Checking your credit score can feel like stepping on a scale. There's that nervous anticipation, that pit in your stomach telling you it’s going to be bad news. Credit can be such an anxiety-inducing subject that it’s tempting to ignore it forever.
You convince yourself the debt you’ve incurred will somehow magically disappear. You accept that you’ll perpetually be a grown-ass adult who needs their mom to cosign for their cell phone. I know. I’ve been there. And so has my mom. (Thanks, Mommy.)
But just because your credit is in the toilet doesn’t mean you’ve forever flushed away your shot at a normal life. You may be able to stop paying those exorbitantly high interest rates sooner than you thought.
Fixing your credit is not quite as easy as messing it up was -- maxing out 13 credit cards seemed like such a good idea at the time -- but with the right mindset and a little patience, it’s more doable than you think.
Now let’s get you back in charge of your finances.
To start, get a copy of your credit report
I know, sorry. But in order to fix the damage, you have to assess what it really is. The good news is that this step is free. By federal law, you are entitled to one free credit report per year and can get yours at annualcreditreport.com. You’ll need one from each of the three major agencies: Experian, Equifax and Transunion. Make sure you save your login information so you can access these multiple times.
First, look for any discrepancies
Is there any incorrect info on your credit report? Any addresses you never lived at? Dispute this information right away. On the credit report site, there's an option to dispute an item. Click that button and go through the prompted steps. You'll have to do this separately for each agency, so I recommend having your favorite dumb comedy on in the background to make the process slightly less tedious.
If one of the items you’re disputing involves a company, you should also call that company to notify them you're filing a dispute. Ask them to note the discrepancy on your account. This way, when the credit agency calls, they can confirm that there’s been an error. Don’t get off the phone until they’ve admitted fault and agreed to note your account. Breathe. Pet your cat. Turn up the volume on “Bridesmaids.”
Next, check for items that are in collections
This might hurt a little bit. Take another deep breath. Items in collections are incredibly damaging to your credit. You can't deal with them by forever ignoring every 800 number that comes up on your phone (But seriously, those people know we have caller ID, right?)
Most collection agencies will negotiate a settlement with you. Hold firm until you've reduced the amount as much as possible, and know that some agencies are authorized to settle for as little as 40% of the balance. If you have any small items on there, take care of those right away.
For bigger items, calculate how much 40% of the total is, and make it your personal mission to save up enough money to pay those off. Once you've hit that number, see if you can get the agency to settle for that amount. Keep your settlement money separate by setting up a new savings account. Whenever you have a little extra money, set it aside toward your credit fixing fund. This isn’t as fun or sexy as going on a crazy vacation or buying those pricey sneaks, but trust me, no impulse buy feels as good as telling a collection agency to eff off and leave you alone forever.
If you have a family member with good credit, ask for help
Part of your credit score is your credit utilization, which is a figure based on how much money you owe versus how much available credit you have. If your credit has been in the dumps for a while, chances are you have a lot of debt and little to no available credit. One way of helping this is by enlisting the help of a more responsible loved one.
If you have a relative with good credit and cards that don’t have a big balance on them, see if they will add you as an authorized user on a couple of their cards. They don’t have to give you a card -- yes, we all still remember the “maxing out a Visa in order to get those sick subwoofers” incident -- but just having your name on the account will improve your debt to credit ratio and give you some of that sweet on-time payment history that helps move your score in the right direction.
Build your own payment history
Once your score has gotten a little higher, you will likely start receiving notices that you’re once again a functioning member of society -- aka you're "Pre-Approved!" Apply for at least one credit card. Even if your score is still below average, you may be eligible for a secured card, which will carry a low limit and may require you to put down a deposit. If possible, go for a card that comes with free credit monitoring. This will allow you to check your score as you continue to chip away at the big stuff.
Use the card, but think of it as a debit card. Do not buy anything that you don’t have the actual cash for. Pay off the balance each month if possible. If there is a month where you cannot pay the balance in full, at least keep your balance below 30% of the total credit you have on the card.
Pat yourself on the back!
Woot woot! For the first time you can remember, your status will have gone up from "bad" to "fair," and you're well on your way to "good!" Celebrate the fact that you’ve finally done something about that nagging problem that’s left you terrified to look for an apartment or a new car. Call your mom -- not to ask her to cosign for you -- but just to say hi! Wow! This feels so amazing, it was almost worth ruining your credit in the first place.