NEW YORK (MainStreet) — You might think younger Americans would rely on their elders as role models when it comes to credit health, and maybe they would — if they were pointed in the right direction.
The 2015 Chase Slate Credit Survey shows that Millennials, for example, might draw inspiration from Generation X instead of their Baby Boomer parents. Chase says that 96% of Gen-Xer's have checked their credit scores, while 28% of Boomers are defined as "having never taken steps to improve their credit score."
There is trouble across all age demographics, however. Chase also reports that two in five Americans don't know their credit score and more than half don't know paying bills on time is the primary driver of a credit score. Yet two-thirds say they'd like to be able to improve their score in the next year.
"Having healthy credit could mean the difference between achieving major life goals, such as buying a home or starting a small business, and never realizing those dreams. Yet too many Americans don't have access to information and tools that empower them to properly plan for the future and manage their credit health," says Pam Codispoti, president of the mass affluent business division for Chase Card Services.
Taking the first steps to upgrade that credit score is a simple one, experts say. "Your credit score is much more than just a number — it's a key indicator of credit health that helps you assess where you stand and what's within reach," says personal finance expert and Chase Slate financial education partner Farnoosh Torabi. "Checking your score, and checking it regularly, is a simple step you can take now to introduce more positive financial habits into your life. The higher your score, the more likely you are to be deemed eligible for a loan or receive better terms and interest rates."
For Leslie Billemeyer, a sales director for a construction industry services firm in Jamison, Pa., improving credit meant paying down credit card debt fast before applying for a loan. "I kept hearing that creditors want you to keep credit card debt down while keeping available credit card credit up," she says. "So I doubled my card payments and started using my debit card and cash for purchases instead."
"It worked wonders," she says.
Keeping credit card debt down and available credit up is known by creditors as the "credit utilization rate" — it means knowing how much credit you used against how much credit you could have used.
Managing credit card use more efficiently is a great credit habit, but don't expect any quick fixes, says Elle Kaplan, founder of New York City-based LexION Capital, reputed to be the only 100% woman-owned asset management firm in the U.S. "There is no quick fix for bad credit," she says. "You build good credit through consistent, good financial habits."
One of the most important ways to build credit is to pay your bills on time, every time, she adds. "For example, you can set up auto-pay so that the money is deducted out of your account automatically ahead of the due date. Set it and forget it — and never worry about missing a payment again," Kaplan advises.
With data breaches in the news on a regular basis, other experts say checking your credit (and your bank account and credit cards) for fraudulent use is a quick, easy and effective way to keep your credit score on an upward trajectory. "Data hacks are happening at an exponential rate, so it's much more important these days to track errors or suspicious activity on your accounts frequently," says David Gilbert, founder and CEO of National Funding, an alternative lender that caters to small-business owners. "If you notice a fraudulent account or incorrect requests, contact the credit bureaus right away. The longer these errors are on your account, the harder they will be to remove."
— Written by Brian O'Connell for MainStreet