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How You Can Have a Good FICO Score Just One Year After Opening a Credit Card

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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When I moved to the U.S. from my hometown of Hangzhou, in China, to pursue my undergraduate degree, the thought of establishing a credit history wasn’t even on my radar. I was, after all, an international student from China, where day-to-day credit card use had only recently caught on.

It wasn’t until I returned to the U.S. a few years later to pursue my master’s degree in Chicago that I realized I’d need to establish credit if I planned to launch my career in the States.

Just one year after I opened the card, I already had a solid FICO score – 720, to be exact. This score landed me safely in the “good” credit range, meaning I probably would not have trouble getting approved for new credit. I still had work to do if I wanted to get into the “very good” credit category, which starts at 740. But as a credit card newbie, I was not disappointed in my progress. 

Here’s how I did it.

I selected the right card for my needs

I wish I could say I diligently researched credit cards to choose the best offer and best terms, but honestly, I just got lucky.

Shortly before graduate school started, I visited friends in Iowa. When we were about to split the bill after dinner at a Japanese restaurant, I noticed that all my friends had a Discover card with a shimmering pink or blue cover. The Discover it® Student Cash Back was known for its high approval rate for student applicants, and had been popular among international students.

I thought, “Oh, maybe I should get this one, too.”

One of the friends sent me a referral link that very night. I applied and got approved quickly. We both received a $50 cash-back bonus after I made my first purchase — an iPhone — using the card through Discover’s special rewards program. I even received 5% cash back from the purchase.

Besides imposing no annual fee, the card had other perks, such as rewarding me with a $20 statement credit when I reported a good GPA (up to five consecutive years), letting me earn 5% cash back on purchases in rotating categories and matching the cashback bonus I earned over the first 12 months with my account. For me, it was a great starter card, but there are plenty of other options out there.

Check out our guide on the best credit cards for students.

I also could have explored other options of establishing credit, like opening a secured card, for example, which would have been a smart option if I hadn’t been able to qualify for the Discover it student card.

I never missed a payment

Despite my very limited financial literacy at the time, I attribute my strong credit score to the old, deeply ingrained Chinese mentality about saving and not owing.

I never missed payments, and I always paid off my balance in full each month, instead of just making the minimum payment. I didn’t want to pay a penny of interest.

Credit cards carry high interest rates across the board, but student credit cards generally have some of the highest APRs. This is because lenders see students like me — consumers without much credit history — to be risky borrowers, and they charge a higher interest rate to offset that risk.

Best Student Credit Cards June 2019

It wasn’t until much later that I learned payment history is critical to good credit. In fact, it is the biggest factor there is, accounting for 35% of my FICO score.

A Guide to Getting Your Free Credit Score

I was careful not to use too much of my available credit

My friends with more experience advised me to use as little of my available credit as possible. They warned me that overuse had hurt their credit scores in the past. This didn’t much sense to me, but I followed their advice, for the most part diligently.

I later learned this is almost as important as paying bills on time each month. Your utilization rate is another major factor in your FICO score. Credit experts urge cardholders to keep their credit utilization ratio below 30%. The lower, the better.

That means if you have three credit cards with a total available limit of $10,000, you should try to never carry a total balance exceeding $3,000, and you really should aim for much lower than that.

A Guide to Build and Maintain Healthy Credit

I beefed up my score with on-time rent payments

Keeping in mind the importance of not maxing out my credit card, I never considered paying my rent with the card. In fact, some landlords charge credit card fees for tenants who try to pay with plastic.

But I did find a way to establish credit by paying rent using my checking account.

I paid rent to my Chicago landlord through RentPayment, an online service. RentPayment gave me the option of having my payments reported to TransUnion, one of the three major credit-reporting agencies (the other two are Experian and Equifax). Because I knew I’d always pay bills on time, I signed up for the program.

This likely helped me improve my credit mix, another key factor influencing a credit score. The more types of accounts you show on your report, the better your score can be — if you make all your payments on time.

Yes, I made mistakes. This was my biggest one

My first foray into the world of credit wasn’t completely blip-free.

The only thing that hurt my credit, besides my short credit history, was that I had tried signing up for a Chase credit card, along with other ways to finance my iPhone, just a few days before I applied for my Discover card.

None of the other banks approved my applications, and my score went down at the very beginning, due to the number of “hard inquiries” against my credit report. Hard inquiries occur when lenders check your credit report before they make decisions regarding your application. Having too many inquiries in a short period of time can result in a ding to your credit score.

I’ve learned my lesson, though, and I’ll be cautious in the future when it comes to applying for a lot of credit in a short time period. Overall, it should be noted that you should not be afraid to apply for new credit — even when hard inquiries do hurt your score in the short term, it typically isn’t disastrous, and your score should recover fairly quickly as long as you are a responsible user of credit. Having more available credit can also help your utilization rate — as long as you don’t increase your charges, of course.

You can also check to see if you have prequalifed for any credit cards without triggering a hard inquiry.

If you’re new to the world of credit cards, consider taking the steps I outlined above, and you, too, may have a healthy credit score before you know it.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Shen Lu
Shen Lu |

Shen Lu is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Shen Lu at [email protected]

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Get A Pre-Approved Personal Loan

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Won’t impact your credit score

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Credit Cards, Featured, Pay Down My Debt

Guide to Credit Counseling: 7 Key Questions to Ask

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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If you have little knowledge on the topic of personal finance and are struggling with your own money issues, you might want to think about getting credit counseling.

Credit counselors can help you set a budget and advise you on how to manage your debt, which can include credit card debt, student loan debt and even housing debt.

Reputable credit counseling organizations have certified counselors who are trained in consumer credit, budgeting, and money and debt management. Credit counselors will work with you to come up with an individualized plan to address any money problems you may have. This can be done in person, over the phone or online.

Seeking credit counseling is typically voluntary but can be required when filing for bankruptcy. In this guide, we’ll answer some key questions you might have about credit counseling and whether it’s right for you.

How do you find a credit counselor?

Before settling on a credit counseling organization, do your homework to make sure they are not only reputable but will also be the most helpful for your particular financial circumstances. Check with your state’s attorney general and consumer protection agency to see if there have been any complaints filed against the organization.

Ensure that the organization is accredited and certified. Check to see if they are members of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Financial Counseling Association of America. Most non-profit credit counseling agencies are associated with these organizations.

When researching agencies, first ask what information or educational materials they provide for free. Organizations that charge for information are typically more interested in their bottom line than in helping you. Also, ask about the types of services they offer. Limited services can be a red flag. The fewer services they offer, the fewer solutions they may provide for you.

You should also attempt to understand the organization’s fee system — not only how much services will cost but also how employees are paid. If employees make more based on the number of services you receive, look for another credit counseling organization.

MagnifyMoney has come up with a list of some of the best credit counseling options, which is a great place to start. If you are looking for credit counseling as a pre-bankruptcy measure, the U.S. Trustee Program has a list of approved credit counseling agencies that can provide pre-bankruptcy counseling.

How much does credit counseling cost?

Credit counseling can involve both start-up and monthly maintenance costs. The Department of Justice says that $50 per month is a reasonable fee. Further, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) suggests that a start-up fee should not exceed $75 and monthly maintenance fees should not be more than $50 per month.

Credit counseling agencies may offer fee waivers or reductions, depending on your income levels. Where credit counseling is required, the DOJ says that, if household income is less than 150% of the current poverty line, the client is entitled to a fee waiver or reduction.

Other regulations, such as when fees can be collected and circumstances that would warrant a fee reduction or waiver, may also be outlined by your state.

How long does credit counseling last?

While the length of your credit counseling session depends on the complexity of your financial problems, sessions typically last 60 minutes. After the initial session, credit counselors will follow up to ensure you understand the actions you need to take and that you have been able to get started on the plan they developed. Another session may be necessary depending on how your financial situation unfolds following the first session.

What do you accomplish with credit counseling?

According to the NFCC, reputable counseling involves three things. First, there must be a review of a client’s current financial situation. You cannot move forward unless you know from where you are starting. Second, there should be an analysis of the factors that contributed to the client’s bad financial situation. You don’t want bad habits to undermine your progress. Lastly, there must be a plan to address the situation without incurring negative amortization of debt. Negative amortization occurs when the amount of debt you have increases because you aren’t paying enough to cover the interest, even though you are making payments.

Understanding these three factors of good credit counseling gives you a place to start in improving your financial situation.

What is the difference between credit counseling and debt management programs?

A debt management plan is just one solution a credit counselor may recommend based on your financial situation. Having a debt management plan is not the same as credit counseling.

A debt management plan involves the credit counseling organization acting as an intermediary between you and your creditors. Each month you will deposit an agreed upon amount of money to your credit counseling agency, which they will, in turn, apply it to your debts.

The credit counseling agency works with your creditors to determine how the amount will be applied each month, and negotiates interest rates and any fee waivers. It’s important to call your creditors directly to check whether they are open to negotiating interest rates or offering waivers for fees. In some cases, a credit counseling firm may promise to negotiate those items for you but be stonewalled when they discover a creditor isn’t even open to the discussion.

Before agreeing to a debt management plan, make sure you understand any fees associated and any choices you might be giving up. For example, some debt management plans may require you to give up opening up new lines of credit for a specified period of time. Remember that a debt management plan is just one of many solutions a credit counselor may advise you to consider.

How does credit counseling impact your credit score?

Not directly. While the fact you are in credit counseling may show up on a credit report, that does not affect your credit score. The actions you take as a result of credit counseling, however, can impact your score.

For example, if you don’t choose a reputable credit counseling agency, the agency may submit a payment on your behalf late to your creditors. So even though you submitted your payment on time to the credit counseling agency, your score may still be dinged. This is just one reason why it’s important to make sure you use a reputable credit counseling agency.

Who should consider credit counseling, and when?

While credit counseling is sometimes required, such as in instances of bankruptcy, you always have an ability to seek credit counseling.

Boston-based Bankruptcy attorney Julie Franklin explains, “For bankruptcy purposes, there are two course requirements — a debtor must complete the first credit counseling course prior to filing and obtain a certificate that is filed with the court in their initial bankruptcy petition documents. Post bankruptcy filing, the debtor is required to take a second course, and upon completion, the certificate that is issued must be filed with the court in order for the debtor to obtain an order of discharge.”

Anyone struggling with their personal finances can consider credit counseling as an option. Franklin also notes that “the first credit counseling course is a tool for debtors, as it compels the individual taking the course to closely examine the household assets, income, liabilities and spending habits to determine if there’s a way to save the debtor from having to file bankruptcy.”

If you are considering bankruptcy, you will have to attend some credit counseling anyhow, but doing so could also help you avoid filing for bankruptcy at all. Keep in mind that filing for bankruptcy will always have a significant effect on your credit score, and can hurt your changes for getting loans or new credit for years to come. If you can avoid it, you probably should.

Voluntary credit counseling might not help if you are already being sued to have a debt collected. However, you may be able to negotiate terms with the debt collector that result in a withdrawal of the suit if you agree to enroll in credit counseling and possibly a debt management program. Not all creditors will agree to such terms, but it is possible.

Bottom line

Many people run into trouble with their finances, whether they have too much credit card debt, are struggling to make their housing payments or just find general budgeting to be a challenge. Some people are dealing with more serious issues, such as potential bankruptcy. There are credit counselors available to help you with any difficult financial situation you may be facing. The most important thing is to ensure you work with a reputable credit counseling agency, so do your research first. A good credit counselor can help you get on the road to financial health, but working with a bad one can lead to more problems than you already have.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Liz Stapleton
Liz Stapleton |

Liz Stapleton is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Liz here

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Credit Cards, Identity Theft Protection

When Banks Can Refuse to Refund Fraudulent Debit Card Charges

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

ATM

Typically, debit cards that are used as “credit” are offered the same protections as credit cards. This means that if you use your debit card in a store and choose “credit” instead of entering your PIN number, you should receive the same protections as if you used an actual credit card. However, we do encourage you to double check the fine print your bank provides on this matter before assuming your debit card will receive those protections.

But here’s a scenario where your debit card is riskier than your credit card. If you withdrawal money at an ATM (or any store doing cash back) using your PIN number, you have additional risk. If someone steals your pin number with a skimming device at an ATM, then he has direct access to your money. This isn’t like credit card fraud with obnoxious charges you need to dispute. This is your hard-earned cash being taken directly out of your checking account. And if you aren’t careful, you might not be able to recoup your losses.

So, what can you expect if you are a victim of debit card fraud?

Timeline for Being Able to Get Your Money Back

If you are a victim of debit card fraud, you are responsible for the following:

  • $0 if you report the loss or fraud immediately and the card has not been used,
  • Up to $50 if you notify your bank within 48 hours of your lost or stolen card,
  • Up to $500 if you notify the bank with 48 hours and 60 days of your lost or stolen card, and
  • All of the fraudulent charges if you don’t notify the bank until after 60 days.

It’s important you don’t delay in reporting the fraud to your bank if you want to be able to get all of your money back. If you were the victim of theft because the crook skimmed your info and used your PIN, then you may be on the hook for the $50 because you couldn’t report to the bank before the card was used. You didn’t know it had happened until the strange transaction showed up!

It may seem unfair to be responsible for charges that you did not actually charge yourself, but to avoid that scenario and protect yourself, consider taking the following precautionary actions.

What You Can Do To Protect Yourself

To protect yourself against debit card fraud, you should do the following:

  • Only use an ATM inside a bank (this will lesson the likelihood that a scanner is on an ATM)
  • Cover your hand when you type your pin into an ATM (to protect yourself against any devices attached to the ATM from getting your PIN)
  • Set up text alerts for each transaction over $0.01 on your card. This way you’ll be immediately alerted if a bogus charge is made
  • Monitor your bank on a regular basis (so you can give notice of fraud immediately)
  • Report stolen funds immediately (so you’re not responsible for the charges)
  • Check-in annually with your bank as to the policies regarding debit card theft (know whether your debit card is specifically protected and to what extent)

While you can notify the bank by phone, it is best to get everything in writing. For purposes of the time requirement, notice is considered given when you put the letter in the mail. It’s even better if you send the mail certified. You can, of course, send notice by mail and call. Whatever you do, keep a record of your communications you have with the bank. This will put you in the best position if you have to escalate your problem.

Remember that if you take the actions listed above, you will be more protected than you otherwise would. Even if you didn’t do anything wrong, like in the example above, you can still find yourself stuck with fraud charges that your bank won’t reverse. These specific steps will help you protect yourself, even when you’re not at fault. This is particularly important if you use your debit card frequently.

Don’t want to use a credit card? Learn how to survive with just debit cards here. 

Debit vs. Credit: How to Decide

Using a debit card forces you to keep your spending in check because you cannot spend more than you have in the bank. However, it may be riskier than using a credit card for the reasons described above. Discover, for example, now offers a Freeze It® on/off switch for your account. If you’re concerned because you’ve lost your card, you can temporarily freeze your account and Discover will not authorize new purchases, cash advances or balance transfers.

Discover it® Balance Transfer

Intro BT APR

0% for 18 months

Balance Transfer Fee

3% intro balance transfer fee, up to 5% fee on future balance transfers (see terms)*

Regular APR

14.24% - 25.24% Variable

APPLY NOW Secured

on Discover Bank’s secure website

Rates & Fees

If you’re not sure which is best for you, ask yourself what do you value more – your spending being limited or the additional protections from fraud. If you can control your spending, then you may be better off with a credit card. If you are a spender, however, then take the additional steps listed above to make sure you fully understand your specific liability in the event of debit card fraud. If you feel your bank is behaving unethically and should be refunding you, then reach out to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to file a complaint.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Natalie Bacon
Natalie Bacon |

Natalie Bacon is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Natalie at [email protected]

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