Illness, job loss, an accident and plain old overspending when money gets tight can do a number on your credit. Here's how to help your credit bounce back after a financial setback, no matter the reason.
1. Be patient
Fixing your finances and improving your credit takes time and patience.
"The time it takes to improve credit depends on a number of factors -- it could be two or three years for more serious situations, and less than a year for the smaller setbacks," says Bruce McClary, vice president of public relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "The way forward is a marathon and not a sprint."
2. Check your credit
Before you can improve your credit you need to see exactly what you're working wit, so get copies of your credit reports and take a close look at each of your credit account records.
Visit annualcreditreport.com to obtain a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major reporting agencies (Equifax, TransUnion and Experian).
"This helps you compare the reported account status for each debt that you owe with your own records, and allows you to start prioritizing how you will resolve any creditor issues," McClary says.
You'll also want to check your credit score -- get your free credit score at WisePiggy.com. Checking it -- and seeing it improve as you work on righting your financial setbacks -- can be a huge motivator.
3. Review and rework your budget
Think long and hard about what you're currently spending and what non-essentials you can cut out while you repair your finances.
"Review your income and expenses with an eye toward areas where there is room to focus on your two biggest priorities: paying debt and growing personal savings," McClary suggests.
4. Prioritize your payments
Paying your bills on time and really working to pay down your debt will improve your credit score.
"Successful recovery depends on how quickly collection accounts are paid off while other accounts remain in good standing with on-time payments," McClary says. "Once the collection accounts are resolved, it is the timely payment of open accounts that will help you reach full recovery."
5. Move fast if you are behind on payments
Late on some of your payments? Make some quick moves to avert a credit disaster.
"Fast action is what is required when there are past-due accounts," McClary advises. "If you have an open credit account that is a payment or two behind schedule, you'll want to make arrangements to prevent it from falling further behind and going to collection status. Preventing an account from charging-off will protect your credit rating from the most severe damage, and will also allow you to have access to an open line of credit that can help restore your credit rating in the months and years ahead."
6. Avoid the 'quick fix'
Don't be tempted by companies that charge big fees to help improve your credit. They can't. Only time and a good payment record will do that.
"Don't fall for 'miracle' solutions that promise instant debt relief and erasure of negative credit records, as those offers are simply scams that will leave you worse-off and with less money," McClary says.
7. Ask for help
If you are current on your credit card payments but struggling to reach that minimum payment each month, don't hesitate to reach out for help.
"Falling behind on minimum payments is a warning sign of more serious budget issues that deserve urgent attention. If you haven't fallen behind but think you might, it is the perfect time to reach out to creditors and explore more affordable debt repayment options that will allow you to keep accounts in good standing," McClary says. "This is also a good time to seek advice from nonprofit credit counseling agencies."
8. Be persistent
If it is just a matter of paying down debt, your credit may turn around faster than you think once you get your payments are on track again, explains Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, The Money Coach.
"Recognize that it takes time to rebuild your credit rating -- but probably not as much time as you might think," Khalfani-Cox says. "Just focus on paying your bills on time every month. That is the single best way to strengthen your credit."