NEW YORK (MainStreet) – There's always an opportunity to improve your credit score, even if you don't particularly care about it right now.

The folks at Bankrate conducted a survey that discovered that 77% of people in the U.S. have no idea that accounts with high outstanding balances hurt their credit score, even if they pay the bills on time. Also, 55% labor under the misconception that they have to carry a credit card balance to increase their credit score, despite myriad attempts to convince them otherwise.

In general, Americans seem almost willfully ignorant of their credit scores. A LendingTree survey last year found that 21.2% of Millennials said they do not know their current credit score, and another 11% said they have never even checked their credit score. At least they can blame the folly of youth. Bankrate says that, overall, 70% of Americans don't know that limiting themselves to just one credit account has a negative impact. And more than half of Millennials don’t know that having a short credit history can potentially delay major life milestones such as buying a home. Most disconcertingly, 37% of U.S. adults have no idea that if they make a credit card payment more than 30 days late, it will show up as a negative account on their credit report even if the bill is later paid in full.

Here's the deal: the FICO score used by credit bureaus to determine the health of one's credit values on-time payment and low balances above all else. In fact, the combination of a spotless payment history (35% of a FICO score) and the amount of debt a cardholder carries in relation to their credit limit -- or their credit utilization (30%) -- account for nearly two-thirds of a person's overall credit score. Your mix of credit accounts (10% of your FICO score) also matters. This all affects your ability to lease a car, rent an apartment, obtain a mortgage, open a low interest credit card or do just about anything else that require sterling credit.

With help from folks throughout the financial services industry, we came up with four easy ways for you to clean up your credit and start fresh:

1. Fix the errors: First and foremost, you should get a free copy of your credit report directly from the credit reporting agencies themselves. Review the status of your account, your credit limits and your personal information and dispute any errors immediately.

2. Beg for forgiveness: This is where loyalty pays off. If you've been a longtime account holder or a frequent customer and have a late payment on your record, you may be able to talk your creditors into working with you on repayment and, afterward, on scrubbing the offending mark from your record.

“Negotiate paying an old debt if the creditor will mark your account 'paid as agreed,'” says Curt VanderZanden, a loan officer with Mortgage Express in Portland, Ore. “For a late payment on a long-held account, write the creditor, acknowledge your otherwise good history and ask for a goodwill adjustment that will wipe it from your credit report.”

3. Pay off the right accounts: If you have cards or accounts with high interest rates, you're going to want to hit those first. Pay them down as much as possible to help dig yourself out from under a pile of interest, and transfer balances to cards with lower rates when possible.

“Timing is everything when it comes to balance transfers,” said Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com’s senior industry analyst. “It’s absolutely critical that you not wait to transfer your balance to your new card, but it’s even more important that you pay that whole balance off before the introductory period ends.”

A CreditCards.com survey found that who fall behind in credit card payments face an average penalty rate of 28.45%. However, if you're lucky enough to be approved for another card and transfer a remaining balance, the savings can be significant.

Let's say you have $5,000 outstanding on one of your existing credit cards. A 0% balance transfer offer (assuming a 3% balance transfer fee and a 12-month 0% introductory APR) would let you pay that off within a year for $5,150. That's not as great as a straight $5,000, but someone paying a 28.45% penalty rate would have to pay $5,803 over 12 months to pay off that same $5,000 -- or $653 more. Even if you're carrying a standard 15% APR, it would cost $5,415.48 to pay off that balance. That's still $265 more than the 0% offer.

Also, attempt to keep that balance low. Kevin Murphy, senior financial services consultant at McGraw-Hill Employees Federal Credit Union in East Windsor, N.J., notes that a client who never misses a payment, but uses $9,500 of his $10,000 credit limit is still doing considerable harm to his credit. He advises keeping balances should at zero when possible, but says they absolutely must be kept below 30% of a cardholder's total credit limit to avoid trouble. If you have a $10,000 credit limit and still maintain a $5,000 balance, that 50% credit utilization score will come back to haunt you.

4. Up your credit: This is more of a way to game the credit ratio than anything, but if you're using up $2,500 of your $5,000 available credit, but can somehow open an account with another $5,000 in available credit, you'll trim your credit utilization score from 50% to 25%. The key, however, is not to use any of that newfound credit until you've paid off that old debt.

Cut up your credit cards, tuck them away, but keep them open and, no matter what you do, don't go applying for a whole bunch at once. Take it a step at a time.

“Another fiction is that the more credit cards you have, the better,” says Joe O'Boyle, a financial advisor with Voya Financial Advisors in Beverly Hills, Calif. “If you open a bunch of credit cards at once, that can negatively impact your credit score. Get your credit increased later.”

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.

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