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Build Your Credit Score: 6 Best Secured Cards With No Annual Fees – December 2017

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Build Your Credit Score

Applying for a secured card is a simple way to begin building (or rebuilding) your credit history. Secured cards are a way to prove to a lender you can be responsible without a lender having to take much risk. When you open a secured card, you put down a deposit and the lender gives you a line of credit. Typically, your line of credit matches the amount of your deposit. But just like credit cards, not all secured cards are created equal. Below are the five secured cards that don’t charge an annual fee, thus save you money as you build credit history.

Option One – Banks

Our #1 Pick – Discover it® Secured Card - No Annual Fee

Discover it® Secured Card - No Annual Fee Discover offers our favorite secured credit card. Unlike most credit card companies, Discover is ensuring that benefits and rewards traditionally associated only with unsecured credit cards will be available on the secured card. This card is best for people with no credit, or with scores of 670 or less.

Here are the reasons why this card is our favorite:

No annual fee: There is no annual fee on this card. You do need to make a security deposit of $200 or more to establish your credit line. If you want a bigger limit, you will have to make a bigger deposit.

Bankruptcy? No problem: If you have filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the past, you can still qualify for this card. It is a great way for people to rehabilitate their credit.

Automatic monthly reviews: Discover will start automatic monthly reviews at month 8. If you qualify, you could be transitioned to an account with no security deposit. Even better, you could potentially be eligible for a bigger credit limit. This feature really sets Discover apart from the competition – and your goal should be to get back your deposit as quickly as possible through responsible credit behavior.

Earn cash back: Most secured credit cards do not offer any rewards. With Discover it®, you have the opportunity to earn cash back while earning rewards. You can earn 2% at restaurants and gas stations (on up to $1,000 of spend each quarter). Plus, get 1% cash back on all your other purchases. Earning cash back is not the primary reason to select a secured credit card, but it is a nice option to have available.

Free FICO Credit Score: Discover will provide you with a copy of your official FICO credit score. If you use a secured credit card properly, you should expect to see your score increase over time. And by providing your FICO score for free, you will be able to watch your improvement.

Citi® Secured MasterCard®

Citi® Secured MasterCard<sup>®</sup> If you are declined by Discover, this could be a good back-up option. In order to qualify, you cannot have filed for bankruptcy in the last two years. Citi will hold onto your deposit for 18 months. Unlike Discover, there is no cash back available and Citi will not perform annual eligibility checks to see if you can be approved for a standard card.

Here are the key facts:

  • $0 Annual Fee
  • Provide a security deposit between $200 and $2,500. Your credit limit will be equal to the amount of the security deposit you’ve submitted.
  • 23.49% Variable APR

Capital One® Secured Mastercard

Capital One® Secured Mastercard®
If you currently can’t afford the $100 – $500 deposit, consider the Capital One® Secured Mastercard® with a $49 minimum deposit for a $200 line of credit with an annual fee of $0.

However, this deposit is based on what Capital One deems as “creditworthy.” It is possible it will ask for a deposit of $99 or $200.

Option Two – Your Local Credit Union

If you belong to a credit union, go there and ask. They probably have a no annual fee option and could set you up right away. It doesn’t hurt to ask a bank either, but they are less likely to have a no annual fee option.

Option Three – Credit Unions “Anyone Can Join”

If you don’t belong to a credit union, or don’t like the secured card options your bank offers, below are three no fee cards from credit unions anyone can join. While it may cost as much as an annual fee to join the credit union, there is also an added benefit of being a credit union member for life.

These are ranked by lowest to highest minimum deposit

Visa Classic Secured Card from Justice FCU
Justice Federal: Visa Classic Secured Credit Card

  • Cost to join – $5 to join JFCU or $43 if you need to join another organization to become eligible
  • Minimum deposit – $100

EligibilityUnfortunately, not everyone can easily join Justice Federal Credit Union. JFCU provides financial services to employees of Justice, Homeland Security and the Law Enforcement Community, as well as their family members. If you believe you may qualify, then check the credit union’s member eligibility page. Those who qualify, will need a five dollar deposit and to fund their account.
However, there is a loophole. One of the eligible associations for membership is the National Sheriff’s Association. It costs $41 to join the NSA as an auxiliary member or student. By joining the NSA first, anyone can then become a member of the Justice Federal Credit Union. This brings the cost of membership to $46.

The Secured Card

Visa Classic Secured Credit Card
  • No annual fee
  • 16.90% APR non-variable

Credit limits ranging from $100 up to 110% of pledged shares

Savings Secured Visa Platinum Card from State Department Federal

  • Cost to join – $1 to join the credit union (which the SDFCU usually covers) + $5 (or $15) to join American Consumer Council, if you don’t work for the Department of State.
  • Minimum deposit – $250
EligibilityYou are eligible to join the SDFCU if you’re an employee of the Department of State or one of the extensive organizations with ties to the credit union (all listed here under “who can join”). If you don’t work for the Department of State, you may also be eligible through the American Consumer Council. You can join the ACC for only $5 if you’ve used any major consumer product or service within the past 12 months – and you probably have.

The Secured Card

EMV Savings Secured Visa Platinum Card
  • 7.99% APR
  • No annual fee
  • Minimum deposit –$250

DCU Visa Platinum Secured from Digital FCU
Digital Federal Credit Union (DCU)

  • Cost to join – $5 to join DCU + membership costs to join eligible organization if you aren’t eligible
  • Minimum deposit – $500

EligibilityYou must be a member of DCU in order to apply for the secured card. You can be eligible to join DCU if a relative is already member, if your employer offers membership or your community is included within field of membership. If none of these apply, you can join an organization with member privileges. Joining these organizations range in membership cost from $25 to $120. Once you join DCU, you have a lifelong membership, so you could cancel a membership with the other organization after joining.

The Secured Card

Visa Platinum Secured Card
  • No annual fee
  • 12.50% variable APR (18% penalty APR)
  • Minimum deposit – $300

Understand how to use your secured card properly

Once you’re approved, be sure to use your secured card responsibly. You can find more tips on how to use a secured card and build your credit history here.

Erin Lowry
Erin Lowry |

Erin Lowry is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Erin at erin@magnifymoney.com


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Updated June 1, 2017

In 2008 (bad timing), I moved to the US with my wife, Margarita, after living in Moscow, Russia working for Citibank.  She was not a US citizen, and had no credit history or credit score.  Being without a credit score in the US basically means you don’t exist!  So, we had to fix that fast. Within 12 months, she had a very good credit score. And within 18 months, she had an excellent credit score. In this post, I will explain:

  • How Margarita (and you) can open a secured credit card
  • How to use a secured credit card (to maximize the boost in your score)
  • How to select the best secured credit card. Our favorite card is from Discover (learn more and apply on Discover's website). It charges no annual fee, you can earn cash back and we review it in more detail below.

How To Open A Secured Credit Card

Opening a secured credit card is relatively easy. You have to provide the bank with a deposit, which is typically $200 or more. The bank will keep the deposit as collateral and will provide you with a credit limit equal to your deposit. In Margarita’s example, she gave the bank a $500 deposit and received a $500 credit limit.

Once open, the credit card works like any other. Your credit limit, balance and payment information is reported to the credit bureau. The only difference: if you fail to pay your credit card on time, the bank can take your deposit and apply it towards the debt.

So – the bank has a guarantee that they won’t lose money. And you have the opportunity to prove that you will use your credit wisely.

How To Use A Secured Credit Card

Given that I was a bank credit risk manager at the time, I knew a bit about credit scoring.  So, I made sure Margarita followed this strategy:

  • She used the card every month, but for a very small amount. Her typical monthly bill would be around $10.

  • She made sure that she paid the balance in full and on time every month by signing up for automatic payments.

  • She subscribed to a credit scoring service to watch her score improve over time.

It took about 6 months for Margarita’s score to cross the 600 threshold. About 18 months after starting, she had a score well above 700. At that point, she applied for a rewards credit card.  It had a great sign-on bonus and a frighteningly high $25,000 credit limit.

So, it only took a year and a half for someone to go from being a credit nobody to one of the most sought after customers in the country. What was the trick? It is actually very simple.

Once a secured credit card is open, you want to follow the three key rules:

  1. Make sure you use the credit card every month. You can only build a credit score if you have activity on your credit report.
  2. Keep your utilization low – preferably below 10%.
  3. Make sure you pay your bill in full and on time every month.

Use Your Card Every Month

In order to have a FICO score, you must have activity on your credit report in the last six months. If there is no activity on your report in the last six months, you cannot get a score.

Activity does not mean you need to go into debt. You can make a single purchase every month (even for just $1) and that is considered activity.

Keep Your Utilization Low

One of the most important components of your credit score is utilization. Your utilization is calculated by dividing your statement balance by your available credit. People with the best credit scores have utilization levels of 10% or less. That means if you have a credit limit of $1,000 you should not spend more than $100 a month.

The best strategy with a secured credit card is to select one small, recurring transaction and automate it. For example, use your secured credit card for your monthly Netflix bill.

Pay You Bill In Full And On Time Every Month

The most important part of your credit score is a history of on-time payments. Even a single missed payment can have a very negative impact on your score. The best way to ensure that you don’t miss a payment is to set up automated monthly payments.

And make sure you pay your balance in full. If you pay the balance in full, you will not have to pay interest. And there is nothing more ridiculous than  paying interest on a secured credit card. Remember: your credit limit is equal to your deposit. You are literally borrowing your own money. But if you pay interest (at a high rate), you will be paying a bank to borrow from yourself.

This is just a long way of saying that Margarita’s approach worked. If you want to use a secured credit card to build your credit score, just use it every month for a $10 charge. And pay that balance in full and on time. Your score will improve quickly.

How To Select The Best Secured Credit Card

When selecting a secured credit card, we recommend that you focus on the annual fee (you shouldn’t have to pay one). You can find our round-up of the best secured cards here. You will see that our top choice is the Discover it® Secured Card – No Annual Fee.

Discover’s card has no annual fee. You will have to make a security deposit of $200 or more, which will establish your credit line. What we like most is the automated review process. After just eight months, Discover will start automated monthly reviews to see if you can be transitioned to an account with no security deposit.

You will also have the opportunity to earn rewards on your secured card. You will be able to earn 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations, on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter. Plus, you can get 1% cash back on all your other purchases. You can learn more and apply by clicking the link below.

Margarita had opened a secured credit card with Bank of America. There was an annual fee, and migrating from the secured to the standard credit card was painful. But, in the end, it worked. If you use a secured credit card wisely, you will not have it for long. So even if you don’t use one of our favorites, we still highly recommend your follow our strategy on any secured credit card – and you should get a good result.

Nick Clements
Nick Clements |

Nick Clements is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Nick at nick@magnifymoney.com

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A Beginner’s Guide to Using a Credit Card

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So, you want to open a credit card? It’s a good idea – most of the time.

Opening and using a credit card provides a simple way to establish and build credit history. Yes, certain credit cards can earn users rewards for cash back, travel miles, and redemption points, but the road to reward chasing is littered with people who slipped into credit card debt. Beware of your budget and your personality if you elect to pursue the path of reward chasing.

If you have trouble paying bills on time, saying no to purchases you can’t afford or just sense a credit card may not be a good idea for you – then trust your gut. While a credit card is a great tool to build financial health, it can also lead to painful consumer debt when used improperly.

Still think you’re ready to take on the responsibility of owning a credit card? Then let’s walk through how to select, understand, apply and manage your credit card.

Step One: Select your type of credit card

Credit cards were not made equal and we’re not just talking in terms of interest rates and rewards. Your unique situation will determine which credit card you should (and could) apply for.

Student card

Lenders understand college students aren’t flushed with cash. In fact, college students’ debt-to-income ratios are commonly skewed in the wrong direction. But lenders still make it possible for young adults to acquire credit cards through student card programs.

(Yes – they’re hopefully you’ll fall into debt.)

College students with an established bank account or credit union can likely get a credit card from their current financial institution. Other options include:

Fine Print Alert: these cards often come with high interest rates – so be sure to read the tips in step four and mind your spending.

Secured card

The secured card offers an option for anyone looking to build (or rebuild) his or her credit history.

With a secured card, a potential borrower puts down a deposit in exchange for a credit card from a lender. Often the borrower’s credit limit is the same amount as the deposit, but this isn’t always the case. In the instance of CapitalOne’s Secured MasterCard, a borrower puts down approximately $50 for a $200 credit limit.

The deposit works as collateral for the lender. If the borrower cannot make payments, he or she will forfeit the deposit. If the borrower proves to be dependable over time, he or she will receive the deposit back after closing the secured card for a regular, unsecured credit card.

A secured card gives a lender a sense of assurance, while the borrower proves his or her responsibility. The borrower will see his or her credit score improving over six months to a year and can eventually leave behind the secured card for a traditional credit card.

Fine Print Alert: Be sure to take a secured card from an FDIC-insured organization, like your bank or local credit union. It’s important not to spend much on the card because your credit limit is likely to be quite low. Read more about secured cards here.

Store credit card

Odds are high you’ve been offered a store credit card at least once in your life. Store cashiers inquire if you’d like to open a store credit card, often in exchange for a certain percent off your purchases.

In general, a store card can be a trap into consumer debt. Just one round of missing a payment in full can lead to painful interest rates and leave consumers struggling to pay down their bill.

However, store cards often accept lower credit scores than traditional cards. Someone looking to rebuild credit, but carrying a score in the low 600s, could apply and feasibly get approved for a store card when they’d likely get rejected for a card from another lender.

Naturally, the bank hopes said person will have trouble paying off his bill – but the diligent borrower can use a store card to help rebuild a credit score.

Fine Print Alert: Store credit cards often have incredibly high APRs (annual percentage rate). For example, the Gap Visa starts at 23.99%. While a traditional card, like Capital One’s Quicksilver Cash Rewards has a variable interest range of 13.99% – 23.99%. Read more about store credit cards here.

Traditional credit card

If you have a good to excellent credit score (often 680 or higher) then you’ll likely qualify for most credit cards. There is no need to deal with a store card and their monstrous APRs or secured cards with their low credit limits.

Do some research to see what type of credit card best suits your needs. You can use our cashback tool to input your spending habits and find a card to maximize your rewards.

Step Two: Understand the details of your card

Once you decide the type of card to apply for, it’s time to do your research.

You need to understand the details of your card, before signing on the dotted line.

Evaluate the APR (interest rate) on the card. It’s ideal to have a credit card with a low interest rate, like PenFed’s 9.99%. You want to avoid ever paying interest, but in the case you do end up not being able to pay your bill in full, you need to understand the rate you’ll be charged.

Is there an annual fee associated with your card? With the exception of needing to get a secured card, don’t bother spending money on an annual fee when you’re starting out with a credit card. There are plenty of great cards with no annual fee – so why spend the extra $50 to $100?

What’s your credit limit? You likely won’t find out until after you’ve applied and been approved for a credit card. It’s imperative you remember your credit limit to avoid maxing out your card. In fact, you will want to stay well below your limit, but we’ll get to that in step four.

While we don’t recommend beginners focus on credit card rewards, it is good to understand the perks (if any) associated with your card. Be careful not to increase or change your spending habits simply to churn points.

Step Three: Apply for your card (and read the fine print)

The simplest step, apply for your card.

You can often apply online, but if you’d prefer to go in person then head down to your local bank or credit union.

Be sure to give that fine print one last look while you’re in the application process.

Step Four: Properly handle your credit card

Now that you have a credit card at your disposal, it’s time to use it properly.

  • Understand the difference between borrowing and spending

Credit cards are structured to create debt. It’s a simple, not often discussed, truth. To avoid debt, it’s important you understand the difference between borrowing and spending. Do you set a strict budget and only spend what you can afford to pay off each month? Check for spending. If you eye a purchase you know you can’t afford and whip out your credit card, well that’s borrowing. Credit cards are often not the best route to go if you need to borrow money. However, if you are going to turn to a card for borrowing, then have the lowest interest rate you possibly can (ie: the PenFed 9.99%). Borrowing at a 15 to 23% interest rate (common on many cards) will do major harm to your bank account.

  • Ignore “minimum due” and pay your bill in full

Credit card companies like to offer a “minimum due” in hopes customers will just pay a fraction of their total bill, so interest will start accruing. For credit card rookies, this can be incredibly confusing when they see minimum due on the first billing statement. The simplest thing to do is act as if the minimum due doesn’t exist. Always pay your bill in full. Paying the minimum just means you’ll end up paying more to your lender in the form of interest.

  • Pay your bill on time

Paying your bill on time is possibly more important than paying your bill in full. Being just one day late on your credit card bill could crush your credit score. If the bill is due Tuesday, but you won’t have the money to pay in full until Wednesday, then pay as much as you can (at least the minimum) on Tuesday and pay off the remainder on Wednesday. In your mind, it might seem that paying it off in full a day later makes more sense than just paying part by the due date – but that isn’t how your lender will see the situation. They’ll see you as irresponsible for missing your payment deadline.

  • Keep your utilization rate low

Your utilization rate (or ratio) is the amount of your overall credit limit you spend. Ideally, you should try to keep your credit used below 30% of your available credit (ie: if your available credit is $1,000 then only spend $300). A low utilization rate will show responsibility to lenders and help improve your credit score.

  • Don’t do a cash advance

Don’t use your credit card like a debit card. Just don’t do it. You’ll be paying high interest rates (typically higher than store cards – around 25%) for withdrawing cash from an ATM.

  • Careful where you share your card information

In the end, you need to protect your credit card. Odds are high you’ll experience fraud at one point in your life, but it’s best to be proactive and be careful where you share your credit card information.

Don’t forget to use your card, because a lender can discontinue an inactive card. If you feel a little uncomfortable using your card, but need to build your credit then buy one small item a month (perhaps a cup of coffee) and set up an automatic payment, so you know you’ll never be tardy with your bill.

Still have questions? Explore our Building Credit section or get in touch with us via TwitterFacebook, email info@magnifymoney.com or in the comment section below!

Erin Lowry
Erin Lowry |

Erin Lowry is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Erin at erin@magnifymoney.com

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College Students: Employers Check Your Credit Report, Not Credit Score

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Female Woman Sitting At Interview

The summer after my college graduation I came face-to-face with the reality of needing a good credit report and strong credit score. As a naïve co-ed, I’d never truly pondered the consequences of using a credit card. All I knew is that utilizing it properly would help build something called credit history. A fact I became familiar with after my father insisted I get a credit card my freshman year of college.

Pushing a credit card on an 18-year-old college kid may sound like bad form to some, but my father’s strategy was sound.

I entered college with no student loans thanks to a combination of parental support and scholarships. With this in mind, my father suggested I get a credit card in order to start establishing credit history.

He took the time to walk me through the important points of credit card use:

  1. Don’t max it out
  2. Pay it off in full each month (aka only buy what you can afford)
  3. If you only pay the minimum then you’re just throwing away money in the form of interest to the banks

Thanks to his foresight, I graduated college with no debt and a 720 credit score from the responsible use of one credit card. At the time, I only recognized the no debt part; I never thought to check out my credit report and score (rookie mistake).

Fast-forward three weeks and my new roommate and I were pounding the streets of New York City looking for suitable housing. We hit up Craigslist, tried referrals from friends and ultimately succumbed to using a broker to help us find an apartment. When we finally found a roach-and-rodent-free apartment in our price range, we scurried back to the broker’s office to submit the paper work. She looked up at us and said, “And we’ll need $50 to run your credit check?”

“Huh?” I thought to myself while wondering how much an unexpected $50 would damage my budget.

“Your landlord will need to see your credit report and score to determine if you’re a responsible tenant,” she emphasized.

“What is she talking about?” I thought (probably aloud).

This is when I realized my Dad’s advice to get a credit card was some of the best he’d ever given me. Thanks to him, I had a 720 credit score (instead of no credit score) and was able to get my first apartment with minimal stress.

So, why does this matter for the average college kid?

Landlords aren’t the only ones using your credit report to see if you’re responsible: employers do too.

Note that a credit report is different than a credit score. The score is merely a gauge of what is reflected on the report. The credit report is a thorough history of your life as a borrower and includes details on things like: loans, credit cards, mortgages and if any of your bills went to collections.

Why do employers want to see your credit report?

There are a variety of reasons an employer may run your credit report.

  • To see if you’re responsible
  • To verify you are who you claim to be
  • To determine if you could handle a company credit card
  • To see if you’re financially stable – even though your bank account information is not reflected in this report, they can see your loans and how you utilize credit cards

In fact, the use of pulling a credit report is two decades old, according to Experian spokeswoman, Kristine Snyder. (Experian is one of the three credit bureaus.)

“Some companies have been using them for 20 years, mostly when they hire people who will be dealing with money.  Traditionally, the biggest users of credit reports for employment purposes are companies in the defense, chemical, pharmaceutical and financial services industries because of the sensitive positions many of their employees hold,” wrote Snyder in an email.

Will you know if they run a credit report?


“Federal law does prohibit anyone from accessing an employment report without first obtaining written permission from the consumer,” Synder emphasized.

What can employers see when they get a credit report?

Experian offers a report called Employment Insight, specifically for employers.

According to Synder, this report contains:

  • Consumer identification: including Social Security number
  • Address information: including length of time at current and previous addresses
  • Employment information: providing insight regarding an applicant’s previous work history
  • Up to two places of employments
  • Other names used: such as maiden names and aliases
  • Public record information on bankruptcies: liens and judgments against the applicant
  • Credit history providing an objective overview of how financial obligations are handled
  • Demographics Band (including driver’s license and phone number verifications)
  • Profile Summary (including payment patterns)

What will be kept private from an employer?

  • Your credit score – but they can probably make an educated guess based on the information in your report.
  • Your year of birth
  • Information about a spouse
  • Account number information

What if you don’t get hired?

The credit bureaus don’t offer any sort of recommendation about whether or not to hire you with your credit report. It’s simply supplemental to other portions of the interview process: skills tests, in-person interview, references, etc.

However, if you aren’t hired based on information in your credit report, then federal law does require your potential employer to give you both a copy of the report and a written description of the consumer’s rights.

Why it won’t impact your credit score

Don’t fret about this damaging your credit score. Your employer performs what is known as a soft pull (or soft inquiry), which doesn’t cause any sort of drop in your credit score nor is it reflected on your credit report moving forward.

Moral of the story

Bad credit history can impact more than just your ability to get a credit card or a lower interest rate on a loan. It could actually prevent you from getting a job. If you have questions about building credit start here and then check out our Fine Print Blog for plenty of articles on ways to build and improve your credit history.

Got questions? Get in touch via TwitterFacebook, email info@magnifymoney.com or let us know in the comment section below!

Erin Lowry
Erin Lowry |

Erin Lowry is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Erin at erin@magnifymoney.com

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7 Financial Must-Dos for College Students

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MagnifyMoney’s financial back-to-school checklist for college students

1. Understand your student loans

Ensure you know if your loan is federal or private and understand the difference

Don’t take out loans for discretionary spending. Each $100 you take out can cost you $170+ over your lifetime.

2. Set up a budget

Spend a month tracking all your spending to understand how much money you have coming in vs going out.

Set up a budget outline to keep yourself from spending more than you have coming in.

3. Switch to an Internet-only bank

Avoid bank fees eating up your hard-earned money by switching to an Internet-only bank – many have no ATM or overdraft fees.

4. Have a little wiggle room? Pay yourself first

If you can put even $2 a month into a savings account, get into the habit now. Having the foundation of saving will serve you well in the future.

5. Build a strong credit history

Use your four years in college as preparation for your post-graduation financial health. Begin establishing your credit history so it’s easier to rent an apartment, buy a house or get a car loan after graduation.

6. Consider a credit card

A credit card is a simple way to build your credit history, but you must use it responsibly.

Make a small purchase or two each month and pay your bill on time and in full

7. Parents, send your student an allowance without any bank fees

If you’re kind enough to send your student an allowance, consider using an account that avoids overdraft fees and ATM fees.

Details for all these tips can be found below.

Handling Student Loans

We know that times have changed, and college is much more expensive now than before. You used to be able to get a side job to pay for your education. But we still think you should get a side job – to pay for your living expenses.

There is a big temptation to use loan proceeds to fund a lot of your discretionary spending, including nights out, vacations and some luxury items. But, be careful. Every $100 you spend could end up costing you almost $170 or more over your lifetime (3.86% interest rate over 30 years).

Although $100 may not seem like a lot, it will translate into hours of your working life to pay it back. So, take that side job and keep your debt load as low as possible. You will thank yourself later.

When deciding on loans, we recommend seeking federal loans and maxing out those options before taking on any private loans. Here’s why:

  • Federal loans are at fixed interest rates while private are variable (some up to 18%)
  • Some private loans can require repayment while you’re still in school
  • Federal loans could include income-based repayment plans or student loan forgiveness while private loans typically don’t.
  • Private loans are not subsidized
    • Undergraduate students who qualify for subsidized loans will have their interest paid by the government while they’re still in school

Find an extensive break down of federal vs. private student loans here.

Learn how to budget (seriously, just do it)

It’s a tale as old as time, and usually elicits eye rolls, but budgeting is essential to financial health.

There are various ways to budget your money. Some track each and every penny, while others focus on saving money, paying off bills and then evaluating how much is left to spend for the month.

Regardless of your preferred method, you need to have a solid grasp on how much money you have coming in each month and perhaps more importantly, how much is leaving your bank account.

There are various apps and online products you can use to track your spending including Mint.com and Prosper Daily.

If you seem to be constantly low on money – or heaven forbid a serial overdraft offender – then commit to spending a month tracking each penny you spend so you can spot the leaks in your budget and plug them up.

Consider automating your savings and at least some of your bills, so you don’t have to take the time to do it manually. Don’t forget that one missed credit card payment does major damage to your credit score.

Switch to an Internet-only bank

As a student, you most likely will have a low balance in your checking account. Your goal is to avoid monthly fees, ATM fees and the overdraft trap.

The best way to avoid all of these fees and traps is to open an account with a branch-free (Internet-only) bank. Most Internet banks charge no monthly fee and have no minimum deposit requirement.

Even better, some Internet banks (like Ally and Bank of the Internet USA’s Rewards Checking) give you free, unlimited use of any ATM in the country. They won’t charge you a fee for using an ATM, and will reimburse any fee charged by the other bank. Ally reimburses at the end of every month, and Bank of the Internet reimburses the next business day.

Overdrafts can become incredibly expensive very quickly.

Making mistakes at large banks (like Bank of America) can cost you up to $140 per day. Fortunately, online banks can drastically reduce the cost. Ally will charge a maximum of $9 per day. Bank of the Internet USA and Simple have no overdraft fees and no returned payment fees.

There are two limitations to Internet banks: depositing cash and check posting times. If you need to deposit a lot of cash, Internet banks are less convenient. You can buy a money order at a grocery store, post office, WalMart, or convenience store to deposit cash into an online account.

If you have a check to deposit, you can now use your mobile phone. At Ally Bank, you can deposit up to $25,000 per day. And at Bank of the Internet USA you can deposit $10,000 per day. However (and especially during the first month), the hold can be longer than depositing at a branch.

As a digital native, you probably get paid electronically, you use Venmo to pay friends and you rarely visit a bank branch. To make banking free, use an Internet bank and never think about fees again.

You can see our list of online fee free accounts here.

Pay yourself first and set up a savings account

From Ramsey to Orman to Chatzky, personal finance experts everywhere are unified in one piece of advice: save money.

The schools of thought on how to save may vary, but college students should get in the habit of embracing the mantra “pay yourself first.”

Instead of seeing how much money is left at the end of the month, you should always save a percentage of each paycheck. Even if that percentage is 0.5 and all you can afford to tuck away is two dollars a paycheck, it’s about developing the habit now.

Your savings should also be squirreled away in a savings account, not kept in your checking account. Setting up a savings account is simple. You can look into doing one with your current bank, but we recommend using an Internet-only bank. Why?

1) No minimum deposit with an Internet-only bank like Ally. You can open up a savings account with your two dollars a month. Bank of America would require you put down at least $25.

2) They have higher interest rates. Ally offers 0.87% while Bank of America will dish over a whopping 0.01%. It might not sound like much, but it can make a big difference in the long run.

If your job pays you in cash, then you may be stuck with a traditional bank. You can deposit a check with your smartphone (or a computer scanner) for Internet-only banks, but depositing cash with your smartphone…well, that’s not an app for that.

Read more here to learn about the steps of paying yourself first.

Build a strong credit score and report

Credit scores are part of your “real world report card.” The constant grading doesn’t stop once you’ve left school. Lenders determine if you’re a responsible borrower by viewing your credit scores and credit report. And it isn’t just credit card companies and loan officers checking them out.

Looking for an apartment? Your landlord will want to run a credit check. Applying for a new job? Your future employer could give your credit report a review.

It takes diligence, responsibility and the right tools to build a strong credit score, but first you have to establish credit history. Unfortunately, you do need a debt tool (ie: a loan or credit card) in order to begin establishing credit history. However, with a properly used credit card, you should never be in consumer debt.

Five factors determine your FICO score:

Payment history (35%): do you make payments on time? Missed payments can crush your credit score quickly.

Amounts owed (30%): the more debt you have, the lower your score. But even more important than the total amount you owe, is the amount you owe in relation to your total credit limit – which is called utilization. If you max out every card you have, you will get punished.

Length of credit history (15%): the longer you’ve had credit, the better. This is one reason to establish credit history in college instead of waiting until after graduation.

New credit (10%): this looks at how many new accounts you have opened, and many times you have applied for credit.

Types of credit used (10%): the more types of credit you have, the better. So, someone who has successfully managed a car loan, a mortgage and a credit card would score better than someone who just managed a credit card successfully.

If you’ve taken out a student loan, in your name, for school then you’ve already established one type of credit being used. Add a responsibly used credit card on top, and you’re easily improving your score.

Just remember: one missed payment can annihilate a great credit score.   

Get a credit card

College students are in a unique position to use credit cards to their advantage.

Yes, credit cards can be used to accumulate debt, but the savvy student will use swiping plastic as an opportunity to establish a healthy credit history.

However, part of owning a credit card is being responsible. Not everyone is ready to handle the adult task of only charging what he or she can afford and paying the bill on time and in full each month.

Know yourself. If credit card bills would get lost in a haze of class projects, thesis papers, keggers and football games, then don’t apply for one.

Avoiding credit card debt in college is one key to financial success post-graduation.

A student who incurs $4,000 of credit card debt at a 21% interest rate (low for a student card) and pays only the minimum due, will take 26.5 years to pay off the debt. Even worse, he or she will spend $10,554 in interest alone!

Use our calculator to see how much credit card debt could cost you.

How to send money to your student without incurring overdrafts

Are you a parent sending your child off to college and being nice enough to send them money? The last thing you want is for that money to be eaten up by monthly fees and overdraft expenses.

There are some great, new options out there to send money to your children at school.

If your son or daughter opens an Internet account (like Ally Bank or Bank of Internet USA), then you can send funds to them via PopMoney. If you are more comfortable with Venmo, then Simple is a great online banking option.

All of these accounts have no fees, including no overdraft fees and unlimited free ATM withdrawals.

Another interesting option, if you are not comfortable using PopMoney or Venmo is Bluebird, by American Express. You can find the Bluebird cards at Wal-Mart and get two cards on one account: one for you and one for your child. You can then put money onto the card at any Wal-Mart. And the account has no minimum balance requirements, no fees and no overdraft fees. Your child will be able to use the card anywhere American Express is available. The only cost is for a withdrawal at an ATM, which is $2 (when you use a MoneyPass ATM). ATM withdrawals are free if you have a direct deposit onto the account, which you child should do if they have a job. Bluebird is like any other bank account (you can write checks, pay bills online, etc), just without the fees.

We often hear from parents who are frustrated by the overdraft fees (typically $35 each) and monthly fees (could be $10 or more per month) that eat into allowances and hard-earned money. The good news: with a bit of forward planning, you can virtually eliminate all of those fees.

Got questions? Get in touch via TwitterFacebook or email (info@magnifymoney.com) 

Erin Lowry
Erin Lowry |

Erin Lowry is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Erin at erin@magnifymoney.com

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Building Credit

6 Simple Steps to Improve Your Credit Score

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Credit score large

Going from a 550 credit score to above 700 may seem overwhelming, but you only need six simple steps and to improve your credit score.

Step 1: Get a line of credit

In order to establish credit history, you need to have a form of credit. The simplest way for you to begin will be to open a credit card. If your score is low or non-existent, then you’ll need to apply for a secured card or a store card.

  • Secured Card:  You’ll use your own money as collateral by putting down a deposit of a few hundred dollars with the bank. Typically, that amount will then be your credit limit. Once you prove you’re responsible, you can get back your deposit and upgrade to a regular credit card. [Our favorite is the Discover it® Secured Card – No Annual Fee. You can apply here, or learn more about secured cards in general here]

  • Store Card: People with a low credit score can often still get store cards because banks are more likely to approve users who apply through the store. The catch is that the interest rates are often very high if you can’t make your payments. [Read more here]

Step 2: Keep your utilization rate low

Utilization is the amount of your credit limit you spend each month. For example, if you have a $500 credit limit and spend $50 in a month, you’re utilization will be 10%. Your utilization is part of what determines your credit score.

Your goal should be to never exceed 30% of your credit limit. Ideally, you should be even lower than 30% because the lower your utilization rate, the better your score will be.

We recommend you make one small purchase (hello, pack of gum) a month to keep your utilization low and help increase your credit score at a faster rate.

Step 3: Pay in full, and on time, each month

The easiest way to prove you’re responsible is to only charge what you can afford. Never use your credit card to buy an item you won’t be able to pay off on time and in full each month.

Being late on your payments has a huge, negative impact on your credit score.

There is also no advantage to only paying the minimum amount due on your card. That will only result in you paying interest and does nothing to help your credit score. So just save yourself money and pay your entire bill.

Step 4: Avoid credit card debt

This goes hand-and-hand with step three. By only purchasing what you can pay off in full, you’ll never accumulate credit card debt.

If you’re already in debt from the misuse of credit cards, then make sure you continue to pay at least the minimum due on time each month. Paying on time is the number one indicator of a responsible borrower. You should consider applying for a personal loan, and using the money from the loan to pay off your credit card debt. Personal loan companies have interest rates that start as low as 4.25%, and they are approving people with credit scores as low as 550. You can shop around for a personal loan without hurting your score, because the lenders will approve you using a soft pull (which doesn’t impact your score). A recent study by Lending Club showed that people who paid off their credit card debt with a personal loan saw their score increase by 31% on average, right away. You can look for the best personal loans using this personal loan tool at LendingTree. [Disclosure: LendingTree is the parent company of MagnifyMoney.] With a single application, you can check your rate with dozens of lenders. And the best part: LendingTree uses a soft pull, which means your credit score will not be negatively impacted.

After you pay off your credit cards with the proceeds on the loan, do not build up your debt again. Instead, just make one purchase each month and pay it off in full.

Once you pay off your cards, resist the urge to close them. Closing your cards will not only lower your utilization but remove history which damages your score in the “length of history” category.

Step 5: As your score improves, so do your options for better credit cards

You’ll start to get credit card offers as you begin to build your credit history and improve your score. Credit card companies still love sending snail mail.

Beware of any offers, especially for cash back cards, while your score is below 650. These cards typically provide little value and can smack you with high interest rates if you fail to follow step three.

Not sure if an offer is a good deal? Try checking it out in our cashback reward cards page. Our Magnify Transparency Score will let you know if it’s the real deal.

Once you get your credit score above 680, the good credit card offers will start rolling in. You can have your pick of the top-tier reward credit cards and start using your regular spending to get cash back or rack up points for travel.

Step 6: Protect your score

Once you’ve achieved a higher credit score, but sure to protect it by following these simple steps:

  • Always pay on time – late or missed payments will cost you dearly

  • Try to keep your credit used below 30% of your available credit

  • If you apply for a store card to increase your credit then immediately put in the freezer (literally if you have to) and avoid spending

  • Be sure to check your credit reports for accuracy and signs of fraud – you’re entitled to one free report per year from each of the three credit bureaus

If you have any questions or just want a helping hand, please reach out to us at info@magnifymoney.com or tweet us @Magnify_Money

Erin Lowry
Erin Lowry |

Erin Lowry is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Erin at erin@magnifymoney.com


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College Students and Recent Grads

Use College to Rock Your Financial Life

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.


Dear College Student –

I envy you. Not for the football games, the keg stands nor the ability to arrange your schedule for constant three-day weekends. Okay, I miss that last one. But I primarily envy you because you have a simple advantage when it comes to finances.


Over the course of your college career, you’ll make a lot of decisions that will impact the course of your life. Some of them will be academic, a few will be social, but plenty will be financial.

Before you even entered the hallowed halls of your university, you may have signed a dotted line that put your young financial life into the red. Student loans are major issue for college students – more so than actually picking a major – but we’re here to help to minimize all other debt and maximize your financial health. School may be preparing you for getting a job, but here at MagnifyMoney we want to educate you on what comes after.

Step One: Build Credit History

Grades don’t stop after you hand in your final exam, in fact you’re going to be graded your entire life. A credit score is how a lender will determine how risky you are. If you’re looking to buy a car, rent an apartment or apply for will a mortgage (lucky you), then your credit score will be pulled. A high score can help you edge out other applicants for an apartment or give you bargaining power for a lower interest-rate on a loan. The lower your score, the risker you’re going to appear.

Even your employer could end up pulling a credit report to assess your responsibility. A credit report doesn’t contain your score, but will show if you’ve been late making payments, defaulted on a loan or even filed bankruptcy.

Fortunately, you have four years of college to be building your credit history so you graduate summa cum laude – with a high credit score and impeccable credit report. If you’ve taken out student loans in your name, then you’ve already started the process of establishing credit history. However, we still recommend that you consider getting a credit card. Part of your credit score is determined by the types of credit you have as well as payment history.

A credit card is a simple way to establish credit history, but you must be using it responsibly.

  • Pay off your balance in full each month – carrying a balance just costs you more money

  • Keep your utilization rate low – only use 30% of your available credit. So, if you have $500 a month, then don’t spend more than $150 per month. If you really want an A+ in credit card use, try just spending $5 a month and have an insanely low utilization, which translates to a high credit score.

We have a list of college credit cards on our Cash Back Rewards page. You can also consider applying for a secured card, which helps you establish credit history by putting down a deposit of your own money to prove your responsibility.

Read more about building your credit history here

Step Two: Avoid Credit Card Debt

Opening up a credit card can be like walking into a frat party when you’re trying to avoid drinking. It opens the door to a whole lot of temptation, which is why it’s incredibly important that you use the credit card to only purchase items within your budget. Using it as a tool to buy expensive clothes, get the latest gadgets and open up a tab at the bar for all your friends will land you in a lot of financial pain.

Credit card companies may try to entice you to spend more by offering sign-on bonuses or cash back rewards. Don’t let this fool you into spending more than you can afford. If you get into debt, then you’ll be paying a lot more than you made from the sign-on bonus or cash back rewards. Plus, the interest rates on college credit cards are usually insanely high and that means debt at a high interest rate.

The simplest way to avoid consumer debt is to pay your balance off, in full, each month. Carrying a balance doesn’t help your credit score; it simply incurs interest you have to pay off.

Step Three: Consider an Internet Bank

You’re part of a generation reared on the rise of technology. You already know “there’s an app for that” – so why waste your time and money by banking at a traditional brick-and-mortar bank branch?

Putting your money into a savings and/or checking account is essentially giving the bank a loan. They are able to lend your money to someone else at a high interest rate while paying you less than 1%. Then they have the audacity to charge you heinous amounts of money if you go overdraft (the act of making a transaction without enough money in your account).

Now, Internet banking can help you save more money and there are, of course, apps for that.

Internet banks offer:

  • Higher interest rates on your savings accounts

  • Lower fees on your checking account

  • Overdraft fee protection and reimburse you for ATM fees

  • The ability to cash checks with your smartphone (or a scanner)

Internet banks are FDIC Insured just your brick-and-mortar bank, so they’re entirely safe.

Read more about Internet Banking here

Graduate with a Degree and Financial Competence

The next four years of your life are about so much more than good grades, parties and your cute study partner. They’re an opportunity to do the incredibly simple work that builds a foundation to pass a life-long exam. Taking the time to understand your financial situation in college will pay huge dividends once you graduate. Unless you do actually just want to live in Mom and Dad’s basement because you can’t afford anything and no landlord will take you without a decent credit score.

Got questions about setting up your financial life? Email us at info@magnifymoney.com or tweet @MagnifyMoney

Erin Lowry
Erin Lowry |

Erin Lowry is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Erin at erin@magnifymoney.com

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Building Credit

The Only Reason to Open a Store Credit Card

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.


 “And would you like to open a [insert store] card today to receive an extra 10% off your purchase?”

We’ve all heard this upsell strategy. Store credit cards seem to be available at just about any place you exchange currency for goods – except for maybe Seven-11.

For years I firmly shook my head and said, “thanks, I’m all set for today” without ever considering the possible advantages of opening a store card.

Then Banana Republic got me thinking about using a store card to increase my credit limit thus driving down my utilization to improve my credit score.

Why I got a store credit card: to improve my score

The moderately-expensive store was offering 40% off most of the store which could be coupled with any discount already bestowed upon sales rack items. While trying on clothes, I overheard the dressing room attendant mention if you opened up a Banana Republic credit card, you’d receive 30% off a full-priced item and an additional 10% off everything else.

Like most shoppers, I looked down at the massive stack of clothing I had my eye on I started to do the math. All those discounts could net me over $600 worth of clothing (at it’s original price) for $120. While weeding through the dresses, blouses and pants I started to do another math equation.

If I opened a store card, I would be increasing my overall credit limit. I could use the card for one purchase a month – or none – thus lowering my utilization. A utilization rate below 30% helps prove you aren’t a risky borrower and can increase your credit score. So, if my overall credit limit went from $5,000 to $8,000, and I continued to only spend about $1,200 on my cards each month, I could lower my utilization from about 25% to about 15%. Plus, establishing and using another line of credit responsibly would help improve my overall score.

The opportunity to improve my score, and maybe a little bit of the discount, convinced me to open up a store card — which now sits my hypothetical freezer.

The application process was painless and required I give certain personal information, like my address and social security number, to the cashier. Within a minute I’d been approved. Store cards are ideal for people trying to build their credit from scratch or anyone rebuilding a botched score.

Low scores get approved for store cards

You don’t need to be part of the 700-prime-score-club to get approval for store credit cards. In fact, banks approve much lower scores for store card than they would normally allow if you just walked into a local branch or applied directly for a bank credit card online.

The reason being, banks promise retailers a certain approval rate (perhaps people with a score of 550 or higher), which then requires the banks to approve customers they’d normally consider risky.

Opening a store card is an ideal way for someone with a lower credit score to begin rebuilding his or her credit.

Getting approval for the credit card increases a person’s credit limit thus driving down their utilization ratio as well as diversifying their types of credit. But it only helps if you use the card wisely – perhaps by simply tucking it away. If you do plan on using the card for affordable purchases,  it can still be used at any store – not just the one with the logo on the front.

Just beware: when you apply for a store credit card, there will be an inquiry on your credit report. If you want to see where you have a good chance of getting approved for a credit card but do not want to hurt your credit score, consider using a tool from CreditCards.com (you can visit the tool on their website by clicking this link). With this tool, a soft pull that doesn’t hurt your score is pulled and you get to find cards where you have higher approval odds. This might be a good stop before a store card.

Be careful about making purchases on a store card

Just because you have the card doesn’t mean you should be swiping it. Stores (and banks) will entice you to spend on their card by giving all sorts of promotional offers like sales, special discounts or reward points.

Don’t fall for these traps. Seriously. Seeing those promotional offers should set off alarm bells in your head – kind of like when you’re watching a horror movie and want to scream at that stupid character walking into a creepy, dark house.

Store cards have high rates, so if you get caught in a debt cycle it will not only hurt your credit score and history but also attack your wallet. Only use a store card if you’re able to pay a purchase off in full each month.

How you know your credit score is increasing

Not many people send snail mail these days, but banks still love direct mail. Once you start having a mailbox stuffed with credit card offers, you’ve been tapped into the “credit-worthy” group. The first round of mailers might be from sketchy-sounding companies, but it just means you’re on the rise.

Once your score hits a pleasing 680, you’ll be bombarded by offers from well-known credit card companies.

Know yourself and your limitations

Store cards are a simple way to increase a low credit score, but be honest with yourself before signing up. If you tend to easily succumb to sales, discount deals, and promotional offers then perhaps this will end up putting you in debt instead of improving your credit score.

Would you consider opening up a store card to help your credit score?

Erin Lowry
Erin Lowry |

Erin Lowry is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Erin at erin@magnifymoney.com

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Building Credit

What Makes a 700+ Credit Score?

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.


Three little numbers known as a credit score will determine a lot of your financial life. Credit scores help lenders assess your “risk factor” and unlike high-school girls, lenders aren’t interested in dealing with a risky bad boy. The lower your credit score, the more likely they think you are to default on a loan, make late payments or jet off to a foreign country and assume a new identity.

I first learned my credit score in a small, back-alley realtor office in New York City. My roommate and I were struggling to find a clean, safe, rodent-free apartment with an affordable price tag for two young twenty-somethings.

The realtor insisted I fork over $30 to run a credit report for my prospective landlord. After giving her my weekly food budget, I was informed I had a score in the 700s – which was apparently good enough for my landlord-to-be to deem me responsible.

At the time, I had no idea what the score meant or where it had come from.

The answer: through the diligent use of a credit card in order to establish credit history.

What goes into a credit score?

Fair Issac and Company (or FICO) – who owns the definition and scores credit – uses five different factors to assign you a credit score.

  • Payment history (35%): do you make payments on time? Missed payments can crush your credit score quickly

  • Amounts owed (30%): the more debt you have, the lower your score.  But even more important than the total amount you owe, is the amount you owe in relation to your total credit limit –which is called utilization.  If you max out every card you have, you will get punished

  • Length of credit history (15%): the longer you’ve had credit, the better

  • New credit (10%): this looks at how many new accounts you have opened, and many times you have applied for credit.

  • Types of credit used (10%): the more types of credit you have, the better.  So, someone who has successfully managed a car loan, a mortgage and a credit card would score better than someone who just managed a credit card successfully

What’s a good score?

The higher your score, the better the deals you can get from banks and lenders. FICO typically calculates scores between 300 and 850. You should strive for a 700+ credit score.

Why do I want a score above 700?

A score of 700 essentially puts you in the “prime” group and open up opportunities that aren’t available to other consumers including:

  • When you buy a home, you will get the best mortgage rates

  • When you buy a car, the 0% financing from manufacturers will be yours

  • When you apply for a credit card, all of the best bonus and introductory offers will be waiting for you

  • When you apply for auto insurance, you will be considered more responsible – and get better rates

  • When you apply for a job, you will easily pass screening that regularly includes credit scoring

People in Club Prime are diligent about paying on time, use less than 30% of their available credit (also called utilization) and have at least a three to five years of credit history. They also tend to have a good mix of credit instead of just credit cards or just student loans and don’t apply for lines of credit on a regular basis.

Why am I not “prime”?

There are two common reasons for why you may not have a credit score above 700.

  1. If you’ve shunned credit or are young and just entered the workforce then you don’t have enough history to have established a high credit score.
  2. If you’ve been using more than 30% of your utilization ratio, making late payments or missing your payments entirely, and applying for new forms of credit are all factors that can keep your credit score from moving into 700 range.

Check out 6 simple steps for improving your credit score.

Don’t be discouraged by a low score

If you’ve struggled with your financial situation, don’t be discouraged by a low credit score. They are fixable. It may not be easy at first, but taking simple, actionable steps you can begin rebuilding your score and eventually become a member of Club Prime.

Do you have a story to share about credit scores? Let us know in the comment section or email us at info@magnifymoney.com.

Erin Lowry
Erin Lowry |

Erin Lowry is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Erin at erin@magnifymoney.com

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Get A Pre-Approved Personal Loan


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