We’re all talking about improving our lives for the better around this time of year. One of the things we tell ourselves is that this is the year we’re finally going to take real steps to get out of debt. For many of us that debt comes from credit cards.

If the recession of 2009 taught us anything it’s that keeping a close watch on our money and credit is the best way to protect ourselves. Here are ten things you should know about credit cards and your credit score in the new year.

1. Small fines like library and parking tickets can affect your credit score.
It’s no longer uncommon for libraries and traffic departments to turn over unpaid fines to collection agencies, who in turn quickly report them to the three credit bureaus.

2. Do not stop using a credit card because you’re trying to pay it off.
You’re trying to be frugal with money, understandably, but freezing activity on your account looks bad for your credit score. Even small charges like coffee or sandwich show that you are utilizing your credit and shows the credit card company that you’re able to manage money.

3. Do not close a credit cards just because you’ve maxed it out.
Closing a credit card, even if you don’t use it, will make your “credit utilization” go up. This is part of your FICO score and counts for 20% of your credit score. Credit utilization measures how much of your available credit you use as compared to how much credit is available to you. Rather, speak to your bank about payment options.

4. Paying off your debt does not automatically put you in the good books.
Creditors look at your history, not just activity from the last year, for example. But rest assured know that you’re out of debt, even if it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get certain loans immediately.

5. Paying all your bills on time doesn’t mean you have good credit.
You may be paying off your gas bill, but more than likely when it’s time for a report to the credit bureaus, the utility company will only show the months you were late. A creditor may be thinking ‘This person can’t pay their electricity bill on time, how will they manage a mortgage?’

6. Getting a credit report frequently will not negatively affect your score.
Contrary to what most people believe, you can check your score as many times as you want without hurting your credit score. Scrutinizing your credit reports will also help ensure that accurate information appears on the report.  

7. Merchants should not ask you for identification, depending on your credit card.
Can you recall how many times you’ve been asked for ID while making a credit card transaction? Merchants are actually prohibited from asking you for ID by companies like visa and MasterCard. Your signature should be enough, so goes the thinking. Merchants are trying to protect themselves from fraud, but you do have a choice to say no. Only American Express allows merchants to ask for ID.

8. Your credit score is never merged with your significant other.
The only time your credit scores are merged is if you make a joint purchase. Otherwise your debt is yours and theirs is theirs.

9. If you cosign on a loan the creditor will come after you.
Unless you’re a 100% sure the primary borrower will repay, never co-sign on a loan because if that borrower defaults on payments, the lender comes after you, which could negatively affect your credit score.  

10. Your credit card account does not only activate when you call the toll-free number.
Say you apply for a credit card and then change your mind when it comes because– technically you know you shouldn’t have gotten it any way–it’s already too late. The account automatically becomes active whether or not you call, which means you have to use it.

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