Your credit score is that three-digit number that rules your credit life. If you have a number above 660 you should be able to easily get a new credit card, a personal line of credit or an auto loan. You will be able to rent a house or an apartment and you will save money on your auto insurance premiums. On the other hand if you have a score of less than 500 you may have a very hard time getting any kind of credit.
A deep dark secret
Credit scores used to be a deep, dark secret known only to lenders. FICO, the company responsible for developing credit scoring, provided credit scores only to lenders and the three credit reporting bureaus. You could get your score by paying FICO or free from Experian, TransUnion or Equifaxb. However this would not be your FICO score but your Vantage score, which is based on a model developed by the credit bureaus.
Now easier than ever
Nearly half of us have checked our credit scores within the past year. According to a Bankrate Money Pulse survey another 14% have checked their scores within the past three years. Unfortunately not everyone has done this. Many Americans have never gotten their credit scores. In fact, a 2013 study from the American Bankers Association found that 56% of us did not know our credit scores.
The good news is that over the past few years credit scores have become easier to access than ever before. If you have a certain type of Discover card you’re probably getting your credit score every month. US Bank recently began providing its customers with their TransUnion credit scores. Bank of America is beginning to provide FICO scores to its consumer credit card customers and Chase is providing FICO scores at no cost to its Slate cardholders. Citi now provides free FICO scores monthly to those that have Citi-branded cards.
Even FICO is getting onboard
FICO recently said that it would provide versions of its score free to customers that are financially strapped. This will be done through certain nonprofit credit counseling agencies and government organizations that participate in the program`.
Websites that provide credit scores
In addition to the three credit reporting bureaus there are several websites that provide free credit scores. The most popular of these are Credit Karma, Quizzle and Credit Sesame. If you sign up with one of these websites you’ll get a good idea of your score with each of the three credit bureaus. And if you combine the twice yearly free Equifax credit report from Quizzle with Credit Karma’s free credit reports. plus the free credit reports available at www.annualcreditreport.com you should be able to spot any identity theft early on.
While getting your credit score is a good idea it’s even more important to understand how lenders view it. They generally look at credit scores in ranges as follows:
• Excellent Credit: 781 – 850
• Good Credit: 661-780
• Fair Credit: 601-660
• Poor Credit: 501-600
• Bad Credit: below 500
How credit scores are calculated
FICO calculates credit scores using a proprietary algorithm. Vantage scores are based on an algorithm developed by TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. No one outside these four companies knows exactly how their credit scores are calculated but it’s known that FICO scores are based on five factors.
- Credit history
- Credit Utilization ratio
- Length of credit history
- New credit
- Credit mix
Of these five the most important is credit history or how you have used credit in the past as it accounts for 35% of your score. Credit utilization is sometimes called your debt-to-credit ratio. It accounts for 30% of your score and is computed by dividing the amount of credit you’ve used by the total amount of credit you have available. Length of credit history is how long you’ve had credit. It makes up 15% of your score while new credit and credit mix each accounts for 10%. Your credit mix is the different type of credit you have – for example an auto loan, a mortgage and credit cards. New credit is sort of a misnomer because what it really means is the number of accounts you’ve opened recently. This can be important to potential lenders because it suggests you might be having financial problems and are desperately seeking new lines of credit.
To improve your score
If you have a low credit score and would like to improve it there are only several things you can do. If you’ve seen ads that scream, “Increase your credit score to 700 overnight” or “We’ll get those negative items off your credit report,” we have three words for you: Don’t believe them. There is absolutely no way to get a credit score increased overnight and while it’s possible to get negative items removed from a credit report it’s not something that any third-party can do.
There’s obviously nothing you can do about your credit history because it’s history. What’s done is done. You could improve your credit utilization ratio using one of two options. First, you could pay down your balances so that you would have a better debt-to-credit ratio or you might be able to get one or more of your credit limits increased – although this is generally easier said than done.
You could also improve your credit mix. For example, if you only have one credit card and an auto loan you could open a second card or take out a personal line of credit. The reason why this accounts for 15% of your credit score is that potential lenders like to see that you’ve successfully managed different kinds of credit. Of course, it will take time for this to improve your credit score because you’ll need to show you can handle that new credit card or personal line of credit sensibly.
If you have bad credit
If you have a credit score of 500 or below, you have some hard work ahead of you. The first thing you will need to do is get a free copy of your credit reports either from the three credit reporting bureaus or all at once on the site www.annualcreditreport.com. Go over your reports very carefully looking for the items that have sabotaged your credit score. These include late payments, missed payments, accounts that have gone to collection and defaults. You may be able to catch up on late payments and you could, of course, take care of missed payments. Just because you’ve defaulted on an account doesn’t mean you no longer owe the money. If you pay off the balance of a defaulted account it will still be listed as a default but as paid in full. The same thing is true of an account that has gone to collection. You will need to pay it off or negotiate a settlement with the debt collection agency to get square on it. As you can imagine all of this takes time as well as money. Beyond this you might get a secured credit card. Use it sensibly and this will be reported to the three credit bureaus, which will ultimately help improve your credit score.