Opening Credits

How to build a credit score with your first card


Should you use the card a little or a lot to ramp up your credit score?

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Dear Opening Credits,
I’m trying to build my credit. I just received a credit card for $300. What should I do to start building my credit score? My husband was told not to use it, and it will build a score by itself. I thought we would use it a little and pay the balance off before the due date. What’s the best way to build up my score?  — Marguerite



Dear Marguerite,
If the card was issued only to you, then I agree — only you should use it. As the account owner, you are responsible for all charges and payments. Treat it as the precious, personal thing that it is, because it will show up on your credit report — not anyone else’s. If the card was issued to you only, it will not appear on your husband’s credit file. If the card is a joint card — that is, you applied for the card together under both your names — then the account will show up on both credit reports.

So, now you have a tool to build your credit score. Here are the basics on what you need to know to wield it correctly.

  • Credit reporting.
    There are three credit reporting agencies — TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian — and each will maintain an ever updated record about you soon after you start to use the credit card. Your file will include such data as the credit card issuer, its ownership status, your credit limit and balance, and your payment pattern.
  • Credit scoring. Most important to your credit score is your payment history and what you owe in relation to the amount the issuer has allowed you to charge. These actions are so critical because they’re the weightiest factors in a FICO score. This commonly used risk score is a numerical rating of your credit behavior. You’ll start out on the low end of 300, and if you borrow responsibly by paying your bills on time and in full, it will steadily climb. The top FICO score is 850. To achieve that figure (or close to it, as scores greater than the mid-700s are considered excellent), you’ll have to use multiple forms of credit this way over several years. It can be done, though, and you’re in a perfect place to begin.
  • Strategic charging. Choose one small, regular expense to charge. Let’s say it’s a gym membership of $59 a month. Have that amount automatically withdrawn from your checking account and sent to the credit card company a week before your payment is due to avoid any unnecessary delays. Keep an eye on your statements, making sure all is well.

In six months, you’ll have half a year’s worth of perfect payments on your file. At that point, check your scores at They cost about $20 per report, so if you want to save some cash, one is sufficient. Your score should be above where it was before you started using the card.

Since you’ll have established a respectable, though limited, history, call the issuer and request an increased credit line. When you have greater borrowing power, you may use the card for additional purchases. Always follow the principle of never missing a payment or charging more than you can repay in a month or two. Keep this up until you have at least a year’s worth of this pattern recorded. Then check your score again. I guarantee you will see considerable progress!

Eventually you can add another credit card to your wallet, and the higher your credit score is, the better the account you can get. Rewards cards allow you to earn points you can redeem for cash, travel, gift cards and other goodies as you charge. By not carrying over any debt from month to month, you’ll continue to build your credit score and save on the interest charges that are added if you carry a balance.

As easy-breezy as all this sounds, though, beware. It isn’t. You will be tempted to overcharge. A month can go by and you may not have all or even part of the payment in the bank. Fraud can occur, and if you don’t catch it, unauthorized charges can linger, negatively affecting your scores until you fix the problem. You can overcome these obstacles by paying close and careful attention to the way you charge and manage your account.

Heed these warnings, Marguerite. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

See related: FICO’s 5 factors: The components of a FICO credit score


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