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By Kali Hawlk / Trulia
July 30, 2015
Jetta Productions—Getty Images

Although we’re constantly hearing about how much student loan and credit card debt we collectively carry, there are a few of us who don’t have any loans to our names or balances on our cards. Some people even avoid credit cards altogether, assuming it’s better to be completely free of financial products that could potentially lead to trouble.

That’s not a bad way of thinking, but it’s not accurate to say that avoiding credit is better than carrying a dinged-up score. In fact, if you ever face the decision to finance a major purchase (such as when you fill out a mortgage application to buy a home) or need to use your score to prove your ability to pay a monthly bill (like signing the lease on an apartment or setting up some utilities) having no credit at all may causemore problems than having a bad credit score.

What’s wrong with no credit?

When you don’t have any credit, it means you haven’t done anything to establish a credit history. That means you haven’t taken out any loans or lines of credit — again, a good thing considering that means you have no debt either!

But having no credit can hamstring you if you’re looking to get a car loan or a mortgage. A bank or other lender has nothing to go on when evaluating whether you’re likely to pay back the money you borrow. There’s no history to analyze, which turns you into a large question mark for them. Essentially, they’ll need to guess at how likely you are to repay the loan.

Most lenders simply don’t want to do a lot of guesswork when it comes to approving large financing decisions like mortgages.

Bad credit, on the other hand, does give the financial institution considering the loan something to work with — it provides them with information about your habits. Granted, it can show a lender that the borrower is more of a liability, which means that applicant will likely receive a less favorable interest rate. They may pay more in interest over the lifetime of their loan, but they can still receive approval.

When considering this from the perspective of getting approved for a loan, it may be worse to have zero credit at all.

How to responsibly build a (good!) credit history

It’s smart to plan ahead if you know you don’t have a credit history (or if you have a very short history). Give yourself some time to build something good!

Start by taking out a credit card at your bank. This will make it easy to tie your new card to your checking account, so you can view everything in one place and get in the habit of paying off your balances.

Use your credit card consistently over time — and always make sure you’re paying off whatever purchases you put on the card, on time and in full. That being said, don’t use up all your available credit each month (even if you’re paying it all off). Spending up to your credit limit will impact your debt-to-credit utilization ratio, which can hurt your credit score.

You can also become an authorized user on someone else’s credit card if you don’t want your own — but be careful. If that person fails to manage their own credit wisely, yours could be negatively impacted too.

Repairing the damage from a bad credit score

All this being said, a bad credit score isn’t ideal. Bad credit can also hurt in the form of increased costs over the lifetime of a loan — if you’re able to secure one in the first place.

You can check your credit by pulling your report for free, once a year. When it arrives, check it for errors and contact any or all of the three credit bureaus if you find a mistake. If everything looks good, move to step two: Get your credit score by going to a site like Credit Karma or Credit.com.

Is your credit in rough shape? Start repairing the damage by taking the following actions:

  • Make all loan and credit card payments on time and in full.
  • Don’t close old accounts — doing so can affect the average age of your credit history, and the longer you have established lines of credit, the better for your overall score.
  • Keep a low debt-to-credit utilization ratio.
  • Don’t open lots of new accounts at once or incur multiple new hard inquiries on your credit over the span of a few weeks.

It takes some time to improve bad credit, but it’ll be worth the effort. Having a good credit score — and some credit history! — will go a long way to helping you secure a loan at the best interest rate available.

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