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Credit is a valuable commodity. Having the ability to borrow funds enables us to obtain things we would otherwise have to save years to afford: homes, cars, a college education. Credit is an important financial tool, but it can also lead people into debt far beyond their ability to repay. That is why learning how to use credit wisely is one of the most valuable financial skills anyone can learn.
Before creditors lend money, they need to be assured that the funds will be repaid — in other words, is the prospective borrower creditworthy? To find out, they ask for various types of information:*
Lenders will look at what you earn and your regular expenses, such as rent, utilities, food, and other ongoing items. The amount left tells them whether you can afford to take on additional debt.
Do you have assets that can serve as collateral? Lenders will look for things like bank accounts and valuable items such as a house, if you own one.
How do you manage debt? If you have credit cards or have borrowed money before, you have a history that indicates to prospective lenders whether you are creditworthy by revealing details about the amount of debt you already have, how many credit cards you have, and whether you make payments on time.
It’s easy to qualify for credit if you have a good history, but what if you have never used credit before? This is a common problem for people who have just started working, people who always pay in cash, or people who have not had assets or accounts in their own names. For people in these categories, the first step is to establish a credit history.
*Creditors obtain much of this information from your credit report, a computerized profile of your borrowing, charging, and repayment activities. For further information on credit reports, see Understanding & Improving Your Credit Score, a brochure published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
You can apply for a bank loan secured by the funds you have on deposit or by items you own, such as a car. You can ask a friend or relative who has good credit to cosign a loan, which means that he or she shares the liability for the loan with you. You can also apply for department store and gasoline credit cards, which generally are easier to obtain than regular credit cards.
Before you apply for any credit, however, make sure you understand the terms. For example, how long is the grace period — the time you have to pay the current balance in full before finance charges are incurred? Is there an annual fee, or other fees, associated with the credit? If you believe that you will carry a balance, you need to know how finance charges are calculated.
Patience is important. It takes time to establish credit, to build a record of consistency in making payments that demonstrates your creditworthiness. And it is much better to go slowly and assemble a strong credit record than to apply for too many credit cards or a loan that is larger than you can handle.
Start slow, be cautious, keep track of your overall debt, and pay on time. Most important, remember that credit represents real money and has to be repaid with interest. These are the keys to establishing good credit.
Once you have obtained credit, it is essential to protect it. This means safeguarding your credit, debit, and ATM cards, as well as your account and personal identification numbers (PIN).
Carry only the cards you expect to use and keep the others in a safe place. Maintain a list of account and telephone numbers of the companies that issued your cards. Then, if your cards are lost or stolen, you can notify the companies quickly. If your notification is received before the cards are used by someone fraudulently, you have no liability. If it is received after a credit card has been used, your liability cannot exceed $50 for each card. Your liability for ATM or debit cards depends on how quickly you report the loss.
If you dispute an item on a bill, you are responsible for notifying the creditor in writing within 60 days of receiving the bill. You should include your name, account number, the item you believe is in error, and the reasons why.
Among the most common reasons people are turned down when they apply for credit are:
In general, creditworthiness must be determined on the basis of criteria that relate to your ability and willingness to repay debt. You cannot be denied credit based on your sex, marital status, race, color, religion, national origin, age, reliance on income from a public assistance program, or exercise of rights under the Consumer Credit Protection Act.
If you are denied credit, the creditor must provide to you in writing a statement of the action and your rights, as well as the reason for denial, or how to request the reason. For information on the laws applying to credit, see Do You Know Your Credit Rights?, a brochure published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
For information on rectifying credit report errors, see What Your Credit Report Says About You, a brochure published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
If you have fallen behind in your payments, the only alternative is to begin immediately to repair your credit record. Here’s how:
The dissolution of a marriage does not erase the debts you and your former spouse took on as a couple. Even if your former spouse is ordered by the court to pay debts from the marriage, you can become liable if the payments are not made. Here are a few suggestions to protect your financial standing:
If you are applying for a loan and you think you may want to pay it off before it has run its full term, you should be aware that lenders have several methods of calculating interest. The method they use affects the amount you may owe if you decide to pay it off early, and since lenders are not required to disclose which method they use, you may have to ask. Here is a brief description of the most common interest-calculation methods.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia has other brochures on credit topics.
To obtain copies of these brochures, or for additional copies of this one, please contact:
Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia
Public Affairs – Publications
P.O. Box 66
Philadelphia, PA 19105-0066
Federal Trade Commission Consumer Response Center
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580
1608 Walnut Street, 10th Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19103
215-563-5665 or 800-989-2227
National Foundation for Credit Counseling
2000 M Street, NW, #505
Washington, DC 20036
Member Agency Locator:
Brochure revised 08/2015