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Is it ever too late to build credit? For many older Americans, it’s not an issue because a lifetime of good financial habits have secured them strong credit scores. In fact, the Greatest Generation — those age 66 and older — tend to have the highest average credit scores, coming in at an average VantageScore of 735 according to Experian’s Fourth Annual State of Credit report.

But an average is just that — an average — and some will fall far below.

“I sadly have (seen) many people who always had beautiful credit and when they got older had no mortgages, no car loans and even stopped using credit cards so they basically looked like someone who had never used credit before,” says Jeanne Kelly, a contributor to Credit.com and the author of The 90 Day Credit Challenge.

Many other older Americans experienced financial problems during the recent recession and saw years of good credit wiped out, seemingly overnight.

And while it is not as common as it used to be, some widows find themselves with little to no credit history after the death of a spouse because that person handled most of the family’s financial affairs.

Why Should I Care?

Some older people assume that there’s no point of establishing credit at an older age. If their homes and cars are paid for, why do they need credit? But that’s making a pretty big assumption that you won’t make any changes for the rest of your life. Is that really the case?

Do you like to travel? Then a high score could help you snag a premium rewards card offering hundreds of dollars in free travel benefits.

Or maybe you discover you need to move to be closer to children orgrandchildren, or because you’ve had enough of wintry weather. A good credit history could allow you to secure a mortgage on a condo, allowing you to rent out your home until you are ready to sell it. Getting a cellphone or utility services are also easier with good credit. And as the recent data breaches have demonstrated, using a credit card instead of a debit card can be a safer way to shop both online and in stores.

Get Started Now

One of the challenges of building credit at an older age is that it takes time to build strong credit, and you may have fewer years ahead of you to do that, at least compared with someone in their 20s.

The age of your accounts (individually and in the aggregate) are one of the five major factors influencing your scores. According to FICO, “high achievers” – those with credit scores of 800 or more — on average opened their oldest account 25 years ago and the average age of their accounts is 11 years.

If you had credit before but have been through a setback, some of your previous account histories will likely remain on your reports. Certainly any credit cards that have remained open and active will still be reported, but loans you have paid off may still be reported, provided there was activity in the past decade or so. (After 10 or more years of no activity, some accounts will no longer be reported.)

But if you check your credit reports and find there’s not much there, don’t get discouraged. Payment history and debt are more important. (You can find out what areas of your credit are strong, and which need some work, by using a free tool like Credit.com’s Credit Report Card. You will get a truly free credit score plus grades for each areas of your credit.)

On the plus side, if you don’t have much of a credit history, one of the things you have going for you is little to no debt. In fact, according to Experian’s research, older Americans had the second-lowest average debt level of any age group, coming in at $3,044. (Millennials averaged $2,682.) The 66+ age group also had the lowest utilization level at 16%. Utilization measures how close your reported balances on your revolving accounts compare to the credit limits, and generally a lower utilization ratio is better.

Ready to start establishing credit? Consider starting with a secured credit card or perhaps a retail card from a store where you frequently shop. Use the card to buy things you would normally buy and pay the balance off in full to avoid interest. As soon as that account is reported to the credit reporting agencies, usually within 30 to 90 days, you will be on your way to building credit. That’s a strategy that works at any age.

More on Credit Reports and Credit Scores:

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