Secured credit cards are available for folks with bad credit, and using one responsibly can help fix your credit score.
There’s a saying in sports that “the greatest ability is availability.” Basically, if you aren’t available to play—usually because you’re either injured or suspended for fighting/using PEDs/refusing to like your coach’s Instagram posts—then you’re not of much use to your team!
The same feeling can hold true for folks who have bad credit and are trying to apply for a loan or credit card. Who cares if this American Master Double Obsidian Super Card gives you 10,000 miles for every dollar spent? If your credit score won’t let you get approved for it, then it’s pretty much useless.
Meanwhile, being able to use credit responsibly is an important part of fixing your credit score. Making payments on time on a loan, credit card, or utility bill will show up on your credit report, which will, in turn, be reflected on your score. In fact, your payment history makes up 35% of your total score—more than any other factor!
That’s where secured credit cards come in! They are a much more limited product than your traditional credit card, but you’re much more likely to qualify for one—even with bad credit. The best ability is availability, and secured credit cards are available as all heck.
What is a Secured Credit Card?
A secured credit card is like a combination of a credit card and a debit card. Whereas unsecured credit cards approve you for a credit limit based on your creditworthiness, a secured card has you make a cash deposit to back up that limit. If you deposit $500, you get a $500 credit limit, etc. Many cards simply link to your savings account to use those funds as your deposit.
These cash deposits allow lenders to make these cards available to people with not-so-hot credit. Remember, a low credit score means that you have a history of using credit irresponsibly. By using your deposit as collateral, a lender is able to greatly reduce their risk in approving you. If you fail to make a payment, they can just take the payment out of your deposit.
“When you’re shopping around for a secured card, don’t expect to see lots of rewards or other benefits,” says John Ganotis, founder of CreditCardInsider.com. “A secured card serves a very specific purpose: to help you build credit.”
“A secured card won’t help you build credit faster than an unsecured card or vice versa, but a secured card may be a good option if you can’t get an unsecured card.”
And if you want to use a secured card to improve your score, there are three things you need to do
1. Make your payments on time
Rod Griffin is the director of public education for Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus. These are the companies that create and maintain your credit reports.
According to Griffin, “A secured credit card can help you improve your credit scores by giving you a chance to demonstrate that you can manage credit responsibly. By making all your payments on time, you will be able to start building a positive payment history.”
“In time,” says Griffin, “your lender may be willing to convert your secured card to a traditional credit card account.”
While a secured card can help you build up your credit score, Griffin says that the rate at which your score improves will depend on how much negative information is already on your report:
“Just how much a secured account will impact your credit rating depends in part on your unique credit history. If you are just starting out and this is your first credit account, it will be easier to establish a positive credit history than if you have had credit difficulties in the past.
“If your report shows negative credit history such as delinquencies, collection accounts, or bankruptcy, it could take longer to see substantial improvement in your credit scores.”
2. Keep your credit utilization low
Remember, when you get a credit limit on a card, it’s not an invitation to spend up to that limit. You don’t have to spend that much. In fact, it is highly encouraged that you do the opposite.
According to Ganotis, “The percentage of your credit limit that you’re currently using can have a big impact on your credit scores.”
In order to maximize your score, Ganotis recommends that you maintain a credit utilization no higher than 10%:
“For example, that means if you have a $1,000 credit limit and you want to maximize your credit scores, make sure you don’t have a balance of over $100 when your statement period closes. You could achieve that by either not spending more than $100 over the statement period or by paying down part of your balance early.”
People who practice strong financial discipline are able to spend a lot on their credit cards and then pay off the whole balance immediately before any interest is due. They never spend more on their card then they have in their bank account. They just use their card to rack up points and maintain their high credit rating.
Someday, you might be able to be like them. But until then, it’s best to focus on keeping your credit utilization ratio low—if not paying off the card entirely.
3. Make sure your payments are being reported
Your credit score is based on the information in your credit report. Any time you missed a payment, took out a new loan, or got sent to collections, those actions got reported. Similarly, every bill you paid on time and every credit card you paid off got reported as well.
If you have a secured card with a company that doesn’t report to the credit bureaus, then it won’t matter how many on-time payments you make and how low you keep your balance. None of that will end up on your credit report, so none of it will help your credit score.
“If you are considering opening a secured account,” says Griffin, “first make sure it will be reported to at least one of the national credit reporting companies. While most lenders do report secured accounts, you may come across some that do not. If the account is not reported, it won’t help you build a credit history.”
And before you get too clever, it doesn’t really work the other way around. While late payments might not be reported to the bureaus either, an extremely delinquent account will likely end up getting sold to a debt collector… a collector who will then report you to the credit bureaus, hurting your credit score even further.
Secured credit cards can be a great tool for fixing a bad credit score, and they’re a much better option than bad credit loans. But that’s all they really are: a tool. Just like a hammer that can’t work without someone to swing it, a secured card can’t fix your credit all by itself. It’s still up to you to use the card responsibly.
John Ganotis (@CardInsider) is the founder of CreditCardInsider.com John comes from a diverse background of software development, web publishing, and personal finance. He knows firsthand what it’s like to accumulate credit card debt, pay it off completely, and then start using credit to his advantage. His passion for technology and attention to detail have made Credit Card Insider one of the premier credit resources on the Internet, and he is eager to help others tackle debt and use credit as a powerful tool rather than fear it.
Rod Griffin(@Experian) is Director of Public Education for Experian. Rod oversees the company’s financial literacy grant program, which awarded more than $850,000 in 2015 to non-profit programs that help people achieve financial success. He works with consumer advocates, financial educators and others to help consumers increase their ability to understand and manage personal finances and protect themselves from fraud and identity theft. He works to help all consumers be better prepared to get the credit they need, at the time they need it, and at rates and terms that are favorable to them.”
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The information contained herein is provided for free and is to be used for educational and informational purposes only. We are not a credit repair organization as defined under federal or state law and we do not provide "credit repair" services or advice or assistance regarding "rebuilding" or "improving" your credit. Articles provided in connection with this blog are general in nature, provided for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for individualized professional advice. We make no representation that we will improve or attempt to improve your credit record, history, or rating through the use of the resources provided through the OppLoans blog.