When it comes to credit, you reap what you sow. That's why a simple technique known as "credit gardening" can help grow new credit lines while allowing the sting of any hard inquiries fade off your credit reports.
Credit gardening is simply tending to the accounts you've got, while refraining from applying for new credit for a certain period of time, according to myFICO.com.
It's smart to garden whenever you're building or rebuilding credit, says Linda Pack, founder of CreditBoards.com, a site that helps consumers manage their credit.
You might also consider gardening, also known as "credit farming," after you've opened several lines of new credit around the same time. That's because each inquiry -- where a lender looks at your credit to decide whether you are creditworthy -- can pull down your score. On average, each inquiry lowers your score less than five points, but the hit can be bigger for consumers with already low scores, according to myFICO.com. And a new credit card or loan with no payment history can lower your score even more because it shortens your overall length of credit history, which accounts for 15 percent of your credit score.
That can lead to rejections if you try to apply for more credit too soon, Pack says. "Creditors get scared of you," she says. "They think you might be pulling something or that you're desperate for credit."
It's also good idea to go into gardening mode at least six months before you're about to make a big purchase on credit, such as applying for a mortgage or car loan, says Stephen Lesavich, attorney and co-author of "The Plastic Effect: How Urban Legends Influence the Use and Misuse of Credit Cards."
"It's a good way to get your score as high as possible so you can get the lowest rates and the best deals," he says.
Credit gardening basics
Farming isn't complicated, but it does entail a little strategy and patience. There are three main steps:
Cultivate a green thumb for credit
Think a little gardening could benefit your credit? Here are six tips:
- Look at the calendar. Before you start, it's a good idea to decide on a concrete goal or timeline to help you stay motivated, myFICO.com recommends. If you've got the aim of making a big purchase on credit, you should garden until you're ready to apply for that loan, Pack says. Otherwise, a minimum of six months is a good timeframe if you have new accounts, Sanford says. After about half a year, a brand new account becomes a more seasoned account, he says. "That's when it really kicks in and helps your credit score," he says.
- Plan ahead. When you're in garden mode, you want to avoid actions that will result in an inquiry on your credit. But some consumers don't think about the fact that switching cell phone carriers, getting cable TV service or opening a retail store card to get a discount can result in a new hard inquiry, Lesavich says. So, it pays to do some planning and use stopgap measures, such as temporarily getting prepaid cell phone service or delaying that switch to a new TV provider, he says.
- Resist temptation. Do you have trouble refraining from hitting the apply button on shiny 0-percent balance transfer offers or cards with sign-up bonuses? If so, you might need to take drastic action. For example, Adam Lyon, a Roanoke, Virginia, consumer who's gardening his credit, put a credit freeze on his credit. The cost of a freeze varies based on where you live, but can cost $5 to $10 per major credit bureau, or a total of $30 for all three, according to the Federal Trade Commission. A freeze stops lenders from checking your credit, so you can't open new accounts unless you lift the freeze. "It's forced self-control," Lyon says.
- Raise your limits. Some card issuers, usually the ones that offer free credit monitoring and scores, will consider you for a credit limit increase without doing a "hard pull," Pack says. If you have an established credit account with a good history with one of these lenders, first confirm that requesting a credit limit increase won't trigger a hard inquiry on your credit, then ask for a higher limit, Pack recommends. If you carry a balance, a credit limit increase can boost your score right away by improving your credit utilization ratio, which is the amount of available credit you're using compared to the amount of debt you're carrying, she says. Of course, you should also be working to pay down your balances to below 30 percent of your available credit and ideally down to zero, she says, which would negate having to ask for a credit limit increase
- Get support. If you want to talk with other "gardeners" to get ideas and motivation, you can head CreditBoards.com, where consumers share gardening tips, or myFICO.com, which offers an online group devoted to the practice. Getting support and advice from other consumers can be a good thing, but do your own research and don't expect the exact same results someone else got, Sanford says.
Many consumers can benefit from working on cultivating better credit. "Gardening is always good," Pack says.