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  • Four Steps to Better Credit
    By Armeen Youssefian
    Type "credit" into a search engine and you get around 1.6 billion results. That's more than "love" (1.3 billion), "kids" (1.4 billion), and funnily enough, "fun" (1.5 billion).

    What that says more than anything is that most Americans are neck-deep in a culture of credit. We depend on credit to get many of the things we want. And unless you're a primping hotel heiress or baby-adopting super-actress, chances are your credit is your passport to home-ownership, getting that apartment, buying a car, funding an education, or maybe even getting a job.

    Sure, you already know all this. But did you know that you have the means to take control of your credit? And you don't need to be a financial expert or hair-pieced real estate mogul. Taking steps toward understanding and improving your credit is easier than you think. And you can start by counting to four.

    Step 1: Know the score.
    If you've been secretly adhering to an "ignorance is bliss" policy, allow us to herald the "knowledge is power" reality! Step one is knowing what's on your credit report and getting your FICO score.

    Getting your credit report gives you a better idea of your borrowing potential and buying power�as well as letting you know if you've been a victim of identity theft. (And that's definitely something you want to know about!)

    The cool thing? You can get your credit report for free. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—to provide you with a free copy of your report at your request, once a year. You can also start by estimating your FICO score online.

    Step 2: What does it all mean?
    Getting the facts is one thing. Understanding them is another. But it's not as scary as it seems. To learn more about your credit report and credit in general, you can start by browsing around the FTC's official Web site. Then get really cozy with credit by checking out some of these super resources:

    Step 3: Fix it.
    If your credit report's framed and up on your mantle, then you can just stop reading. (And go buy another house or something.) But most of us need to put in some work to climb up the ranks of credit. With a one-in-four chance of having serious errors on your credit report�it's good to know how to fix any errors or dispute inaccuracies.

    If just thinking about your credit gives you hives, you may need to give your credit an extreme makeover. Or maybe you need an honest push in the right direction with credit counseling.

    Whatever step you take, it's important to take one. With a little hard work and patience, anyone—yes, even you—can get their credit back on track.

    Step 4: Get regular check-ups.
    Once you get your credit report and start working on improvements, it's critical to track your progress and stay informed of any activity on your report. With the growing dangers of identity theft, you also want to make sure some jerk doesn't destroy your credit rating after all of your hard work! So, be sure to get your free annual credit reports. And for regular alerts, you can also subscribe to services such as Equifax Credit Watch 3-in-1 Credit Monitoring to let you know immediately about any changes in your credit report.