NEW YORK (MainStreet) — According to Experian's The Great Credit Divide study, men have a 674 credit score on average. Women's credit scores are slightly higher, coming in at 675.
Considering credit scores affect everything from getting a job to homeownership, it's no wonder many people want to see their average 674 hit the prime or even super-prime range. But every year, many consumers trying to repair their credit find themselves lost in a sea of bad advice and poor decisions.
Michael Abramsky, a senior credit consultant with CreditFirm.net, knows the struggle all too well. Before working as a credit consultant, he was a client. His credit repair path started with a surprise at a car dealership:
"There I was standing at the dealership with the finance manager telling me that the only finance he could secure for me would be at a 25% interest rate," he said. "To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. But I knew that I wanted to fix my credit so that I could lead the life I wanted and I deserved."
Abramsky did what many of us would do: he headed to the Internet and started reading up on credit scores and credit repair, but the more he read, the more confused he got. Finally, feeling "discouraged and apprehensive about the whole process," he decided to try a credit repair company. For a one-time set up fee and monthly payments, the company handled all communication with the credit bureaus.
After six months, his credit score had gone up 118 points. But would he recommend credit repair companies? Yes and no. For Abramsky, "anyone with the will and the desire to fix their credit can be successful," but he knows having the help worked for him.
"Hiring a company to fix my credit actually gave me a little more motivation to be responsible with my credit," he said.
Robert M. Hayden, chief wealth advisor for Total Alignment Wealth Advisors, LLC, worries many people seeking help with their credit are falling for scams. For example, "illegitimate credit repair companies require upfront payments before commencing work or promise outlandish results, such as a '100% guarantee' to erase all bad credit. Such acts violate the Credit Repair Organizations Acts and are illegal," according to Hayden.
If you're going to use a service, Hayden recommends looking for a legitimate agency through the United States Department of Justice U.S. Trustee Program, or seeking counseling from a non-profit organization. According to Hayden, "these [DOJ approved] organizations are also qualified to provide the required prior credit counseling if the number of negative credit marks and overall debts have risen to the point of rendering bankruptcy the best alternative available."
Like Hayden, Maxine Sweet, vice president of public education at Experian, worried about consumers who deal with credit repair companies working outside of the law. According to Sweet, "Consumers are often willing to pay high fees looking for what they think will be an easy fix. They would be better served to put the money toward their debt and recognize that rebuilding credit takes time."
The bottom line - if you're planning to hire a credit repair service, expect to pay both upfront and monthly fees and do your research. Look for a reputable company or a nonprofit organization and steer clear of any big promises. But if you'd rather go at it alone, the experts recommend avoiding a few common mistakes that can lead to failure.
Carrying a Balance
The belief: Carrying a balance on your credit card will help you build credit. The truth: "The amount on the statement will be the balance reported," Sweet said. "So if you use your cards at all that month, you will have a balance." Dragging a balance from one month to the next will raise your interest charges, not your credit score.
There is a lot of debate out there about what will improve your credit scores the fastest, but Sweet says "paying all your bills as agreed is the first and most important step." If you're trying to rebuild your credit rating, make sure every bill is paid by the due date, no exceptions.
Otherwise, Abramsky warns, "a recent late payment can severely derail your credit score."
Ignoring Old Debts
The amount you owe makes up 30% of your total FICO credit score. If you're carrying debt, make paying it a priority. Even if you can't pay the entire balance right now, lowering your total amount due will improve your credit rating. Abramsky says, "Ideally, your credit card balance should be less than 20% of the credit limit."
Avoiding Store Cards
Many consumers believe because retailers typically offer a big discount for signing up, a store card is more of a trap than a good deal, but that may not always be the case. According to Sweet, "If you can avoid the temptation to overspend, having an additional account can help your overall credit utilization." So if the store card has a low interest rate, offers a good deal, and you can keep yourself from a shopping spree, it may be worth signing up. Having a mix of credit types and using them regularly will boost your credit score.
Closing Old Accounts
When you're trying to rebuild your credit score, it may seem like tearing up your old cards and closing old accounts is a good way to start over, but doing so can actually hurt your credit score. When you close an old account, you'll stop building credit history with that credit card, and as Sweet put it, "the older your credit history, the better."
--Written by Angela Colley for MainStreet