Building your credit history from scratch can take between six months to two years, especially if you consider earning instant approval credit card offers as a sign that you've developed "good credit." Instead of just focusing on how high of a credit limit you can build, use this time to develop the kinds of habit that will really strengthen your personal credit score over the coming years. Follow these three steps to start your credit history on solid ground:

1. Start with a secured credit card or a student credit card

If you're over the age of 21 and enrolled in a degree program, many banks will ease their usual underwriting restrictions and issue you a student credit card with a relatively low credit limit. Because your credit score rises with the age of your oldest account, choose a no-annual-fee card that offers online banking and payment reminders. Keep the monthly balance on this card just above zero and make every minimum payment on time if you want to maximize the impact on your credit score.

Capital One, Citi and Discover all offer credit cards for student borrowers.

If you're not in school, you can set aside a few hundred dollars as the security deposit for a secured credit card. Capital One, Bank of America and Wells Fargo offer secured cards with annual fees under $50. That's far less than you might pay for a "bad credit credit card" that comes loaded with service charges. After a year or so, with a record of good credit card management, you may qualify to convert your secured credit card to an unsecured account, releasing your deposit in the process.

2. Supplement your portfolio with a retail or gas credit card

The banks that underwrite private-label credit cards often tolerate a little more risk, since cardholders can only run up balances at specific retailers. However, most credit-scoring algorithms don't distinguish between retail cards and universal cards. Again, keep your balance above zero to register your account as "active," but as low as possible to minimize your credit utilization ratio.

3. Build a relationship with a local bank or credit union

Although online banking makes managing our money convenient, I can't overstate the importance of building relationships with people who can make a major difference in your financial life. They happen to work at the local branch of your friendliest bank or credit union, and they're there to build the kind of relationship that can eventually encompass your home loan, your car loan, and even your credit cards.

Look for branches that offer free financial consultations, seminars and other community outreach activities. A branch manager who knows your personal history, your job situation and your financial goals can help you qualify for better deals than your credit score might normally allow. Remember to check your free annual credit report for errors that could negate your work to build a sound credit history.

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