it’s gone.

We asked Rod Griffin, Experian’s director of public education, why this seems to happen. Turns out, there are a few reasons.

“Debts won’t ‘just disappear’ from your credit report,” Griffin said, “but they will be removed in accordance with time frames set by federal law.”

If you’ve completely ignored a bill for about seven years, this can happen. For instance, let’s consider loan payments. In technical terms, the date when one is first due and than unpaid is called the original delinquency date.

“Accounts that have become delinquent and are charged off as a loss are deleted seven years from the date they first became delinquent and after which were never again current,” Griffin said.

Most negative information, include collection accounts, foreclosures and short sales, can stay on credit reports for up to seven years, though their exact date of delinquencies can vary. Some bankruptcies can stay on your credit reports for 10 years. (You can go here to learn more about how long things stay on your credit report.) If information stays on file past the allotted timeframe, you can dispute it with the credit bureaus.

What If It Didn’t ‘Age Off’?

The other reason debts may seemingly disappear involves your creditor.

“The only other possibility for an account to be removed from a credit report is if the lender asked that it be deleted,” Griffin said. This could happen if you’ve disputed an item on your credit report, and the lender has agreed to remove it, he added.

Delinquent items on your credit report can seriously damage your credit score, which is an important factor when you’re seeking to get the best interest rate possible on a loan or credit card. It’s important to keep an eye on your credit so you know what information may be weighing your scores down. You can pull your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and get a free credit report snapshot, updated every 14 days, at Credit.com.

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‘Air Rage’ Is a Thing & It’s Happening More Often

air-rage-on-planes

Tap! Tap! Tap!

Hear that? It’s the sound of the passenger behind you banging on your seat, and if you end up in an argument over their refusal to stop, you wouldn’t be alone. A new study by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an airline industry body, found that “unruly passenger incidents,” as they were described in a recent press release, are on the rise.

In reviewing 10,854 incidents reported to IATA by airlines worldwide last year, they found the majority of disruptive behavior involved “verbal abuse, failure to follow lawful crew instructions and other forms of anti-social behavior.” A vast number (11%) of the reports detailed “physical aggression towards passengers or crew or damage to the aircraft,” while drug or alcohol intoxication, the majority of which were “consumed prior to boarding or from personal supply without knowledge of the crew,” affected about 23% of the cases, IATA said.

Alexandre de Juniac, IATA director general and CEO, called on airlines and airports to ratify the Montreal Protocol 2014, which he said aims to streamline the legalities of handling unruly passengers. “To date, six states have ratified the Provision needed in order to have a consistent global approach to this issue,” de Juniac said.

IATA also supports a code of practice that focuses on preventing passenger intoxication, especially excessive drinking, prior to boarding. Ideally, staff in airport bars and shops should be “trained to serve alcohol responsibly” and take steps to prevent binge drinking, IATA said.

Though we can’t guarantee that you’ll have a smooth flight, there are some ways to enhance the experience, at least from your wallet’s perspective. A good place to start: travel rewards cards. Not only do some of these bad boys waive irksome baggage fees, if you play your cards right and manage them responsibly, you may earn rewards to redeem for free flights and upgrades. Just remember, a good credit score is your golden ticket to the world of rewards, so if your credit’s not up to snuff, it’s time to start beefing it up. You can see where your finances currently stand by viewing a free snapshot of your credit report on Credit.com.

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Want a Great Credit Score? Here’s a Trick You Might Want to Try

boost-your-credit-score

Building good credit can be annoyingly tedious in that it can take years to get right — and it only takes one wrong move to destroy. Other than doing everything you can to avoid a huge blow to your credit, like a late payment or debt collection account, the best way to build a good credit score is wait for all your good behavior, like making on-time loan payments, to add up to a long, healthy credit history.

For those of you who aren’t so patient, there are some things you can do for short-term results. Here’s how your credit card can be the key to rapid change in your credit score.

How Credit Cards Affect Your Credit

One of the biggest factors in determining credit scores is something called your credit utilization rate (how much of your available credit you’re using). To have a good credit score, credit scoring companies recommend you keep the amount of debt you owe collectively and on individual cards below 30%, or even under 10%, of your credit limits if you can.

But really, the ideal credit utilization rate is 0%, according to a recent post from credit scoring company VantageScore. Of course, if you don’t use your credit cards, you can achieve that 0% utilization rate, but you also run the risk of your credit card issuer closing your account because of inactivity. Don’t be discouraged: There’s a way around that.

The Trick: How to Keep Your Credit Utilization Rate at Zero

Your credit card issuers may not tell you exactly when they report your account activity to the credit bureaus, but VantageScore says “credit card issuers generally report your statement balance to the credit reporting companies.” If that’s the case, you would need your statement balance on each credit card to be $0 to have the lowest-possible credit utilization rate. To do that, you would need to make your credit card payments before your statement closing date.

If you can pay your credit card bills in full by the due date, that might not be such a tall order. (You can find your statement closing date listed on your statement or on your credit card account summary.) By paying your credit card before the statement closing date as opposed to its due date, your statement balance should be reported as $0.

“[A] zero balance on your statement should soon equate to a zero balance on your credit reports, which is fantastic for your credit scores,” VantageScore says on its website.

Just make sure you can afford to employ a trick like this. Pay close attention to your credit card spending, your bank account balances and the timing of any other bills you need to pay. The last thing you want is to pay your credit card bill early for the sake of boosting your credit score only to leave you without enough money for a monthly loan payment, which could trigger late fees and a late-payment mark on your credit report. You can see how managing your credit card payments and other credit accounts affects your credit standing by getting a free credit report summary every 30 days on Credit.com.

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How Long Must I Have Credit Before I Get a Near-Perfect Credit Score?

age-of-credit-history

You pay your bills on time, you (barely) carry any debts, you keep the credit applications to a minimum (no churners here!) and you’ve got a nice mix of accounts going on your credit reports. Yet every time you check your credit, there’s one area that appears to be keeping you from that near-perfect record: Your credit history, per the little risk factors listed alongside your credit score, is just not long enough.

For someone just starting out in the world of credit, that may seem like a no-brainer. Credit history looks at the age of the information in your credit file (not your own age). So if you’ve only had your loans for a few years, why expect an A-plus performance? But for someone who has spent the better part of a decade as a dedicated credit goody two-shoes, it’s easy to wonder why you’re just not quite acing it.

The answer, as with many things credit-related, just depends.

What’s My Target?

Remember, there are lots of different credit scores out there, and while they all generally consider the same five factors when computing your credit — payment history, credit utilization, credit inquiries, mix of accounts and credit history — each may calculate those categories a bit differently.

Scoring systems “recognize how long a person has had a credit history and may calculate scores differently as a result,” Rod Griffin, director of education for the credit agency, Experian, said. “For example, the things that indicate risk for a person who has had a credit history for only five years are different than [they are for] a person that has used credit for 30 years. So, scores weigh the information in the credit report differently for each person.”

It’s important to note, too, that credit history considers not just the age of individual accounts but also the average age of your accounts, so if you have a few credit lines that are on the younger side, it could be affecting your overall performance.

Having said that, there are some parameters we can provide when talking about what constitutes a good credit history that lends itself to a good score. Per Barry Paperno, who blogs at SpeakingofCredit.com and worked at the major credit scoring model FICO for many years, an average credit age of 12 years and an oldest account of 30 years would put you among the FICO High Achievers (those with scores over 785).

According to Jeff Richardson, a spokesperson for VantageScore, another major credit scoring model, “based on some research we did a few years ago, those with Prime scores, on average, had a loan that is more than 15 years old.”

However, “some consumers have accounts that are substantially older than 30 years, and … the age of accounts is compared against consumers with similar age of accounts,” Richardson said. And, yes, those customers could theoretically be messing up the curve, depending on what model or algorithm is being used to compute your creditworthiness.

Maintain Your Good Habits

Of course, it’s important to not get too hung up on achieving a perfect score. First of all, believe it or not, you don’t really need one. Most credit-scoring models, including VantageScore and FICO, operate on a scale of 300 to 850, and anything over 750 will generally net you good terms on financing.

Moreover, you can hit that 750 mark without having credit for decades and decades. Credit history, after all, only accounts for 15% of most credit scores.

“That means 85% of the score is dependent on other factors,” Griffin said. “It is very possible for a person with a relatively short credit history to have credit scores as good as, or better than, a person who has used credit for 30 years or more.”

To build good credit in the long-term, just continue to make all your payments on time, keep your debt levels low, manage your inquiries and add a mix of credit accounts as your finances can handle them. And if credit history is bothering you and your score, “you may need to just be patient and allow that history to grow over time,” Griffin said. You can track your progress toward building good credit by viewing two of your credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.

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