Maintaining a good credit score can be especially difficult during times of financial uncertainty. But there are steps you can take to minimize the impact when circumstances take a turn for the worse.
In this article, I’ll look at seven ways to keep your credit score healthy during an unexpected crisis.
How to Maintain a Healthy Credit Score During a Crisis
Of course, your first priority during a crisis is making sure you have food and other essentials for yourself and your household. If those needs are met, then you can prioritize the rest of your spending, communicate with your creditors and try to make at least minimum payments on time.
Your payment history and amount owed are the key factors that account for around two-thirds of your credit score. If you can continue paying bills on time each month, you’ll be protecting 35% of that score. Another 30% comes from the amount of available credit you’re using.
Keeping these factors in mind, follow these seven tips to maintain a healthy credit score during a time of financial turbulence:
- Look at Your Budget and Prioritize Your Bills
- Make a Plan and Stick to It
- Make Minimum Payments on Time
- Contact Your Lenders Early
- Consider a Balance Transfer
- Check Your Credit Report Regularly
- Consider Credit Counseling
1. Look at Your Budget and Prioritize Your Bills
In order to keep a healthy credit score, you’ll need to continue making your most important payments on time. During a crisis, that probably means any nonessential spending will have to stop.
“Basically, you have to decide what you save and what you don’t,” says money expert Clark Howard. “With your bills, you’re going to have to make very tough decisions.”
Begin by looking at your monthly budget. If you aren’t sure where to start, use this guide to decide which bills to pay first. Your priorities should be food and housing first, then transportation and utilities. Unsecured debt is the lowest priority.
Once you’ve determined what your essential payments are, begin eliminating or reducing expenses in other categories. Here are a few examples of easy ways to cut down on monthly spending:
- Cancel any recurring subscriptions or memberships that aren’t absolutely essential.
- Switch to a cheaper phone and/or internet service provider to reduce your monthly bills.
- Take advantage of coupons, rebates and discounts for groceries and other essential shopping.
2. Make a Plan and Stick to It
Maintaining a healthy credit score is the result of consistent good practices. That means it’s especially important to stay on track with payments.
If you’re new to following a strict budget, you can use the CLARK Method to create one now. Following a budget and keeping track of your spending are two great ways to avoid overspending and stick to your plan. You can also budget with a cash envelope system to keep yourself on track.
Making small changes to your spending habits and watching your spending closely will help you ensure that important payments can still be made during a crisis. In turn, you’ll be able to maintain a healthy credit score even during a time of financial hardship.
3. Make Minimum Payments on Time
As I mentioned earlier in this article, the two biggest factors affecting your credit score are the amount owed and on-time payments. While you may not be able to reduce the amount that you owe during a crisis, you can still keep a healthy credit score by making payments on time.
“Late pays stay with you for years,” Clark cautions. “But using too much available credit heals very quickly as your financial situation improves and you can pay down balances.”
Your minimum payments should be a top priority during a time of financial hardship. Making payments on time will have a lasting impact on your credit score, and it will put you in a great place to begin raising your score again after the crisis.
4. Contact Your Lenders Early
If you find that you aren’t going to be able to pay the minimum amount due on time, it’s important that you contact your creditors as soon as possible.
“As someone fights against more bills than available money, the first priority is to continue to be listed as current with your creditors,” says Clark. “You either need to be able to pay at least minimums on time or negotiate a new payment plan with a creditor.”
Take the time and make that phone call so your creditors are aware of the situation and understand that you’re making an effort to stay current. You may be able to agree on a new due date, minimum payment amount or another arrangement to ensure you don’t fall behind in the eyes of the credit bureaus.
If you’re able to come to an agreement with your creditors, be sure to verify they will report your account as “on-time” to the credit bureaus. Clark recommends that you get a copy of this negotiation in writing (whether it’s an email or chat record) just in case you’re still reported as delinquent.
5. Consider a Balance Transfer
If you already have good credit and are working on paying off debt, you may want to consider a balance transfer to consolidate debts and get a lower interest rate. During a crisis, you might also end up charging more to credit cards than usual. A welcome bonus, lower interest rate or additional rewards could be helpful in the long run.
To get started, you’ll need to know your current balances and interest rates. From there, you’ll need to look for cards that offer favorable terms for a balance transfer. Once you’ve read the details, applied for the card and transferred your balance, just be sure to pay off the debt as soon as possible.
For more details on each of these steps, check out our guide on how to pay off debt with a credit card balance transfer.
6. Check Your Credit Report Regularly
To make sure you’re maintaining a healthy credit score, be sure to check your credit report regularly.
Once a year, you can get free credit reports from Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. The onset of a financial crisis is a great time to check those reports to see where you stand and learn where you can make improvements. Also be sure to check for any mistakes. If you find any, address them as soon as possible so that they don’t weigh down your score.
To get started, choose one of these five ways to get your free credit score. You can also use a tool like Credit Karma to help you keep track of both positive and negative changes to your score as you navigate the troubled waters.
7. Consider Credit Counseling
If you find that you’re going to be missing payments even after budgeting and planning to the best of your ability, it may be time to consider talking to an expert.
Getting guidance for your individual situation can be extremely valuable especially if you aren’t sure what your options are. Financial counselors may also be able to help you make a plan for your investments, savings and retirement accounts during a crisis.
To get in touch with an expert, search for credit counselors in your area. For general questions, feel free to reach out to our volunteers in the Consumer Action Center.
During a crisis, your priority should be the absolute essentials for survival, including food, housing, medicine, and the like. Unfortunately, that does mean that your credit score may suffer temporarily. Still, you can minimize the negative impact by keeping up good habits.
Be sure to look at your budget and figure out your essential spending first. Once you’ve made a plan, follow it by tracking your spending and making minimum payments on time.
Don’t forget to contact your lenders early if you’re going to be short or late on a payment. Check on your credit score regularly, and if you need additional help, consider a balance transfer or credit counseling.
How do you maintain a healthy credit score? Let us know in the comments below!
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