It's rare to find someone who knowingly damaged their credit. Most of the time, a mistake or two leads to one problem that leads to another, and things begin to snowball into a much bigger issue. Unfortunately, it's a whole lot easier to hurt your credit than it is to fix it, but it's possible to takes steps to repair your credit on your own. As long as you don't expect miracles overnight, a little research, discipline, and effort can put you back on the right track.
Don't Make Things Worse
It seems obvious, but it's worth repeating: if you're starting to get buried in credit card debt, the worst things you can do are to ignore it or keep adding to it. Cut yourself off from using cards and, if you find you're having trouble making payments, talk to your creditor about payment options. It's easier and less expensive for everyone if you can find a way to handle problems before they get out of control, so creditors will usually work with you to make reasonable accommodations. Whatever they agree to, get it in writing so you have some proof down the road if there's a dispute about the terms or if the account gets reported incorrectly to a credit bureau.
Know Where You Stand
Now that you've made sure you're not going to add to your problems, before you do anything else with your credit, it's important for you to know what you're dealing with. You wouldn't try fixing a car without knowing what's broken, and your credit profile is no different. There are three major credit bureaus in the US--Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion--and each one has a file on you. Chances are much of their information is pretty similar, but it's entirely possible that mistakes at one or more agencies are painting an inaccurate picture of your creditworthiness.
First, the bad news: finding out what's in each agency's portfolio can get confusing and expensive. There are plenty of companies advertising all over the Internet and TV to help you access and track your credit information, but these services can have high or hidden fees and often promise more than they can deliver. You could also order the information directly from the credit bureaus, but they're going to charge you too.
The good news is you're allowed to get a free copy of each of your credit reports once a year. This service is only available through AnnualCreditReport.com, so beware of imposter sites. A common recommendation among experts is to space out your requests over several months, that way you can work on problems you spot in the first one, then see if they're getting cleared up later. For example, if you see a mistake on the Experian report you order in January and get it fixed by March, you'd be able to see if it's still getting reported to TransUnion when you order that report in August.
You also have another option for getting a free copy of your credit report if you've recently been denied credit or had a background check done. Your credit denial notice or background check paperwork will have information on what company's information was used and tell you how to get a free copy of it. Plus, you're still entitled to your freebie from that bureau from AnnualCreditReport.com.
One downside to the free reports: they won't include your credit score. That's one thing you'll need to pay for.
Look for Mistakes
So you've got the credit report. Now what? With a free report, you've got a detailed history of your opened and closed accounts, as well as a look at recent inquiries into your credit history. If you paid for a report, you'll also see your FICO credit score, which ranges from 300 to 850 (higher is better) and is what you're ultimately trying to improve.
You'll want to examine each of the accounts listed, while considering the following questions:
If you find mistakes, you're not alone. A Federal Trade Commission study found that about a quarter of consumers reported potentially material errors on their credit reports and that these kinds of errors mean 5% of consumers are probably paying too much for things like loans and insurance.
Keep in mind that anything the credit company has in their file on you has to be verifiable, so you can use that to your advantage if one of the negative entries in your report is from a company that no longer exists. Even when information can be verified, it needs to be accurate, so be sure to report anything that's inaccurate. Viewing your report online, you should be able to click on a link to report an error or you can find separate contact information on how to dispute something with the bureau.
Start the Clean-up Process
In most cases, you didn't destroy your credit in a week, so don't think that it will get fixed any faster. Patience is an important part of getting your FICO score back up, as is being smart about what debt you tackle in what order. Things like mortgages and student loans are generally low-interest payments you'll be making every month for a long time, so it's less important that you pay them off early, at least in the context of FICO scores.
Revolving credit with high interest like credit cards, however, is the kind of thing that should be paid off as quickly as possible. Not only does it mean you're spending less money in interest payments, but it improves the debt-utilization rate that factors into your credit score. In other words, the less credit you use compared to the amount of credit you're given looks better in FICO terms.
Just as important as committing to getting your debt down is committing to make your payments on time. A late payment or two might not have a big effect on someone with a high credit score, but little dings like that will keep low scores from climbing very fast. If you're worried about forgetting a payment, consider enrolling in electronic auto-pay through your bank or the lender.
Beware of Quick Fixes
Like the snake oil salesmen of bygone eras, there is no shortage of companies today promising to fix all your credit problems in record time. While there are legitimate credit counselors out there, many more are companies looking to take advantage of consumers by merely providing the above steps you can do yourself for free or at a very low cost.
Some of the worst companies won't even take legitimate steps to help you, but instead just dispute all the accounts listed in your credit reports. The accounts are pulled off the reports temporarily while they're investigated and your credit looks great for a couple of months. Once the accounts are validated, however, you end up right back where you started, minus whatever you paid the fake credit repair company.
Just like you got yourself into debt, you can get yourself out of it as well. Once you know where to start and what to focus on, it should seem a lot more manageable. If it still seems overwhelming or if it's gotten too far out of control, consider talking to a lawyer who focuses on consumer credit law.