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Small improvements indicate Americans taking steps toward better credit

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Updated: 1/25/2013 10:38 am

(BPT) - When you're struggling with thousands of dollars of debt, saving a few bucks here or there may seem like a drop in the bucket. Yet in financial terms, those drops add up, and can ultimately create a more positive overall picture. That seems to be the case for the country, as evidenced by a recent report on credit scores and credit habits among American consumers.

Experian's third annual State of Credit report, which analyzes the average VantageScore (an industry-leading consumer credit risk score with scores ranging from 501 to 990, with higher scores representing a lower likelihood of risk), debt levels and credit use of people living in more than 100 U.S. cities, found that in the past year:

* Americans' average credit scores edged upward for the second consecutive year.

* Average debt decreased slightly.

* Income rose by nearly one and a quarter percent.

* Foreclosures fell by 12.59 percent.

* Among the 10 cities with the highest credit scores, eight had improved average scores over last year. Among the 10 cities with the lowest average scores, seven also improved their credit scores.

The cities with the highest average credit scores were: Minneapolis (787); Madison, Wis. (786); Wausau, Wis. (785); Sioux Falls, S.D. (784); Cedar Rapids, Iowa (783); San Francisco (783); Green Bay, Wis. (781); La Crosse, Wis. (779); Boston (778) and Duluth, Minn. (777).

The lowest average scores were found in Harlingen, Texas (688); Jackson, Miss. (702); Corpus Christi, Texas (706); Shreveport, La. (708); Monroe, La. (709); Augusta, Ga. (710); El Paso, Texas (710); Myrtle Beach, S.C. (710); Memphis (711) and Savannah (713).

'While many of these indicators point toward a renewed focus by Americans on wise credit habits, there are also signs that consumers still have room for improvement,' says Maxine Sweet, vice president of public education for Experian. 'In uncertain economic times, credit and debt management is often viewed as an indicator of Americans' overall financial well-being. As our nation and individual consumers struggle to emerge from recession, establishing and maintaining good credit has never been more important.'

Sweet offers consumers some basic credit information:

If you haven't already done so, check your credit score and report so that you have a benchmark for improvement. It's important to understand the financial behaviors that influence the information in your credit report. Once you understand how your financial behaviors affect your credit report, you'll be able to take steps to improve your credit history and, subsequently, improve your scores. Factors that affect your credit score include:

* Bill payment history - Paying bills on time is the single most important contributor to good credit. Late payments negatively affect your ability to get credit since they indicate a stronger likelihood that you will make late payments again or will be unable to pay your debts in the future. Even if the debt you owe is a small amount, it is crucial that you make payments on time.

* Credit card balances and other revolving credit - If you max out your credit card or charge balances that are very close to your limit, you will increase your 'balance to limit ratio,' or utilization ratio. A high utilization ratio may indicate that you are tempted to charge more than you can pay and therefore, negatively affect your credit score.

* Length of credit history - How long you've had certain accounts matters for your credit history. What's more, if you have negative information on your credit report, time is your ally in improving your credit score. While steps like catching up on late payments and paying down debts can help improve your score, there is no overnight fix for a low credit score. Improving your score will require time and discipline.

To learn more about building and maintaining a strong credit history, visit LiveCreditSmart.com.

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