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Coming back from the brink: Redeeming your credit reputation

By Jennifer Jenkins
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(CNN) -- Looking back, Harry Rogers can see where he went wrong.

Until 2001, the 53-year-old Desoto, Texas resident faithfully paid his credit card bills in full every month.

However, after buying a new car and renovating his home, he began to pay less and less toward his debt each month. It was a slippery slope.

Soon, he was paying only the minimum payments on his card balances.

Not long after, unexpected emergencies like a flooded living room caused Rogers to begin making late payments and eventually missing payments altogether.

Two years later, after fees and increased interest rates due to late or missed payments, he found himself nearly $30,000 in debt spread across three credit cards and saddled with poor credit scores.

In 2004, the average credit card balance for Americans was $5,100, according to a Federal Reserve Board report.

"You're just going into a hole, and continuing to go into hole, and then that affects everything else," said Rogers, "You can't do any financial planning because you're always behind."

"You keep getting deeper and deeper into debt."

An IT area manager at AT&T, Rogers said he made "good money" but still couldn't get a handle on his growing debt.

In 2003, alarmed by his rising debt and decreasing credit score, Rogers stopped using his credit cards. The move stopped the creation of more debt, but he wasn't making any progress on paying down his existing balances.

He decided to seek help and joined a debt elimination program with the Consumer Credit Counseling Service. The program helped Rogers negotiate better interest rates on his cards, knocking down some by as many as seven interest points.

Rogers paid down all of his credit card debt after four years of budgeting and abstaining from credit card use. However, he now faces the daunting task of improving his credit score.

Being proactive

Credit scores can range from a 300 to a perfect 850. Typically, consumers with scores above 700 are charged relatively low interest rates, while those with scores below 600 are often faced with high loan rates or are unable to borrow at all.

The information that makes up a credit report is collected by three U.S. reporting companies -- TransUnion, Equifax and Experian -- and scores can vary across the different agencies.

Credit information, both good and bad, stays on a credit report for an average of seven years, according to the Federal Reserve Board.

Credit counselors recommend taking a proactive approach and regularly checking your credit report, especially in an era of increasing identity theft.

Rogers said he didn't know his credit score had plummeted because he never bothered to check.

"Most of us don't actually have an encounter with our credit score until we're trying to get something, a house or something like that," Rogers said. "Then you find out, 'Aw man, I didn't realize I was in that bad of shape.'"

Now, he considers looking over a monthly copy of his credit report a key part of his plan to repair his credit reputation.

Every consumer is entitled to one free credit report a year under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act.

'Take it slow'

Gail Cunningham, vice-president of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Dallas, advised anyone trying to repair their credit to start slow. "The most important thing is to get that debt paid for and then the credit will rebuild itself," she said.

Good credit management means being able to pay bills on time each month and paying off the entire balance in a reasonable amount of time, said Cunningham. Making even one late payment can cause a credit score to drop as much as 100 points.

After paying down card balances, consumers are often flooded with new offers for credit cards. Cunningham cautions people to be wary of the new offers, to take the time to search for the card with the best interest rate and build from there.

She advises the best thing to do after paying off your debt in full is to open one general credit card account and pay the balance off in full every month.

"When it comes to rebuilding credit, time is your friend, because it's not going to happen overnight," Cunningham said. "But a series of small, smart steps will pay off."

Now free of all credit card debt, Rogers said he plans to take full advantage of his clean slate as he moves to rebuild his credit. His plan is to charge only when absolutely necessary and to pay his credit card debts off in full each month.

If managed responsibly, Rogers could see an increase in his credit score in as soon as six months, Cunningham said.

In hindsight, it seems simple.

"It's pretty straightforward stuff, you get credit, you pay off your bills on time, or before time, and you reestablish it," said Rogers. "But it's a maturing process."

Paying off credit cards on a timely basis is key to avoiding and solving credit score troubles, experts advise.


• Gallery: Your credit report
• Explainer: Good and bad debt
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