What’s the Best Way to Establish and Build Credit?

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In an effort to help readers better manage their finances, mental_floss has teamed up with personal finance expert, Chase Slate financial education partner and award-winning podcast host Farnoosh Torabi to answer your most pressing credit- and money-related Big Questions.

Why should you care about credit? Having strong credit can make it easier to get a car loan, an apartment, a mortgage, and even some types of jobs. Over your lifetime, it can also help you pay much lower interest rates on your home mortgage, car loans and car insurance premiums. Consistently paying all your bills and loans in full, and on time, can contribute to building a solid credit score. But establishing credit isn’t always a straightforward process. Whether you’re a young adult, a newcomer to the United States, finding financial independence post-divorce or a parent who wants to help your kids, here are some helpful ways to establish and build credit.

First things first: According to Torabi, you should consider opening a checking and a savings account at a bank, if you haven’t already done so. Although checking and savings accounts don’t factor into your credit score, lenders can review your account to see how fiscally responsible you are. Paying utility bills and rent fully, and on time, each month could be a way to show potential lenders that you’re responsible, depending on which credit bureau they choose to get their information from. (Generally only specialty agencies and bureaus keep tabs on your utility payment history.) This also applies only if the utilities are in your name and your landlord reports your rent payment history to any of the three major credit reporting agencies.

If you don’t have a credit card, consider opening one and start using it wisely. And if you don’t have enough credit history to get a regular (unsecured) credit card, consider a secured credit card, which is tied to your bank account. After you make an initial cash deposit, which serves as your credit limit, you can charge your card up to the amount of your deposit. “Not all secured cards are created equally, so ask about fees and how the card activity gets reported before opening one up at a local bank,” says Torabi.

To make sure that using the card will potentially help your credit score, choose a credit card company that reports activity to the credit reporting agencies. Student credit cards and store-specific credit cards can also help you build credit and be easier to get than regular (unsecured) cards.

Credit card accounts weigh more heavily on your credit score than loans, but what matters more than your mix of credit cards and loans is that you manage all your debts—credit cards, loans, and mortgages—responsibly. According to Torabi, establishing a credit score and credit history requires that you have an account open for at least six months, so be patient and diligent about practicing healthy credit habits as early as possible.

If you’re a parent, Torabi says it’s never too early to start modeling positive credit behavior for your children – and having conversations about personal finances and credit. By making your teenager an authorized user on your credit card account, you can help them establish their own positive credit history. Just keep in mind that you must consistently pay your credit card bill in full and on time, or you’ll harm your child’s credit report, as well as your own. Alternatively, you can co-sign a credit card with your under-21 year old child. “However, it’s important to know that if your child doesn’t pay his or her bills on time, you’re held liable for the amount owed,” cautions Torabi.