Matt About Money

Want a rewards card? Clean up credit first


A young man wants a rewards credit card for his new job, but his credit history is sketchy, which may also impact his new career

The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date; however, some of our partner offers may have expired. Please review our list of best credit cards, or use our CardMatch™ tool to find cards matched to your needs.

Dear Opening Credits,
I was recently approached by an independent business owner who is about to retire. He consults in railroad cases as an expert witness and does quit well, in fact, he is the main guy used in the United States and Canada. He has approached me about working in his business and taking it over in 5 years. I would be subcontracted to him under a written contract. The question I have is that my personal credit history is not all that great at the present time. What would be the best card to go for when starting up my business to cover my travel expense and items of that nature?  — Dan 

Dear Dan,
What a wonderful career opportunity! You’ve reached the right person to ask this particular question. I’ve had the pleasure of serving as an expert witness and testified about the devastating effects of a bad credit report.

Not all employers check credit reports when considering a person for a position, but some do, especially if the information they can glean from them is pertinent. In the case you described, it would be. As an expert witness, you’ll need to be perceived as a responsible person with a proven ability to manage his finances. Therefore, a consumer credit report that shows a long list of overdue accounts, monitory judgments, bankruptcies or tax liens won’t be terribly impressive.

So what’s going on, Dan? Who do you owe and why is your credit so bad? Those are questions you need to ask and answer. After you do, you’ll need to deal with those matters so your report indicates that you’ve done what it takes to mend the damage. Here’s your step-by-step plan:

  1. Obtain copies of your credit reports. You can do this free of charge once a year from each of the big three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) from With them, you can identify all the areas that you need to work on. For example, if you have an outstanding debt with a collection agency, that’s going to stand out to someone looking at it, so circle or highlight it. Go through the reports carefully and make note of everything that doesn’t look perfect.
  2. On a separate sheet of paper, prioritize each issue. Some are going to be worse than others, and those that are more recent, severe and frequent will need your immediate attention. For example, if you owe a monitory judgment of $5,000 that just went into effect, that will be at the top and a dentist bill of $100 that landed in a collection agency five years ago will be at the bottom.
  3. Tackle the problems. Working your way down the list, pay off the worst, latest and largest liabilities first. It won’t erase the past, but a satisfied debt always looks better than an outstanding one. Mind those that are nearing the end of their time on a credit file, though. Most negative information may only be reported for seven years. If it’s about to fall off, you might want to let it do so naturally. Be aware, too, that there is a statute of limitations on collections for unsecured debt. Check the statute for your state. If the collector can still sue you for the debt, make sure you have the money to pay or wait until the time frame has run before letting them know you exist.
  4. Establish a good credit history. While you’re working hard to rectify the past, charge responsibly so you can re-establish a positive payment pattern. If you don’t have an active account, you can wait until you’ve cleared up some of the problems or get one now (a secured credit card is a great place to start again). Buy a few things with it and pay your bill on time and in full. Just a year of doing so will help your report tremendously. When your credit score is higher, get another credit card account, but this time one that that offers travel rewards and a high credit limit so you can book flights and hotels with ease.

Whatever is going with your credit, you’ll be Ok if you deal with it in such a systematic fashion. I solemnly swear to it.

See related:6 myths about credit report checks by employers


Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

What’s up next?

In Matt About Money

Steps to build good credit with your first credit card

Whether you are a U.S. national or not, you need to follow the same steps to building good credit by responsible use of your first credit card

See more stories
Credit Card Rate Report Updated: November 25th, 2020
Cash Back

Questions or comments?

Contact us

Editorial corrections policies

Learn more