Top 5 Fastest Ways to Rebuild Your Credit Score

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Once your credit takes a hit, bringing up those three little numbers in your credit score may seem like an impossibility, but with a dedicated plan of action you can get back on the road to 850 in no time. Our experts weigh in on the top five ways to rebuild your credit score, one smart move at a time.

1. Pay your bills on time

A track record of paying your bills on time is the highest-weighted element of your credit score, at 35%, says Gail Cunningham, director of media relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. When you pay your bills promptly, it sends a signal to the future lender that you manage your money responsibly, Cunningham says .

"As long as you've got a job and money coming in, paying your bills on time should be one of the easiest things to knock out, and people often forget that," Cunningham reminds.

Unfortunately, a lot of people who have money on hand to pay their bills either procrastinate until they are overdue or are so unorganized that they misplace important statements.

"Going to the mailbox and stuffing your bills above the sun visor in your car or in the bottom of your purse doesn't count as paying your bills," she says. "Too many of us know that horrified feeling of finding an old bill and realizing it's way past the due date."

If you have a long history of being unorganized with your bills, Cunningham suggests fixing the problem with automatic bill pay online.

"Fix it once and for all using technology," she says. "Set up automatic payments each month so that when you do have those 'uh-oh' moments, it's not going to mean a hefty late fee or a negative notation on your credit report."

2. Establish a savings account and/or emergency fund

Establishing a savings account and contributing to it on a regular basis helps to guard against unforeseen setbacks to a more secure financial future, says Michael Cleary, head of distribution for RBS Citizens Financial Group.

"A savings account also provides evidence that you are taking control of your finances," Cleary says.

It's no secret that people living without any rainy-day savings are operating on a very slippery slope, Cunningham says. They're just one unplanned event away from financial distress.

"If you have a plumbing problem, a trip to the emergency room or car trouble, without savings you're left with poor resolution options," she says. "If you don't have any money to pay for the expense you're going to charge it, adding to your debt load, or you're going to take money off another category in your life and spend your rent or grocery money."

In the most serious cases, people without any emergency funds are forced to turn to friends and family or to something more serious such as a payday loan.

"People say they can't afford to save, and I tell them they can't afford not to. If you don't have a rainy-day fund, you're going to be trapped in a cycle of robbing Peter to pay Paul," she says.

3. Pay down your debt

When repairing credit, too often consumers overlook the big picture, says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com. People may think that opening new lines of credit will help them rebuild their credit score, but they forget that simply paying down their debt is the best way to rebuild credit.

"Let's go back to the fundamentals. If your credit took a hit, then establishing a good track record with your debt is what you need."

Look at what caused you to fall behind in the first place, McBride says. Was it living beyond your means? If so, the last thing you need to be thinking about is opening up more lines of credit. You just need to establish a budget and live within your means.

"Paying what you owe — paying it slow and steady — is what wins the race," McBride says. "That's the block and tackle of credit. Only borrow what you need, and make your payments on time to pay down your debt."

4. Check for and dispute inaccuracies on your report

If there is anything inaccurate in your credit file, you can dispute it, says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com.

"If the information is not confirmed by the source, the account will be removed. This is essentially what credit repair companies do," she says.

If some of your bills have gone into collections, make sure there are no duplicate items on your credit file. Occasionally, if you don't pay a bill that goes into collections, it gets sold to another collections agency and may inaccurately show up on your credit history as two separate collections.

"If you have two collection accounts on your reports for the same debt, dispute them as duplicate items. The credit reporting agencies may remove the earlier one as a result of your dispute," Detweiler says.

Also, with medical bills, if there is any dispute as to the legitimacy of the collection account — for example, you never received a bill or you disputed the bill — contact the medical provider and insist they pull it back from collections. This should result in it no longer being reported as a collection account.

5. Get a secured credit card

If you don't have any open credit cards, consider getting a secured card to build credit, Detweiler suggests. Pay it on time and keep your reported balances low to get the maximum benefit.

"You don't have to carry a balance to build credit this way," she says.

Because a secured credit card requires you to put down a security deposit, the creditor is reassured that you will repay your debt, says Todd Albery, CEO of credit report provider Quizzle.com. The limit of that credit card is usually the amount of the security deposit you put down, or a percentage of it.

"Building and rebuilding your credit means consistently proving your ability to pay back the money you have borrowed," Albery says. "A person's goal should be to prove to that creditor that they are responsible and can manage their debt. You should try not to charge more than 30% of your credit limit in any given month."

Eventually, you can apply for a traditional credit card.

"After you prove you are responsible and can manage your debt, an unsecured credit card frees you from the obligation of a security deposit and will likely carry a higher credit limit as well as perks and reward points," Albery says.

— By Kathryn Tuggle

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