While bankruptcy deals a devastating blow to your credit and your credit score, the effects don’t have to be lasting. And contrary to what many believe, you could be qualifying for loans with good rates and terms long before the bankruptcy drops off your credit report.
Nothing in Credit is forever
If you’ve recently filed for bankruptcy or plan to do so, here are two things you need to keep in mind:
- Nothing in credit is “forever.” A bankruptcy legally can remain on your credit report for up to 10 years, but if you adopt responsible credit habits such as; paying your bills on time, using only a small portion of your available credit and not applying for to much credit at once its effect on your credit score can start to diminish the day your case is closed.
- You have to get and use credit to build your credit score. Living on a cash-only basis may be a smart choice for those who really can’t handle credit. But if you want to rebuild your credit score, you can’t sit on the sidelines.
Learn from your mistakes
Although repeat bankruptcies filings show that getting credit after a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 filing is possible, you’ll want to learn from your mistakes as this is not a method for building wealth.While those who file more than one bankruptcy may seem to be beating the system, running up big bills and then simply walking away. When you consider the damage to their credit histories and the resulting higher interest payments they are charged during the time when they’re prohibited from filing another bankruptcy, you’ll realize these multiple filings are far surpassing any gains they might have made. (The 2005 bankruptcy law provides that, under Chapter 7, eight years must elapse before you can refile. If you go for Chapter 13 after a Chapter 7, you must wait four years. Going from one Chapter 13 to another, two years must elapse.)
And most people can’t file for Chapter 7 liquidation if they have significant assets to protect, such as home equity or savings. So these folks who are repeatedly going broke often have little to show for all the money that’s leaving their pockets. Instead of building wealth over time, they’re losing ground.
Instead, use your bankruptcy as a wake-up call to figure out what’s wrong with your finances and fix it.
- If your problem was overspending, start by putting together a budget and work on sticking to it.
- If you didn’t have enough savings to survive a job loss or other setback, get serious about establishing an emergency fund.
- If you were sunk by medical bills, seek a job with insurance coverage or check to see if your state offers coverage.
Clean up your credit report
One of the biggest problems for many who file bankruptcy is that their credit reports often still show accounts as open and overdue — when in fact they were closed and the obligations wiped out as part of the bankruptcy. If you wish to improve your credit score, you’ll need to contact the credit bureaus and insist that those accounts be properly reported as “included in bankruptcy.”
If you have other serious mistakes on your credit report, those need to be corrected as well. Your credit score is based on information in your credit report, so errors on your report can seriously dampen your score.
Get a secured credit card
You need two types of credit to quickly rebuild your credit score:
- Installment: auto loans, student loans or mortgages
- Revolving: credit cards or home equity lines of credit
Most recent bankrupts have trouble qualifying for a regular, unsecured credit card. So the best solution usually is a secured card, which generally gives you a credit limit that’s equal to an amount you deposit at the issuing bank.
Typically, that’s $200 to $500, which may seem like a pittance compared with the credit limits you enjoyed before your bankruptcy, but do not make the mistake of using your available credit. Maxing out your credit cards hurts your credit score.
You don’t want to charge more than 30% or so of your credit limit, but you do want to pay the balance off in full each month. Light, regular use of a credit card is what helps build your credit.
And contrary to what you might have heard, you typically don’t need to carry a balance or pay credit card interest to build your score, since the leading credit scoring formula doesn’t distinguish between balances that are paid off and balances that are carried month to month. Get in the habit of not charging more than you can pay off every month; your credit score and your finances will be the better for it.
You also shouldn’t just grab any secured card. Look for the following:
- No application fee and reasonable annual fee. Some secured cards tack huge upfront and annual charges onto their accounts; you don’t need to pay these to build your credit.
- Reports to the major credit bureaus.You’re not doing your credit score any good unless your payment history is being reported to the three major bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Be sure to ask if the card issuer regularly reports to all three before you apply.
- Converts to an unsecured card after 12-18 months of on-time payments. Good behavior should get you upgraded to a regular credit card within a year or two.
Get an installment loan
If you still have student loans (which typically aren’t dischargeable in bankruptcy), you can use them to rebuild your score. Make your payments on time, all the time, and try to pay more than you owe whenever possible. Next to making on-time payments, paying down your existing debt is one of the best ways to improve your credit score.
Another option: a mortgage. Interestingly, it can sometimes be easier to get a mortgage after a bankruptcy than to get other types of installment loans.
You may be able to qualify for a high-rate loan as little as six months after a bankruptcy, but you’re probably better off waiting until you can qualify for an FHA loan. You can typically get one just two years after your bankruptcy case has closed, as long as you’ve maintained good credit habits since then. FHA loans have interest rates that are usually only half a percentage point higher than regular mortgage rates.
Just make sure you really can afford a home before you buy one. This involves finding a Realtor who will discuss your finances with you and assist you in determining what you can actually afford. Many of those filing for bankruptcy these days failed to do just that and after stretching too far to buy a house realized they couldn’t keep up with all the attendant costs of homeownership.
Auto loans can also help you rebuild your credit, however, you’ll need to be prepared to pay nose-bleeding rates at first.
If you go this route, try to make a big down payment and choose a loan that doesn’t have a prepayment penalty. That way, you can refinance the car to a lower interest rate as your credit improves.
Just don’t forget, the key is to make sure all your payments are made on time, all the time.