Updated on 04.28.16

What You Need to Know About Your Credit Score

Hal Bundrick

By now, it’s clear that our modern lives are being monitored. What we do, say and buy, and where we live – it’s all out there. Our financial lives are of particular interest to Big Data, especially credit scores. It’s a number that invisibly follows you everywhere, impacting your life in more ways than you imagine. It is the ultimate measure of your reliability. This is the complete scoop on how it works and why it matters.

Check Your Credit Scores Instantly Online

Who is Keeping Score?

The three big players in the credit score business are TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. They make money selling your credit information, history, and score to banks, businesses, and even potential employers. Your credit report details your payment history, the amount of debt you’ve piled up – even where you work and live. Plus, it includes if you’ve ever been sued, arrested, or filed for bankruptcy. All of this information is used to generate a credit score – basically a grade – that measures your financial reliability. The higher the score, the better. Each credit bureau develops their own score, but the information is all compiled and interpreted by a company called FICO (formerly Fair Isaac Corporation), which generates a single score that most creditors use.

Why Should I Care?

Your credit score plays a big part in your life, even if you’ve completely sworn off debt. If you are looking to rent an apartment, buy a house, purchase insurance, or get a new car, your credit score will come into play. Even if you’re trying to get a job, many potential employers will have you sign a disclosure so they can access your score. For better or worse, it’s a number that is being stamped on your life as a grade for your character and dependability.

What’s a Good Score? What’s a Bad Score?

Think of 7 as your lucky number. Generally a credit score of 700 or more is considered favorable. Of course, things are never that simple. Each credit agency has its own score range with minimal variations – and then there’s a new scoring system called VantageScore, Developed by the Big Three agencies, it ranges from 150 to 990. But the scores most reported, including the FICO score, commonly range from a low of 300 to a high of 850. Experian says that the average American has a credit score of 675, so at 700+ you’d rank above average. Here’s how the curve is graded:

  • Anything under 640 is considered a poor score: You’re likely to be considered a high-risk borrower, and that means your credit card interest rates will be much higher than average and you won’t qualify for a typical loan.
  • A credit score of 641-680 is fair: You may qualify for that loan or credit card, but your rate will be relatively high.
  • A credit score of 681-720 is good: You’re in the pocket. With a score in this range, you’ll get plenty of credit card offers, qualify for loans with good rates, and pay lower insurance premiums.
  • A credit score of 720-850 is excellent: At this level you get the best rates on credit cards, car loans, and home mortgages. Above 720 is generally considered a “perfect” score.

What Affects My Score?

The “how and why” of your credit score doesn’t have to be a mystery. There are tangible reasons why your score changes, and specific steps that can be taken to improve it. Let’s look at what most impacts your credit score, according to FICO.

  • Credit History (35%) – Timely repayment of borrowed money is the most important factor in your credit report, impacting 35% of your FICO score. This includes credit cards, retail accounts (like department store credit cards), loans, and finance company accounts. A single late payment can impact your score for up to seven years. Your credit history also includes bankruptcies, foreclosures, lawsuits, and other public record and collection items. These legal actions can impact your score for up to 10 years, though the impact slowly decreases with time.
  • Amounts Owed (30%) – Carrying a large debt load can lower your score, even if you make payments on time. Having used a large portion of your available credit can account for 30% of your credit score. FICO also considers remaining balances due, as well as the number and types of credit accounts you have.
  • Length of Credit History (15%) – The longer you’ve managed credit, the better. Having a brief credit history can lower your score.
  • Types of Credit (10%) – This is not a key factor, accounting for only 10% of your FICO score, but still a consideration. Try to have a good mix of credit; retail accounts, credit cards, installment loans, and a mortgage are all considered. For example, not having a credit card can actually lower your score.
  • New Credit (10%) – FICO believes that having several new credit accounts pop up in your report within a short period of time means you represent a greater lending risk, especially if you have a short credit history.

Tips to Improving Your Credit Score

There are a lot of moving parts that make up your credit score. I know my head is hurting a little bit just writing about it, but here’s the good part: there are some fairly simple things you can do to improve your score.

  • Start Early: You like this one, don’t you? It’s true, you have to begin building your credit history early, so get a credit card if you don’t have one.
  • Use No More Than Half of Your Available Credit: For example, if your Visa card has a $1,000 credit limit, train yourself to use just half – or less – of that available credit. By thinking of your card as maxing out at $500 instead of $1,000, and disciplining yourself to spend less than the credit limit, you will lower your “balance-to-limit” ratio, which can help raise your score. This only applies to revolving consumer accounts, not to your mortgage or installment loans.
  • Use Payment Reminders: Since making timely payments is the greatest factor in your credit score, make the process as painless as possible. Using automatic reminders or payments can help, but remember to set the payments for an amount greater than the required minimum and be sure to keep enough cash in the bank to cover the payment each month.
  • Pay Off Accounts, But Don’t Close Them: Once you pay off a credit card that you think would be best retired permanently, don’t use it again but don’t close the account, either. Keeping it open will maintain your available credit, and by not using it you’ll enhance your balance-to-limit ratio.

Know Your Score

You can’t fix your credit score if you don’t know what it is. First, order a free credit report. Each of the Big Three bureaus is mandated by law through the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) to provide you with a free report once a year. You can order all three reports at once or, by rotating your requests among each one, you can receive a fresh credit report every four months.

There is only one official site for obtaining your free report and it is AnnualCreditReport.com. Watch out for bogus sites claiming to be the official “free credit report” website. You can also call (877) 322-8228 to order the free report.

Once you have your credit report in hand, you’ll want to check it for accuracy. Make sure your address and other personal information are correct and then review each credit account, looking for inaccurate amounts owed and verify that each credit account is actually yours. If you find errors, you’ll need to contact the individual credit agency issuing the report to begin the correction process. You can find help on correcting credit report errors, including a sample dispute letter at the Federal Trade Commission website.

When you’re diving into the pages of your credit report, you may start scrambling to find your credit score. Let’s hope you stuck with me this far, because while your credit report is free, your credit score is not. You have to buy your FICO score for roughly $20 from myfico.com. There are services that offer to estimate your credit score – some saying they will provide these “educational scores” for free – but it’s probably best to stick with the real thing.

The End Game

Now that you know just how critical your credit score is to your financial life, you’re empowered to nurture your number. The key is to not only know your score, but also understand what it means and how to improve it. In this case, Big Data – along with a big number – can help you live large.

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