Have an income and live on a budget. Building and rebuilding credit is mostly about paying your bills on time. To do that, you need to have a steady income. Alimony and child support qualify, but if that’s your only source of income, it needs to be high enough to meet all your (and your kids’) monthly expenses.
No matter the source of your income, manage it well. A budget can help you make the best of your income. If you’re not used to managing money, e.g. because your ex-spouse always took care of the bills, it can take some time to get used to paying bills and staying under your income. Read as much as you can about personal finance and look for some local personal finance courses to help you get acquainted with managing money.
Check your credit report and credit score to see where you stand. You can find out how to improve your credit by learning what’s affecting your credit. Pull a recent copy of your credit reports from all three credit bureaus for free through AnnualCreditReport.com. If you’ve already ordered your free reports for the year, you can also purchase single or three-in-one credit reports through any of the bureaus.
Your credit score will give you some perspective on whether your credit history is good or bad. Purchase your credit score through FICO.com or any of the three bureaus. Or, get a free version of your score through CreditKarma.com, CreditSesame.com, or Quizzle.com.
Make sure your joint debts with your ex-spouse are taken care of. You’ll never have complete control of your credit history while you still have open accounts with your ex-spouse. Your ex's actions – or non-actions – will continue affecting your credit score even after divorce.
Ideally, the debts you’re responsible for are in your name only and those your spouse is responsible for are in his or her name only. A refinance, balance transfer, and consolidation are options for the two of you to restructure your debts so they’re in the responsible person's name.
In the meantime, if there are joint debts that still have your name on them, stay on top of the payment history – for your credit’s sake. Missed payments can still affect your credit score even if the judge declared your spouse responsible for those payments. Close joint credit cards to prevent future charges from being made on the account.
Deal with bills you can’t afford to pay. It’s common for ex-spouses to struggle financially in the months and sometimes years following the divorce. Seek help through consumer credit counseling if you’re having trouble paying all your bills. The counselor can help you assess your financial situation and help you decide the best way to deal with your bills. Depending on the severity of your situation, the credit counseling agency may suggest that you file bankruptcy.
Change your last name before getting new credit. If you’re going to legally change your name, e.g. the ex-wife may go back to her maiden name, do it before you start applying for new credit. That way, your new accounts will be issued in the legal name you’ll use going forward. Also contact your existing creditors to have them change the name on your accounts.
If you were hoping that changing your name would restart your credit history, I have bad news for you. A name change won’t affect your credit since accounts are linked based on your social security number. All variations of your name will be listed on your credit report.
Get credit of your own – a secured credit card if necessary. The key to building a good credit score is to show that you can handle credit responsibly. That includes borrowing only what you need and making payments on time every month. If you already have accounts in your name alone, you’re on the right track. Pay these on time every month and keep your credit card balances below 30% of the credit limit.
If you were an authorized user or joint account holder on your ex-spouse’s credit cards, you may already have a credit history. In that case, it may not be hard opening up new accounts in your own name. The best way to tell is to put in an application. Use your recently pulled credit report and credit score to get an idea of the type of credit cards you should apply for. For example, if you have a bad credit history, look for credit cards for people with bad credit.
Once you have a good financial foundation and credit accounts of your own, the key to rebuilding your credit score post-divorce is to borrow only what you can afford to repay and to pay your bills on time every month.