Key takeaways

  • If you have a limited credit history (or none whatsoever), you have a few options to start building credit, including becoming an authorized user, applying for a secured or store card and using alternative credit-building services.
  • If you do have some credit history but no score due to inactivity, consider making small, manageable purchases on your existing accounts.
  • As always, consider the risks associated with any credit-building methods you choose, and be sure to regularly monitor your credit report for any updates or inaccuracies.

Limited or no credit? You’re in good company.

Many times, consumers with no credit history are new to the world of credit. They can find themselves in a Catch-22 scenario, says Jennifer Tescher, founder and CEO of the Financial Health Network in Chicago.

“You need to have a credit history to get credit,” Tescher says. “And you need to have credit to build credit history.”

If you primarily use cash and aren’t looking to borrow money right now, you may think this doesn’t apply to you. But what happens when the time comes to finance a car, take out a mortgage or rent an apartment? You need to have a credit score to back you up.

Building credit from scratch may feel like an impossible task, but the good news is that it’s possible to do. If you have limited or no credit, here are five strategies you can follow to beef up your credit file.

Become an authorized user

If you don’t have credit history, getting approved for a credit card can be tricky. One way to reap the benefits of a credit card without actually applying for one on your own is by becoming an authorized user. An authorized user is someone authorized to use another person’s credit account. As an authorized user, any purchases made on the account by you becomes part of the primary cardholder’s account balance. This strategy can be chancy for the authorized user because the liability falls entirely on the primary cardholder.

The gamble if you’re the authorized user: If the account holder misses payments, goes into collections or declares bankruptcy, that bad behavior can land on your credit report.

The gamble if you’re the primary account holder: The authorized user could max out the card and leave you with the bill.

In the perfect scenario, the authorized user gets charging privileges on another person’s credit card, stays within whatever limits the cardholder sets and establishes a history of on-time payments and responsible card usage. Becoming an authorized user and developing strong financial habits can help boost your credit score because as long as the card remains in good standing, that will be reflected in your own credit history.

Before you attempt this arrangement, find out from the issuer if you have the power to remove yourself from the account. Also, ask the issuer what would happen to account information — good or bad — that’s already on your report if you’re no longer an authorized user.

If you become an authorized user, monitor your credit report regularly to ensure the account is being reported to one of the three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Apply for a secured credit card

Your thin credit history may not be robust enough for you to qualify for an unsecured credit card, but one possible solution is to apply for a secured credit card.

Secured credit cards are types of credit cards that require a cash deposit as collateral. A cash deposit typically determines your credit limit and is often equal to 50 percent to 100 percent of the initial deposit. While this limits the amount you can spend, it provides individuals with damaged or limited credit histories an opportunity to qualify for a line of credit.

Applying for a secured card and making your monthly payments on time is an excellent way to build credit. Some secured credit cards automatically graduate to traditional credit cards when cardholders have a history of making on-time payments.

Beware of cards that come with a bunch of charges, like application fees, annual fees and maintenance fees. Good cards for people with limited credit history exist — even ones that pay rewards.

Make a small purchase

While most negative information comes off your credit report after seven years, even the good accounts can disappear after 10 years if they’ve been closed or inactive. In addition, some scoring formulas can’t generate a credit score if it’s been awhile since any of your creditors reported to the bureaus.

That means some people who had robust credit files at one time could potentially find themselves with a thin file or no credit score if they close accounts (or stop using credit).

If you have a history of credit but no longer have a score, make a small purchase on one of your existing accounts and pay it off right away. That will give you the recent activity the scoring formula needs to assign you a score.

If you’re new to the credit game, it could take a while to get a credit score, depending on the scoring model used to compute it. For a FICO Score, your oldest account needs to be at least six months old. Using the VantageScore model, a consumer’s credit report could be scored after the first month of paying on a credit account.

Report your monthly rent payments

If you don’t want to use a credit card to build credit, there are a few other options to consider. When you pay your rent each month, it typically isn’t reported — however, those payments could help boost your credit score.

A service offered by Experian allows individuals who rent from a landlord or property management company (that does not already report data) to sign up through a rent payment service working with Experian RentBureau. This service allows rent payments to be collected electronically while having the ability to report your rental payment history to Experian RentBureau.

If this is not an option, there are other rent-reporting services that can help boost your credit, but it comes at a cost. Using a third-party rent payment service may not be the most cost effective method to build your credit, but it is an option worth considering.

Apply for a store card

Tread carefully with this one, because you don’t want to get yourself in financial trouble with a store credit card. However, credit cards offered by stores are usually easier to qualify for than standard credit cards. If you frequent a certain grocery store, for example, consider signing up for the store credit card to build credit while you are shopping for groceries each month.

Trips to the grocery store are expenses you are going to have no matter what, so it could benefit you in the long run to exchange your debit card for the store credit card. Keep in mind that store cards tend to have higher interest rates and lower credit limits than traditional credit cards.

If you do decide to go this route to begin your credit journey, establish a strategy to pay off your entire balance each month. If you don’t, you may be hit with high interest charges — and that will hurt your credit score, not help it.

The bottom line

After opening your first line of credit — in whatever form that may be — it’s important to adopt smart financial habits in order to build a strong credit history. You can do this by keeping your balance low and making on-time payments each month. It may take a few months before your payment history can generate a credit score, but it is always better to start working on building your credit before you actually need it.