Is your credit score a bad apple? PostTV and finance columnist Michelle Singletary break down two straightforward ways to improve it—until it's as good as apple pie. (Kate M. Tobey, Gillian Brockell and Jonathan Elker/The Washington Post)

There are no shortcuts to strengthening your credit score.

Say that to yourself three times a day until you stop trying to figure out or waste good money searching for an easy fix to boosting your creditworthiness.

I say this because I was taking calls from some radio listeners recently and a young woman asked how to increase her credit score, which was in the high 600s — a decent score but not great. She was referring to the range for the FICO score, which goes from 300 (lowest) to 850 (highest). The first question I always ask people trying to improve their credit score is: Do you pay your bills on time?

The caller hesitated.

“That would be a no,” I jumped in.

“No, no, I pay them on time,” she said.

I pressed because I’ve been answering the question for years. And people don’t seem to want to acknowledge the behavior that can affect their credit.

“Really, you pay every single bill, on time?”

Then she came clean. She “mostly” pays them on time. Only occasionally does she slip up, she admitted.

In her case, that’s the score slayer.

Don’t listen to the television ads promising quick fixes or the many junk e-mails with subject lines claiming secret ways to improve your credit. Paying your bills on time is the No. 1 way to fix your credit. Every debt. Every month. On time.

But when I say that, I get blank stares of disbelief or heavy breaths. It can’t be that easy. Surely there is some trick to the system.

No secret. No trick. Go back and read my opening line — there are no shortcuts to strengthening your credit score. Thirty-five percent of your score under FICO is your payment history.

The other effective way to boost your score is to pay down your debt. Thirty percent of your score is derived from how much you owe. So all that credit card debt you carry month to month also is dragging your score down. If you must carry debt, FICO recommends keeping your credit card debt at 30 percent or less of your available credit. So if you have a credit line of $1,000, you shouldn’t have more than $300 outstanding at any one time. Same goes for all your cards. Don’t use more than 30 percent of the total available credit you have.

I was rejoicing recently when a survey found that young adults largely were shunning the use of credit. Turns out that 63 percent of consumers 18 to 29 say they do not have a credit card, according to a study. They preferred debit cards.

But when I tweeted my joy that millennials weren’t embracing the credit culture, some people thought that wasn’t a good thing. They were concerned they wouldn’t be able to buy a home.

Here’s what many people don’t seem to get about the credit scoring models. They are fluid, not static. As you pay your bills on time and pay off debt, you are contributing to the upward mobility of your credit as often as your creditors report what you’re doing to the credit bureaus. Besides, more than half of millennials say they carry balances from month to month. Not good.

“Like weight loss, slow and steady wins the race,” says Anthony A. Sprauve, FICO’s director of public relations. “The average consumer should start to see their FICO score improving three to six months after they begin positive behaviors such as paying down their credit card debts and paying all of their bills on time every time.”

The same is true in building up credit. It doesn’t take as long as some people think to establish good credit. And you should keep in mind that your credit score is just one factor in the home loan approval process. My niece and her husband, both in their mid-20s, just bought a single-family home without having a history of regular credit card use. Her husband had student loans that he paid on time.

Again, if you have loans — a car loan, student loans — that you are paying on time, that also helps build up your credit score.

As you repair your credit history, don’t beat yourself up for past mistakes. Adverse information such as late payments can stay in your file for seven years. But time heals this wound.

“As negative things fade into the distance of your credit history rearview mirror, they have less impact on the FICO score,” Sprauve said.

So repeat after me: There are no shortcuts to strengthening your credit score.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or To read previous Color of Money columns, go to