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Are you getting your credit score holiday ready?

By Brittany Watman, LendEDU

The stores are already stocked with holiday merchandise, and families are planning their travels for Thanksgiving and Christmas. If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to review your credit status and perhaps make a few changes that will help you maximize the benefits of holiday spending. You also should be thinking about ways to avoid a financial hangover come January.

One of the most important considerations is whether your credit cards are working as hard for you as they should. Do they provide generous cash-back or points/miles? Do they charge a reasonable interest rate? Do they provide a high enough spending limit? Bear in mind that folks with good or excellent credit can receive sign-up bonuses worth hundreds of dollars by opening a new account and spending a set amount within the first three months. This makes the holidays the best time of year to go card shopping.

If you’re likely to do a lot of shopping this holiday season, you’ll probably have little trouble achieving the initial spending requirement, at which point you can enjoy bonuses of up to $400. That bonus can pay for last-minute gifts and/or purchases already made. Your goal should be to get a new card in your hands before Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which means you have to act right now, as it can take a week or two to receive a new card. By the way, you can ask for expedited shipping to cut a few days off the wait.

The other way to prepare your credit for the holidays is to keep an eye on your credit score and find ways to boost it. A score of 650 or below is poor and makes access to credit difficult and expensive.

Raise your score to 750 and the world is your oyster. Here are a few tips that can help boost your credit score and give you access to the best credit card deals:

  1. Research: You will want to get your latest credit reports and scores. The three national credit bureaus, TransUnion, Experian and Equifax, each maintain a credit history and score for most consumers. You can receive your credit reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. You may have to pay a small fee to get your credit scores, although some credit cards offer free scores as a benefit. If your score is below 700, you know that you have some work to do.
  2. Dispute: Review your credit reports carefully. It is your right to dispute inaccuracies on these reports. Fixing errors is the fastest way to improve your credit score, so your diligence is worth the time it takes to comb through your reports and dispute any errors with the credit bureaus and creditors. Check the credit bureau websites for instruction on how to lodge a dispute. Look over your reports for issues such as:
    1. Payments incorrectly characterized as “late.”
    2. Collection accounts for debt you don’t recognize.
    3. Public records that indicate identity fraud or some other problem.
  3. Explain: In some cases, you might find that your credit report is incomplete rather than incorrect. You are allowed to submit comments that will be included in your credit report for everyone to see. These comments can explain the circumstances surrounding an issue and give your side of the story.
    These may not necessarily increase your credit score, but it will provide context to creditors, landlords and employers who will be looking at your credit reports in the future.
  4. Retrench: Another way to improve your credit score is to reduce your credit utilization, which is the ratio of credit used to credit authorized. Cutting your credit utilization is an important consideration when credit bureaus update your score. Here’s why: Suppose you were already using 90 percent of your available credit and you are suddenly hit by an expensive emergency. Since you have little credit in reserve, the chances are greater that you will miss some payments or even default on your debts. Contrast that to the case where your credit utilization is 30 percent. Now you have the financial resources to better handle the same emergency.
    Therefore, a low credit utilization ratio makes you more creditworthy, and helps increase your score. Your goal is to get all of your cards down below 30 percent utilization.
  5. Consolidate: Repaying your debt lowers your credit utilization. One popular method is to perform zero-cost balance transfers to consolidate all your credit card debt onto one card. This can lower your monthly minimum payments. It’s also easier to keep track of one monthly credit card payment rather than 3 or 6 or 12. Pick a card to consolidate to that doesn’t charge for balance transfers and that even provides interest-free purchases for up to 15 months following the transfer.
    However, you should not cancel the original credit card after the transfer. For reference, cancelling credit accounts will have a negative impact on your credit score.
    After the transfer, you can autopay the monthly bill out of your checking account so that you never are late. It makes sense to pay the balance off as quickly as possible and minimize your interest costs. You might also consider a personal loan to pay off your outstanding credit card debts, because a personal loan is not reflected in your credit utilization ratio.

When selecting a new credit card for the holiday season, pick one with rewards that match your lifestyle, whether its cash-back to help pay the bills or frequent flyer miles to subsidize the cost of air travel. Happy holidays!

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