It's about as popular as a root canal or a blown tire on the freeway. Yet like both of those dreaded occurrences, filing for bankruptcy is commonplace in modern America. In 2013 1,107,699 individuals and businesses in the U.S. had to file for bankruptcy according to government data. While it's pretty safe to say that not many of the folks who filed for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy were eager to do it, it's worth remembering that bankruptcy is by no means a financial death sentence.
After all, bankruptcy protection is designed to provide people and companies with a way to discharge at least some of their debts and start over. And one of the very first steps to reboot your financial life involves rebuilding your credit score.
How Bankruptcy Affects Your Credit Score
There's no sugarcoating the fact that any individual who has to file for bankruptcy is going to see a negative impact on their credit score. This matters because lenders rely on credit scores - which typically range from 300 on the low end to a maximum of 850 - to determine whether or not to offer you a mortgage or car loan and, if they do, at what interest rate. Put another way, a credit score is a quick way for lenders to decide how risky it is to loan you money.
Not surprisingly, a bankruptcy -- which, by definition, allows someone to not repay all of their debts -- hammers your credit score. How much it hurts depends on where you started. According to the Fair Isaac Corporation, which is better known as FICO and the best-known company that calculates credit scores, someone with a stellar score of 780 would see their rating plummet to between 540 and 560 after declaring bankruptcy. A person with a starting score of around 680 can expect to drop between 150 and 180 points, to between 500 and 530, after a bankruptcy. You can take a look at the credit profiles of the two people used in the FICO example here.
What does this all mean? In short, bankruptcy is a major red flag to lenders, a fact that is reflected in your credit score. In April of 2014 FICO reported that its median score was 711. Scores of 550 or lower are considered "deep subprime" by lenders and carry with them high interest rates - if you can get a loan at all.
Rebuilding Your Credit to Improve your Financial Health
Fortunately, a bankruptcy is by no means game over for your financial life. There are steps you can take to begin rebuilding your credit and, eventually, your overall financial health. "Bankruptcy is a very difficult and emotional time since there are severe consequences, but it also represents a chance to "start over" from a financial sense," says Bill Harddekopf, CEO at LowCards.com.
According to Hardekopf, the road back to financial well being starts with rebuilding your credit score. "One of the first things to do is to get a free copy of your credit report, which you are able to do once a year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. Check this for errors. Make sure you also determine your FICO credit score and work diligently to build up this score each month."
Raising your score, says Hardekopf, is all about getting back to basics. "Pay your bills on time. Don't spend more than you can afford. Get a credit card that reports to the credit reporting agencies and pay off the entire balance each month so you don't incur any interest charges--this will help slowly build your credit score."
Gerri Detweiler, author of Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights, counsels that it's important to avoid the urge to steer clear from credit after a bankruptcy. "Unfortunately, many people avoid credit afterward, which is understandable, but doesn't help the situation," she says. Instead, Detweiler says to focus on responsibly repaying any loans -- such as a car or student loan -- that may have survived bankruptcy. "Continue to pay them on time. You may also want to get a secured credit card. Use it for one purchase a month (your cell phone bill for example) and pay it off right away, and it will provide a valuable credit reference," she says. "I've seen consumers boost their credit scores by 50-75 points or more in one or two years using this approach."
Ways to Improve Your Credit After a Bankruptcy: A Checklist
As both Detweiler and Hardekopf make clear, being proactive about rebuilding your credit score after a bankruptcy is a must. Here are some other ways to take an active role in reinvigorating your financial health post-bankruptcy:
● Know your credit score -- Many people put this one off, because it can be painful. You know your credit score is low so does it really matter how low? Yes, it does. Get a copy of your credit report and know your score. Review it for any inaccuracies and make note of your debts. Only then can you come up with a plan to pay off your debts and improve your credit. WisePiggy.com is a great resource to get your score truly for free (without having to enter your credit card number).
● Open a new bank account -- Opening a new checking and savings account will demonstrate financial stability. It can also give you a fresh slate to practice good financial habits. When you open your account, talk to the banker about signing up for automatic online bill pay. This will ensure that your bills are paid on time, which is a major factor in good credit.
●Apply for a secured credit card -- If big credit card bills led to your bankruptcy, you may feel like this is a terrible idea. Why go down that path again? The best answer is that secured credit cards are one of the easiest ways to build credit and improve credit scores. Compare interest rates of different cards, so you can select a card with the best rate and a low annual fee. A rate around 15% is good and an annual fee less than $30 is desirable.
● Get a gas card or a retail card -- Gas and retail credit cards will also improve your credit. If you drive a car, you will have to purchase gas. You should make those purchases work for you. Gas and retail cards typically don't require applicants to have good credit and, in fact, cater to folks with blemished credit.
● Pay off your balance in full every month -- While you are reestablishing your credit, it's critical to pay off your full balance every month. This demonstrates to creditors that you are not a risk. Timely payments also have a significant impact on your credit score.
● Continue to monitor your credit score -- Check your credit score regularly (monthly is ideal) while you are actively improving your credit. Watching that number go up can make you feel like your hard work is really paying off.
Finally, it's also important to remember to be patient throughout this process. A bankruptcy can impact your credit for as long as 10 years. But the more active a role you take and the sooner you get started, the quicker you can bounce back from bankruptcy. The bottom line is avoid a bankruptcy if at all possible, but if you have to file, then know there is hope. Good luck and please share any tips or feedback you might have below!
Curtis Arnold, a nationally recognized consumer advocate, is the founder of BestPrepaidDebitCards.com, which provides ratings of prepaid cards and secured credit cards. He also founded CardRatings.com almost 20 years ago.