All About Credit Scores

The truth is, many consumers are confused about credit, with good reason—it’s a complicated subject. While a large majority of consumers (more than 80%) know the basics of credit scores, they’re still lost when it comes to some very important details, a 2016 survey from the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and VantageScore Solutions, LLC, found. To alleviate some of the confusion, here’s a few short answers to some common credit questions.

Common Credit Questions

How do you build credit? Focus on the five fundamentals that determine your credit score: payment history, credit utilization, length of credit history, new credit, and credit mix. A general rule is to use credit sparingly and make payments on time. It takes years to build good credit, but it’s worthwhile to be patient.

Is it ever too late to build credit? No. Your credit score can affect you for your entire lifetime, so it’s always worth trying to improve.

How do student loans impact your credit? Making payments on time is good. Late or missed payments will always affect your score negatively.

How do you get credit when no one wants to give it to you? There are a few options: Find a secured credit card or other mode of credit designed for people with bad or no credit. Then, use it sparingly and make the payments on time. You can also try using another’s credit by becoming an authorized user on their account.

What is a FICO score and what does it mean? FICO is a data analytics company that specializes in credit scores. A FICO score is just one of the many credit scores used by lenders—and is the most common of the bunch when it comes to mortgage approvals.

What is a good credit score? Again, credit scores vary by model, but most scores including the popular FICO score just mentioned, use a range of 350 to 800, with 800 being the very best score you can receive and 350 being the lowest. Good credit is generally considered a score of 700 or above.

10 good things to know:

1. Credit Reports Differ from Credit Scores

A credit report is a standalone document—and a credit score is calculated based on information in a credit report. Credit scores are calculated using the information on your credit reports, which includes details of your credit accounts, how often you apply for credit, debt collection accounts, and some public records, among other things.

2. Five Core Factors

Those factors are:

  • Payment history
  • Credit utilization
  • Average credit age
  • Account mix
  • Inquiries

Payment history accounts for roughly 35% of your credit score. Approximately 30% of your credit score is based on the amount of debt you’re currently carrying, which means the amount of money you currently owe to your creditors. Roughly 15% of your score, this section measures how long you’ve had credit—in other words, the length of your credit history. Comprising 10% of the points in your credit score, this section looks for a healthy mix of credit accounts—different types of accounts, including credit cards issued by a retail store, home equity lines of credit, auto loans, etc. This section accounts for 10% of the points in your credit score. Whenever you apply for credit from a lender, a hard inquiry (explained below) posts to your credit report.

3. Free Scores and Reports

Individuals are legally entitled to a free copy of their annual credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. You can obtain your credit scores for free from different places. Many websites offer this service.

4. Checking Your Own Score

Only hard inquiries negatively impact your scores. A hard inquiry is when a lender looks at your credit when you apply for a loan or credit card. The effect is typically small and temporary.

5. Differing Scores and Credit Ranges

If you want to know where you stand or if your credit is improving, make sure you are comparing the exact same score and that you know the range. Wherever you obtained the score should provide that information. For example, a 750 FICO score is not necessarily equivalent to a 750 on another scoring model.

6. Beware of Fraud

If someone takes out credit in your name, or incurs a large amount of credit debit on your account, it will appear on your credit report and affect your credit score. Watch your score for changes you did not anticipate.

7. Low Score Impacts

A low credit score means you’ll probably have to pay higher interest rates on things like credit card balances and mortgages, if you are able to qualify at all. It’s always in your best interest to keep your credit score as high as you possibly can.

8. Joint Accounts

If you open a loan or credit card with another person, the account activity will be reflected on both your credit reports. Joint accounts are different than authorized users—but whenever you share credit, be aware of who is responsible and who is affected if a payment is missed.

9. Negative Ages Off

Different kinds of negative information will remain on your credit report for different periods of time. A bankruptcy is an exception to this, for example, but generally, negative information ages off your report and no longer affects your score after 7 years.

10. Credit Scores Aren’t the Only Things That Matter for Lending Decisions

A credit score isn’t the only thing lenders consider when reviewing applicants. If you have no credit or poor credit, you may be able to secure a loan through an alternative lender, and in some situations, making a personal appeal or giving a lender more context to your credit report can help you access their loan programs.