As I write in the Beginner’s Guide, it’s quite difficult to fly higher without the assistance of credit cards; through signing bonuses and daily spend, you can earn a significant number of points which you can then use for travel redemptions. To have access to the best ones, you should have a credit score of at least 675, which, all things considered, is high. If your credit score isn’t at that level, don’t worry, because that won’t stop you from becoming a higher flyer. There are just some steps that you need to take before you try to enter the world of miles and points. I outline below what to do in order to get started with higher flyer credit cards.
Disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor; the following are general tips that will likely boost your credit score, but I cannot make any promises to you. Consult with a professional to develop a plan to relieve your financial obligations/debt.
For the sake of explaining the concepts in this guide, I’ll use an example couple to “illustrate” the concepts presented. Their situation, which is common, is written in italics like so.
1. Check your credit score
This might seem obvious, but check your credit score so you know exactly where it stands prior to doing anything else. Services like Credit Sesame or annualcreditreport.com can report your score to you, as well as identify the factors that are both boosting it and hurting it. Credit Sesame and annualcreditreport.com are free and comprehensive. If you want to sign-up for professional credit monitoring services, you’re more than welcome to, but they’re not necessary for the purpose of flying higher.
Do not apply for credit cards until you know your credit score! If your credit score is already low, you don’t want to hurt it further by getting denied for a credit card. If your credit score is above the threshold already (~675), and you don’t have any outstanding debts, then feel free to skip to the sixth point.
A couple learns that the two of them have an average credit score of 550. They also have $10,000 worth of debt: $2,000 on a current credit card statement, $2,500 of unpaid credit card debt, $2,500 of unpaid auto loan debt, and $3,000 of unpaid student loan debt.
2. Pay your existing bill
To start boosting your credit score, take care of the most pressing issue first by ensuring your monthly credit card bill is paid in full. The already existing debt will still be there next month, and you should focus on ensuring that number doesn’t grow any larger. If you let those statements go unpaid, then you’ll find you owe even more than before with interest, and the new delinquent payments will further damage your credit score. Don’t let that happen! One popular way to avoid that is to schedule automatic bill payments, which can be set-up through your primary bank and the creditor in question. You’ll also start a positive bill payment trend, which ratings agencies take into consideration.
The couple pays off the $2,000 credit card statement, and also makes payments on any other expense that might come in with their other debts, like interest, the auto loan, and student loan repayment. All other existing debts remain the same; they owe $8,000. Average credit score: 575. Elapsed time: 6 weeks.
3. Reduce your debt AND your credit utilization
Now it’s time to start tackling some of your other debts. You should consistently work at every obligation as much as you can in order to lower your credit utilization rate, which measures how much debt you take on. You’ll demonstrate to the ratings agencies that you are serious about honoring the conditions of the deals you’ve made, and that you’re financially stable enough to afford such repayments. They’ll be more confident that you won’t default on your loans, so your score will rise correspondingly.
You will most likely need to save more money as you try to pay off your debts too. Be frugal in your spending, and don’t charge as much to your credit card as you did before. That other reduction in credit utilization (in the form of fewer charges) will be favorable to your score too.
The couple continues to pay off their incoming bills, car payments, and student loan repayments. Additionally, they pay off 50% of all their other existing debts, so now they have $1,250 of credit card debt, $1,250 of auto loan debt, and $1,500 of student loan debt. Their total debt has been reduced by 70%, or $3,000 in a matter of months. Average credit score: 650. Elapsed time: 6 months.
4. Start paying off your debts in their entireties
Now that you’re making significant gains in reducing your debt, it’s time to start finishing them off completely. As soon as you have enough money to pay off your debts entirely, do so. Make sure that you continue to be frugal, and refrain from putting excessive charges on your credit card(s) each month. Your score will be skyrocketing.
By this point, your credit score will likely be high enough to start applying for credit cards that will help you become a higher flyer. While you could do that, you shouldn’t just quite yet, for reasons I’ll get to later in “Point 6.”
The couple pays off the remainder of their credit card debt. In the two following months, they also pay off their auto loan and successfully repay their student loans. They have escaped their original $10,000 debt. Average credit score: 725. Elapsed time: 1 year.
5. Reduce your credit utilization even further
Even though you’re debt free by this point, you still shouldn’t charge too much to your credit card. You’ll want to maintain your credit utilization at a favorable level, which would be just under 30%. If you have a credit limit of $10,000, that would mean spending fewer than $3,000 per month. Of course, don’t forget to pay those bills on time. Failure to do so could torpedo all of the work you had done up until that point.
The couple keeps their credit utilization below 30% and makes all of their payments before the monthly due dates. Over the course of the next six months, they see their credit scores continuing to rise. Average credit score: 800. Elapsed time: 1 year, 3 months.
6. Don’t apply for too many credit cards at once
By this point, you have a strong credit score, which grants you access to the best, most practical credit cards for higher flying. This is an exciting time; there are so many compelling products from a variety of companies and banks. Resist any urge you might have to apply for more than one at a time though. Credit scores can be volatile, and a lot of credit inquiries at once could dock your score dozens of points, thus making you ineligible for those cards. You would be nullifying all of the hard work you put in to build up your score in the first place. To make sure that you don’t ruin your score at first, I would refrain from applying for more than one new card per quarter.
As you gradually get approved for more cards, you’ll find your score gradually increasing… assuming that you continue to pay off your bills on time and your spending habits remain largely unchanged. Your credit utilization will theoretically decrease; if your credit limit changes from $10,000 to $20,000 following a new credit card approval, but you consistently charge $1,000 per month, then your credit utilization is halved. This translates to a huge bump in your credit score. Similarly, the average age of your credit accounts (worth 15% of your credit score) decreases right after the new card enters your portfolio. After two years of activity however, that same account will have matured and turned into score booster.
The couple, with an average credit score of 800, applies for a Chase card. They are approved, and immediately following that, their credit scores drop to 795. In the following 24 months, they see their average credit score rise to 830. Elapsed time: 1 year, 6 months, to 3 years, 6 months.
The couple, with an average credit score of 800, applies for a dozen credit cards over the course of three days. Their average score plummets to 650, and then the issuing banks simultaneously reject all of their applications. They must wait until the rejected applications drop off their credit report to be restored fully 24 months later. Elapsed time: 1 year, 7 months to 3 years, 7 months.
These steps might seem daunting at first, but don’t worry: you’ll see noticeable improvements to your credit score within the first few months. The key is setting a goal. Anyone can attain a credit score of 800 (and above), but that is contingent on your commitment to achieving it. You have to be financially responsible and pay close attention to your financial obligations. Live within your means, and you’ll be well on your way to achieving a credit score that will allow you to access the very best credit cards for higher flying. Good luck!
Remember: Consult a professional financial planner if you want more tangible advice!