In April 2018, the average FICO® Score in the U.S. was 704, which is a good score. Comparatively the average VantageScore 3.0 score in 2017 was 675. And even though average credit scores are in the good or almost good range, they vary by age, state and other factors. So, there are still plenty of us with lower than desired scores and plenty of room for fixing credit issues. While fixing credit doesn’t happen overnight, there are steps we can take right now to get the process started.

The steps to fixing your credit and credit scores include getting a sense of your finances, looking for any errors and pinpointing problem areas that you need to address such as overspending.  When you break it down, the five steps to fixing credit issues are:

  1. Know your credit score and get copies of your credit reports.
  2. Fix any errors on your credit reports.
  3. Maintain healthy credit accounts and start building a positive credit historyto help reach credit goals.
  4. Control your credit utilization and lower high utilization if needed.
  5. Keep an eye on the age of your credit.

It won’t be super easy. And it won’t be as fun as using your credit, but the relief you’ll feel when you can take out new credit when you need it will be well worth the time and effort you put into fixing credit issues.

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1. Know Your Credit Score and Get Copies of Your Credit Reports

The first thing you want to do when fixing your credit is to find out your credit score and get copies of your credit reports.

Your credit score is separate from your credit reports. And your reports don’t include your scores. But, thanks to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you can get free copies of your credit reports from the three main credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax and TransUnion—once a year. You can access all of your free reports thru AnnualCreditReport.com. Or get your reports directly from Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.

You want your credit reports from each of the major credit reporting agencies, because each one can contain different information that impacts your scores. You rarely know ahead of time which agency’s report a lender will pull, so it’s important to make sure each report is accurate and that you’ve corrected any issues.

What You’ll See on Your Credit Reports

Your reports contain basic details about you—your name, birth date, address, etc. It’s important to review this information to make sure it’s accurate. It’s okay if your past addresses are listed.

Reports also show any financial legal issues you have, such as a bankruptcy, liens, judgments or wage garnishment. If one of these issues is bringing your credit scores down, take comfort in knowing these negative items eventually age off your reports.

Beyond that is creditor information, which makes up most of your reports. This includes different accounts you have—loans, credit cards, etc.—and their status (open/closed, in collection), balances, credit limits and payment details. It can also include dates of missed payments or late payments and when the accounts were sent to collections. It’s this information that’s used to determine your credit scores, which are broken down into five major areas:

  • Payment history, which is 35% of your FICO score, and includes your history of repaying account debts (VantageScore doesn’t reveal the percentages it uses.)
  • Credit utilization, which is 30% of your score, and shows how much debt you carry in relation to your credit limit
  • Length of credit history, or credit age which is 15% of your score, and shows how long you’ve had active credit accounts
  • Types of credit, which is 10% of your score, and shows the variety of your accounts
  • Credit inquiries, which is 10% of your score, and shows the number of inquiries made to your credit profile

Now that you understand what your reports cover and what goes into calculating your credit, the next step in fixing credit issues is correcting any errors you find on your credit reports.

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2. Fix Any Errors on Your Credit Reports

Once you’re looked at your credit reports, you want to fix any errors you find. For most people, the process of fixing errors on credit reports is known as credit repair. Credit repair is something you can do on your own.

If you do find errors, you won’t be alone. From October 2016 to September 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) fielded 85,000 complaints about credit report errors. Fortunately,  federal law lets you dispute credit report errors with the credit bureau that’s reporting the error.

For details on fixing errors on your reports see How to Dispute Credit Report Errors on Credit.com. Or visit the Experian, Equifax or Transunion websites.

When contacting the agencies, use these basic guidelines to help navigate the process.

  • Dispute a mistake with each credit bureau that reports the error. Just because the same mistake appears on all three credit reports doesn’t mean disputing it with one of the bureaus will fix the error at the other bureaus.
  • Dispute errors for different accounts separately. It’s not uncommon to find multiple errors for different credit accounts on a credit report. And you want to dispute each account reporting an error separately. However, if you see multiple mistakes on the same account, you can group all those mistakes into a single dispute.
  • Be thorough in your dispute. See How to Write a Credit Dispute Letter for insight.
  • Seek help if you want it. You can dispute credit report errors yourself, but for some people, the process is stressful. If you feel overwhelmed, you can hire a credit repair company or law firm to help. Note that a professional credit repair firm will charge a fee for its services. A good credit repair company will never promise a “300-point jump in your scores!” In fact, that’s illegal. Instead, the company should be upfront about what they can do and will take payment only after they’ve helped resolve your situation.

If you have errors, especially inaccurate negative information, on your credit reports, you can see changes to your credit scores fairly quickly. Credit reporting agencies have to respond to disputes within 30 days, although some can take 45 days. And if the credit reporting agency sides with you, it must remove the mistake immediately. In a 2012 Federal Trade Commission study on credit report accuracy, four out of five people who disputed an error on their credit reports had a modification made to their reports.

Not all credit issues though are about errors on your credit reports. So, the next step—whether you have to dispute errors or not—is to maintain healthy credit accounts.

3. Maintain Healthy Credit Accounts

Your payment history is the most important factor in your FICO credit score and accounts for 35% of most scores. VantageScore doesn’t provide percentages, but the percentages used are likely similar to FICO’s. And even just one late payment can drop your scores significantly. Having a good payment history is critical to maintaining healthy credit accounts.

Fixing inaccurate negative information on your account is fairly easy. But, if you have accurate negative information on your credit reports, it can take a long time for it to age off.

  • Late payments: 7 years from the late payment date
  • Foreclosures: 7 years
  • Collection accounts: 7 years and 180 days from the date of delinquency on the original debt
  • Short sales: 7 years
  • Bankruptcies: 10 years from the filing date; 7 years for Chapter 13 cases
  • Repossessions: 7 years
  • Judgments: 7 years for paid judgments, longer for unpaid judgments
  • Tax liens: 7 years once paid
  • Charge-offs: 7 years from the date the account was charged off

To avoid the wait for a better credit score, maintain healthy accounts by paying debt off on time whenever possible.

More Factors for Building and Maintaining Healthy Accounts

The mix of your credit accounts makes up 10% of most credit scores and is another critical part of showing you can maintain healthy credit accounts. Your mix of accounts shows creditors and the credit agencies that you’re able to handle different types of credit. The two main types are:

  • Installment accounts, such as mortgages, car loans and student loans
  • Revolving accounts, including credit cards and lines of credit

Creditors want to see you can handle both types of credit responsibly. If you’ve only had credit cards in the past, a car loan or a mortgage can improve your credit score. It’s however rarely a good idea to take out a loan just to build credit.

Another factor in proving you can maintain healthy credit accounts is your history of applying for credit. This accounts for 10% of most credit scores. If you apply for several credit accounts in a short period of time, it can hurt your credit.

When you apply for credit, it results in a hard credit inquiry on your credit report. And any hard inquiry into your credit slightly dings your scores. As hard inquires fade into the past, they have less impact. A year is generally when a hard inquiry begins to stop hurting your credit scores. Bottom line: Apply for new credit only when needed. Don’t be lul