How to build credit when you're just getting started
After you finish high school or college, when you're developing your financial independence, you'll probably have several essentials on your to-do list: find a job, rent an apartment, maybe buy a car. But one often-overlooked item can be a prerequisite to all of the others: Establish good credit. As you get your life together, landlords and potential employers are likely to review your credit report, and lenders will check your credit score.
Kevin Laskey, a graduate student in Philadelphia, was pleasantly surprised when the subject came up during his search for an apartment. “I had to do a credit application," says Laskey, who discovered he'd built a strong credit score by paying his bills on time.
But that's the point: If you want a good credit score, you have to earn it, says Josh Palmer, the Executive Director and Head of JPMorgan Goals-Based Advisory and Support.
Here are some steps that can help you get there.
Know your financial terms
Three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) track your credit history, which is used to calculate your credit score. VantageScore, a score developed by the three major bureaus, considers the following six factors:
- Payment history
- Credit age and types of credit
- Percent of your credit that you use
- Total balances
- Recent credit behavior and applications
- Available credit
VantageScores run from 300 to 850, and a score of 720 or higher is very good.
Take steps to establish good credit
You may hope to have a perfect score right off the bat, but that seldom happens, says Todd Friedhaber, a certified financial counselor for Cambridge Credit Counseling Corporation, based in Agawam, Massachusetts. "Most young adults start with no credit at all," he says.
Begin establishing your financial identity by opening a basic checking and savings account at a solid institution, advises Palmer. Although your checking and savings accounts won’t factor into your credit score, they’re the basic building blocks of your financial framework, enabling you to do everything from depositing your paycheck to paying your bills—which will help you build a strong credit score.
Paying utility bills on time can be a great way of building your credit history, says Friedhaber, because some utility companies report customer behavior to credit bureaus. Keep a record, especially if you lack other evidence of your creditworthiness. Or you could buy on layaway, as making timely payments will testify to your reliability. Paying your student loans on time can also help build your credit score.
You might also consider asking your parents to add you as an authorized user on one of their cards, suggests Palmer. You'll be able to use the card, and in some cases the credit history of the account will appear on your credit report.
Polishing up your score
According to VantageScore, being 60 days late on a payment can drop your score by 100 points or more, so it's vital to make on time payments for each of your accounts. Setting up automatic payments or alerts can help you remember to pay on time each month.
And don't be discouraged if your credit score isn't where you want it to be. Most credit histories go back only seven years, and even within that time frame, Friedhaber says, "what you do today has greater weight than older events."
Checking your credit score yourself does not impact the score, so check it regularly to stay on top of your credit health.
Avoid credit surprises
Many online tools let you keep tabs on your credit score. Contrary to what you may have heard, there's no harm in looking it up regularly. "Checking your credit score yourself does not impact the score," says Pam Codispoti, Head of Consumer Branch Banking at JPMorgan Chase Bank. "So check it regularly to stay on top of your credit health."
Laskey has followed that advice, signing up with his credit card company to monitor his score. "I don't check it religiously, but I take a peek if I'm online," he says. "It's something I'm careful about."
Keeping your credit score up is just one part of defining who you are financially during your first years on your own. But good credit can have a snowball effect, helping you move toward long-term financial goals—whether it's starting your own business, buying a home, or just having a big, exciting vacation. Whatever your objective, says Palmer, having a positive credit history can help you get the best interest rates and cement your reputation as a reliable, creditworthy adult.