A 540 credit score can be a sign of past credit difficulties or a lack of credit history. Whether you’re looking for a personal loan, a mortgage or a credit card, credit scores in this range can make it challenging to get approved for unsecured credit, which doesn’t require collateral or a security deposit.
|Percentage of generation with 300–639 credit scores|
“Poor” score range identified based on 2021 Credit Karma data.
Most credit scores range from 300 to 850, and lenders tend to look at scores in the 500 to 600 range as less than ideal. Why does it matter what lenders think? Because they use credit scores to help assess the risk associated with lending money to you.
With a poor credit score, you might have trouble qualifying for credit. Maybe you’ve already been rejected for a credit card you’ve had your eye on, or maybe you only seem to qualify for loans with high interest rates and fees.
If that’s the case, don’t lose hope. Understanding what goes into your credit scores — and yes, you have more than one credit score — is the key to building your credit. Perhaps you’ve already heard that your scores are calculated based on information in your credit reports, but what does that really mean?
In this article, we’ll show you how important credit information can influence your credit scores. Credit bureaus like Equifax, Experian and TransUnion collect this information from lenders and financial institutions and use it to build your credit reports. The information in those reports is then run through various credit-scoring models and, voilà, your scores come out on the other end.
But that’s not the whole story. Let’s take a closer look at how to build credit so you can work toward better financial products. Taking the right steps today could pay off in the future.
- Building your credit
- What credit card can I get with a 540 credit score?
- Personal loans with a 540 credit score
- Auto loan rates for poor credit
- Mortgage rates for poor credit
Building your credit
Building credit can feel like running a marathon.
If your credit falls in the range that’s generally considered “poor” (300 to 639), you could have a long race ahead of you. But the only way to reach the mile markers of fair, good and excellent is to take it one step at a time.
Pace yourself, because it won’t happen overnight. But if you start slowly and begin to develop healthy credit habits now, you’ll build up your credit over time — and gain real satisfaction from your accomplishments along the way.
Five main credit factors typically influence your credit scores.
- Payment history
- Credit usage
- Length of credit history
- Credit mix
- New credit
|On-time payments by credit score range|
|Credit score range||Avg. percentage of on-time payments|
Ranges identified based on 2021 Credit Karma data.
Rather than simply define these factors, we’ve put together some practical tips that take each factor into account. Follow these tips, and you’ll be on your way to making positive contributions to the factors that tend to weigh most heavily on your credit scores.
Make a monthly budget
Sticking to a budget can make it easier to stay on top of your bills. If you know how much money you can afford to spend every month, paying off your credit card and other loan balances won’t feel so intimidating.
That’s important because your payment history — including any late payments — can have a real influence on your credit scores. Paying on time every month on accounts that report to the main consumer credit bureaus is one of the best things you can do for your credit.
Set up autopay
We just talked about how payment history is an important factor in determining your credit scores. But sometimes, even when you budget well and plan to pay on time, the exact due date can slip your mind.
We’re all human. It’s OK to acknowledge that! To avoid human error, we recommend setting up autopay on all of your credit accounts. With automatic payments on your side, your credit won’t have to suffer in the event of a random bout of forgetfulness.
Don’t let your credit card balances balloon
If you’ve fallen into credit card debt, you may already know that carrying a high balance can result in hefty interest charges. But what you might not have realized is that a high credit card balance can also hurt your credit by increasing your credit utilization rate.
Your credit utilization rate is the percentage of your available credit that you’re using at any one time. The standard advice is to keep that percentage below 30% if at all possible, but using even less than 30% of your available credit is preferable.
This can be easier said than done. But every little bit helps. Even if you can’t afford to pay off your whole account balance right away, try to chip away at it until it’s at or near 30% of your total credit limit.
Think carefully before closing old credit card accounts
If you don’t use an old credit card much anymore, you might be tempted to close it.
To this we say: Not so fast. Keeping an old credit card account open can increase your age of credit history as well as your credit mix, which could help you build credit.
You might be better off keeping that old account open, assuming you don’t have to pay an annual fee. You may even consider putting a small recurring charge — like a monthly subscription — on the card to ensure the account stays active and the credit card company doesn’t close it for you.
Don’t apply for too many new credit cards at the same time
A hard inquiry (or “hard pull”) typically occurs when you apply for a new credit card. This just means that the card issuer has requested to check your credit as part of the approval process.
A hard inquiry can have a small negative impact on your credit, but just one hard inquiry is usually not a big deal. But multiple hard inquiries in a short period of time might lead lenders to assume that you’re a potentially risky borrower. Whether that’s true or not, it isn’t something you want weighing down your credit!
What credit card can I get with a 540 credit score?
You might have a hard time getting approved for a credit card with poor credit scores.
The good news is, Credit Karma can help. You can log in to your account to see your personalized Approval Odds for a number of different credit cards. While your Credit Karma Approval Odds aren’t a guarantee that you’ll be approved for a particular card, they can help you find a credit card that matches your current credit profile.
Here are some common options you may come across.
Secured credit cards
Applying for a secured credit card might be your best bet if your credit still needs some work. With a secured card, you’ll pay a security deposit upfront. This security deposit typically sets your credit limit. So if your security deposit is, say, $300, your credit limit may also be set at $300. This gives the issuer some insurance in case you close the account without paying off your debt.
Because secured cards pose less of a risk for credit card issuers, they may be more readily available to someone with poor credit. And a secured card can benefit you as a borrower if the lender reports your on-time payments and other credit activity to the three main credit bureaus.
Unsecured credit cards
If you can’t afford a security deposit, you might be able to find an unsecured credit card. The trade-off is that it will potentially come with an annual fee — which is arguably worse than a security deposit because it’s typically nonrefundable. You could also face higher interest rates.
Store credit cards
Store credit cards typically incentivize you to shop at a particular retailer. This type of card can be secured or unsecured, so it’s not technically a third category. But store credit cards are worth talking about as an option if you’re building credit.
Why? Because you might have a better chance at getting approved for a store credit card with poor credit. The potential downside is that these cards tend to come with high interest rates, and you may only be able to use them at a specific store. On the other hand, they might offer rewards and benefits that make sense if you already shop at the store in question.
If you’ve looked into all of these options and still can’t find a card that you can get approved for, you may have other options. Consider asking a family member or trusted friend to add you to their credit card account as an authorized user. But first, familiarize yourself with the pros and cons of being an authorized user on a credit card.
Compare offers for credit cards for poor credit on Credit Karma to learn about more options.
Personal loans with a 540 credit score
You might find it challenging to get approved for a personal loan with poor credit scores.
Given your current scores, you might not have the luxury of shopping for the best personal loans with the lowest interest rates. Instead, you may have to settle for a personal loan with a high interest rate — not to mention other fees, such as an origination fee.
This could make a personal loan seem very unappealing to you, especially if your intention with the loan is to consolidate high-interest credit card debt. The APR on your personal loan could be just as high, if not higher, than the interest rate you’re currently paying on your credit cards.
On the other hand, if your goal with a personal loan is to finance a major purchase, you should ask yourself whether it’s something you need right now. If it can wait until after you spend some time building credit, you may qualify for a personal loan with a lower APR and better terms later down the line.
If you’re really in a pinch for cash and you’re having a difficult time finding a personal loan you qualify for, you might be considering a payday loan. While everyone’s situation is unique, you should generally be wary of these short-term loans that come saddled with high fees and interest rates. They can quickly snowball into a cycle of debt that’s even harder to climb out from.
Before you apply for a payday loan, consider whether you have any other options. You can also compare personal loans on Credit Karma to learn more about what’s available to you.
Auto loan rates for poor credit
There’s no specific minimum credit score required to qualify for a car loan. Still, if you have poor credit, it could be difficult to get approved for a car loan. Even with the best auto loans for poor credit, watch out for high interest rates, which can make it very expensive to borrow money.
If you have time to build your credit before you apply for a car loan, you may be able to eventually get better rates. But if you don’t have time to wait, there are some strategies that can help you get a car loan with bad credit.
- Consider a co-signer if you have a trusted family member or friend with good credit who is willing to share the responsibility of a car loan with you.
- Seek out alternative lenders, such as a credit union or an online lender.
- Ask the dealership if there’s a financing department dedicated to working with people with poor credit.
- Use buy-here, pay-here financing only as a last resort.
If your credit could use some work, it’s especially important to shop around to find the best deal for you. Our auto loan calculator can help you estimate your monthly auto loan payment and understand how much interest you might pay based on the rates, terms and loan amount.
Compare car loans on Credit Karma.
Mortgage rates for poor credit
The average credit score needed to buy a house can vary, but it could be more challenging to qualify for a loan if your credit needs work.
You may find that mortgage offers that are available to you come with high interest rates that can cost you a lot of money. It’s important to consider the long-term financial impact of an expensive loan, and it may be worth taking some time to build your credit before applying.
But there are some types of mortgages to consider if you don’t qualify for a conventional loan. These government-backed loans that are made by private lenders include …
- FHA loans
- VA loans
- USDA loans
If you qualify for one of these loan types, you may be able to make a smaller down payment, too.
No matter what your credit is, it’s important to shop around to understand what competitive rates look like in your area. Compare current mortgage rates on Credit Karma to learn more.
It can be more difficult to get approved for loans and other offers if you have bad credit. If you can, give it time. The more you build up your credit, the more likely it is that you’ll start to qualify for better offers.
If your applications for credit are being denied and you don’t understand why, you have the right to ask and get an answer. This is also the first step to take if you suspect a lender is discriminating against you. It’s illegal for lenders to discriminate based on certain protected traits, such as race, gender, religion or marital status, and there are steps you can take to protect your rights as a borrower.
It may be tempting to go with a credit repair company for a quick fix. Be aware that these can be expensive, and sometimes companies that advertise these types of services can make misleading claims about what they can do for you. If you’re looking for guidance on navigating your personal credit situation, consider credit counseling instead.
Poor credit can leave you feeling discouraged, but it comes with a long runway for improvement — and a lot of goals to celebrate along the way. Knowing how to read and understand your credit scores and credit reports can help you understand how to take the next step in your financial journey.