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About 1 in 5 (19%) people haven’t applied for credit because they were afraid of being turned down, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. Even more surprising: That number is larger than the group who said they were turned down for credit when they applied (16.4%)!

Those two numbers likely indicate consumers are feeling stressed or insecure about their credit situation. When they can’t get credit the traditional way, some consumers turn to payday loans — quick, unsecured loans that carry high interest rates. As the name implies, most of these loans are taken out with the intent of paying them back as soon as expected money arrives, but the reality is they frequently are renewed, with interest often far exceeding the amount borrowed. In 2013, 4.2% of consumers said they had taken out such a loan, up from 3.9% the year before.

If you’re afraid to apply for credit, there are probably two reasons for that. Either you don’t know what is required to qualify, or you are convinced your credit isn’t good and you figure there’s no reason to try. While you may not be able to turn around a bad credit rating overnight, there are definitely steps you can take to improve your chances of getting the loan or credit card you want in the future.

The Case for Being Careful

Sometimes it does make sense to choose not to apply rather than wait for creditors to say no to you. That’s because a credit inquiry — whether the credit is approved or denied — may cause a small, temporary drop in your credit scores. And so if you really need the credit, now you are left to apply for it with a slightly lower score than you had when your first application was rejected. It’s little wonder people who are afraid they will be denied credit don’t apply at all.

A better idea, even if you are not in the market for credit, is to keep tabs on your credit (you can track it with two free scores, updated monthly from Credit.com). Because in an emergency, the ability to qualify for credit can’t hurt you and it may come to your rescue.

If you have been on the frustrating treadmill of “can’t get credit because you don’t have credit,” a secured card can help you escape. To get a secured card, you’ll need to put down a deposit to establish a credit limit. These cards generally have annual fees, and some let you “graduate” to a regular unsecured card after a certain period of on-time payments. If you are nervous about having credit, you can make your limit low, charge nothing more than an occasional lunch or coffee, and then pay the bill online as soon as you get home (or schedule a payment for close to the due date). You will want to keep your balance to less than 10% of your limit to help your scores the most.

Another way to begin to establish credit is as an authorized user on a credit card held by someone with excellent credit. (This would give you access to their entire credit line, however. If all you want is to piggyback on their credit history, you — or they — could agree to destroy the card when it arrives. If you are a parent considering doing this for an adult child, there is no need to give the authorized user the card or its number.)

Not sure what you might qualify for? Find out where you fit on the credit score range. Do you have good credit? Fair? Poor? You can use Credit.com’s credit card tool to find a card you’re likely to qualify for. Once you have a traditional card, just keep your balance low and your payments prompt. As you build credit, you stand to get better rates on your loans and pay less on your debts in the long run (you can find out your lifetime cost of debt using this calculator).

If you turn your credit around, you’ll have nothing to fear when it comes to, say, qualifying for a used-car loan when your trusty old car gives up the ghost and you need a way to get to work. And if you qualify for traditional credit, you won’t be tempted to use services like payday loans or “buy here, pay here” car lots that cater to people in desperate situations, and then, more often than not, prolong the financial misery.

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