How to Build Your Credit Score if You Have a Low (or non-existent) Score?

Twice in the last month I’ve had emails from people who have had a spouse denied for a credit card because the wife didn’t have any credit history.  Even though they followed the steps in how to get approved even if you were denied, they were still not approved. Both situations were quite similar so I thought I would address it in a blog post.

Here’s the situation.  Even though the household (husband and wife) have had a solid credit history, the wife still has no credit score.  In those households, homes loans and credit cards have always been in the name of the one spouse (in these cases, the husband).  The result is that the other spouse does not have any credit history.  Now that they follow Help Me Travel Cheap, they want to maximize their miles by getting the best credit cards in the names of the husband and wife.

As a basic reminder to all of us, we should remember that both individuals’ credit history is completely independent of each other when it comes to credit cards.  That means if the husband has had a credit card for ten years and the wife is a card holder, then the husband’s credit score will show ten years of history, and the wife’s credit history will show zero years of history.

The obvious solution is for the wife to start getting some credit cards under her own name. But, that is where we might start to play the Catch 22 game.  How can you get a credit card to build a good credit score when you are getting denied for a credit card when you have a poor credit score?

How to Build a Credit Score When You Have a Low Score

Step #1:  Be sure that you sign up for Credit Sesame and possibly also Credit Karma. (I have both since they’re free.)

Both of these tools will help you see how your credit card is improving over time.  As a general rule, I’d say you probably want to maintain a credit score above 700.  If you’re just trying to build your credit, I’d focus on getting above 700 before applying for multiple credit cards in an effort to get miles.

Step #2: Apply for a student credit card.

Things to keep in mind when applying for your first card:

  1. Apply for a no annual fee card.  The reason is because the function of this card is to help you build your credit.  As a result, you want a card that you will keep for a very, very long time.
  2. I’m assuming that this doesn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it just in case.  Be sure that you apply for the card in the person’s name who has no credit history.
  3. From there, you can use that card occasionally (at least once a month) and pay it off every month.

Avoid applying for a Capital One credit card as they pull from all three credit bureaus.  This means more inquires will show up on your report.  Avoid applying for a card with Chase as you’ll want to save those applications for later since Chase typically offers some of the best sign up bonuses.

For that reason, I’d focus on student cards from Citi or Discover.

Ilana Greene suggests you start off by applying for a department store credit card. (She also mentions that some departments store cards won’t show up on your credit history.)  Personally, I think starting off with a student credit card is best.  The reason is that credit card companies obviously don’t expect students to have a long credit history.  Thus, the approval process would not require as high of a score.

Remember, your goal is to build credit – not to earn points.  The ability to collect points like crazy will come later!  Right now your goal it to try and increase your credit score by increasing your credit history.

I’ve included below some details on student cards from Discover and CitiCards that might be worth considering.


Step #3: Set up online automatic payments.

To help you be sure that you don’t miss a payment (to save money and increase your score), you should set up online banking and set it to automatically pay your bill when it is due.


  1. says

    I’ve got another quick way, Craig. Assuming that the spouse who has credit history has a *good* credit history, you can easily transfer that over to the other spouse by adding them as a joint account holder for your credit cards. I did this with my wife and now my full credit history for those cards shows up on her credit report as well. It’s a quick, easy way to get a good credit history established if one spouse already has it.

    • Craig says

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, that would be much simpler! I had the impression that these folks were already joint account holders (because that’s what my wife and I do). But, guess what? I never asked them. I bet that is the solution they should try.

    • Jeff says

      My wife and I have the same problem. I have always added her as an authorized user which apparently doesn’t go on her credit report. To add her as a joint account holder….is it as easy as calling up the credit card and asking them to add her as a joint account holder? Or is this something you have to do when you first sign up for the card? Thanks.

      • says

        Jeff, you don’t have to do it when you first apply – you can call them up at any time to add your wife as a joint account holder. And yes, being an authorized user will not build credit history.

        Different cards will have different policies about how they add authorized users. Two of the three I did for my wife just needed us to call and give her information to them. One had a form we had to complete and mail back. But both were quick and easy.

  2. Kurtis says

    thanks for clarifying the difference between authorized user and joint account holder. I, likewise, found that my wife’s credit score was not affected by being an authorized user. I will definitely pursue the joint account from now on.

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