Image:  Stack of Credit Cards © Fuse, Getty Images

Everyone has made financial mistakes here and there. Maybe you forgot to pay the minimum balance on your credit card bill once or twice or fell behind on the utilities. Such missteps may ding your credit, but they won't sound the alarm -- as long as you don't let them become habits. But those who consistently do things that damage their credit scores may plunge into a hole that can take years to dig out of.

Bill Hardekopf, a credit expert with LowCards.com, says people with poor credit have to recognize how bad their situation has become and should be realistic about what it will take to rebuild their scores. "It takes you a long time to develop a bad credit report, so you won't be able to rebuild it overnight," he says.

The first step to climbing the ladder of recovery is to be financially prudent, Hardekopf says. Request your free credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com and make sure there are no errors on your credit history. Then, start to curb the harmful behaviors that affect your credit scores the most: Pay your bills on time and don't overspend on your credit card. Beverly Harzog, an independent credit card expert and consumer advocate, says even the smallest hiccup will set you back. "If you're not vigilant at paying all your bills on time, you'll only make things worse," she says

One of the best ways to reclaim a healthy FICO score is to establish good credit through a secured credit card, which has a fixed credit limit and is linked to a savings account. With traditional unsecured credit cards, the limit is based on your credit standing, but on a sedured card, the limit is equivalent to your deposit.

Gerri Detweiler, the director of consumer education at Credit.com, says people with bad credit may be hesitant to open a new line of credit because of the problems they've had in the past. "They're afraid to dip their toes into the water again," she says. "They figure, 'As long as this negative information is on my credit report, there's not much I can do, so I'm going to wait until it drops off my credit report.' That's a huge mistake, because one of the factors in your credit score is the average length of your account, as well as the age of your most recent credit account."

 To help you nurse your credit back to health, here are six expert-recommended secured credit cards:

Navy Federal Credit Union nRewards Card

To be eligible, you must be in the military or related to someone who is, but if you can qualify, Harzog says this is one of the best cards for rebuilding credit. The card reports to the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. (If a card issuer doesn't report to these bureaus, it won't affect your FICO scores.) There is no annual fee and the annual percentage rate is a variable 8.9%, which is low for this category. It comes with a generous 25-day grace period on purchases. You also earn one point for every dollar spent through the rewards program.

Citi Secured MasterCard

Citi invests your money in an 18-month certificate of deposit savings account instead of a standard savings account, so you'll earn 1.01% annual percentage yield. "You won't earn a lot, but it's a nice concept," says Harzog. The annual fee is only $29 a year. It comes with a high 18.24% variable APR, so Harzog advises against carrying a balance.

One caveat: You can't apply for the card online; you have to go in person to a Citi branch. "They want to be pretty strict about who can get the card," according to Harzog.

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