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1. How many inquiries you have.

“Soft” inquiries are made when you or an existing creditor checks your report; “hard” ones appear when you apply for credit. Only hard inquiries from the past year affect your credit score. The fewer, the better. Tip: Do any loan shopping within a 14-day window; all inquiries will count as only one.

2. What you’re juggling.

The main part of your report lists your open credit accounts, plus those closed up to 10 years ago, with amount owed and the limit or initial loan amount. Lenders want to see that you can handle a mix of credit types. Tip: Since a long history ably managing debt looks good, keep your oldest credit cards open and active.

3. How much credit you’re using.

Lenders pay particular attention to the amount you owe on credit cards relative to your limits. (Note: Creditors usually report to bureaus the day the billing cycle closes, so your statement balance is used here.) Tip: Aim to use less than 20% of your available credit.

4. How timely you’ve been.

Payment history is key in how lenders view you. The later you were in paying – and the more times you slipped up – the less appealing a risk you are. Tip: If you have just one late payment on your record, ask your lender if it will make a good-will adjustment on your report.

5. Whether you’ve really messed up.

Liens, bankruptcies, and delinquent accounts will be shown, typically for seven to 10 years afterward. Tip: You are entitled to add a personal statement to your report; consider doing so if something here needs explaining.

Again, a true fee-only financial planner can help you manage your debt and get on the road to a strong credit history. If you have questions, be sure to talk to an independent fee-only financial advisor, as most other “financial advisors” will be motivated to make your debt problems worse so they can sell you financial products.