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Your Credit Score: How It Works and How to Improve It

Approximately 90% of credit decisions in the United States rely on your credit score as a determining factor.[1]

When I was in college, I would regularly get requests from other students to drive my car. I'd get asked at least once a week, if not more.

You may be wondering, "What kind of car did you have? Ford Mustang? Dodge Charger? Porsche 911 Carrera? It must have been pretty cool if people were always asking to drive it!"

I must admit the answer is quite underwhelming. I drove a silver 2004 Honda Accord. It was a practical, dependable car but it wasn't very exotic. The only reason I was constantly asked about it is because our campus was 2 miles away from anything resembling civilization and only 1 1/2 hours from Los Angeles. They didn't care what it looked like; they just wanted a car!

I told most people "no". And the reason was simple: I wasn't really sure if they would return my car in the same condition it was in when I gave it to them! Basically, the only ones I did lend my car to were the students from my home church. As the "lender", I felt that I could trust them to take good care of my car.

The biggest question any lender has to ask themselves is whether a borrower is trustworthy, or more specifically, creditworthy. Can I trust this person/business/organization to pay back the loan that I give them?

Over the centuries, lenders of all sorts have struggled to accurately gauge the creditworthiness of potential borrowers.

But as lending moved into the 20th century, it became apparent that there needed to be a better, more scientific way to determine a borrower’s creditworthiness. Enter the credit score.

A quick word of clarification is needed. When we talk about “credit score” we are typically referring to a FICO score. There are several types of credit scores out there but the FICO (Fair Isaac Corporation) score is the one predominantly used by lenders.

FICO developed a mathematical formula that would help lenders simplify their loan approval process. This algorithm was designed to take the relevant information about a borrower’s credit history and assign them a credit score on a scale of 300-850. Over the years, the algorithm has been adjusted and tweaked but the purpose is still the same: to help lenders gauge whether a borrower is likely to pay back their loan.

What factors are included in your FICO Credit Score?

1. Payment History (35%)

Do you pay your bills on time? If you pay bills late, how long did it take for you to make the payment? Have you had accounts sent to collections? Have you had bankruptcies, foreclosures, liens, settlements, etc. in the last 7 years? How long has it been since your last negative event?

These are good indicators of your likelihood to pay back the loan. That's why this factor is given the highest weighting.

2. How Much You Owe (30%)

Your credit utilization rate looks at how much debt you owe compared to your available credit limits. Many credit experts recommend that you keep your utilization rates around 10-30% maximum.

For example, if your credit card has a $5000 limit and you make $1000/month in purchases then your utilization rate = 20%. A low utilization rate is going to be looked at more favorably than someone who regularly spends $4500/mo on a card with a $5000 limit. So if you want to increase your credit score it’s important to not be using a high percentage of your credit limits on a regular basis.

3. Length of Credit History (15%)

How long have you been making payments on time? What is the average age of your accounts? A long history of making payments on time is very beneficial to your credit score.

This is the reason why it can be hard for young people to have "excellent" credit. They simply haven't established enough credit history yet. This is also why many credit experts recommend not closing accounts even if you don’t use them anymore. Closing those accounts will lower the average age of your accounts and could cause your credit score to drop.

4. New Credit Accounts (10%)

Applying for a new line of credit can affect your score. Whenever you apply for a loan, there is a “hard inquiry” or “hard pull” on your credit. This means lenders have accessed your credit information as part of their decision-making process.

Opening a new line of credit or having a “hard pull” on your credit will often result in a small drop in your credit score. This is because you may now be a greater credit risk. The reason you have applied for a line of credit could be because you are experiencing financial difficulty or have cash flow problems so the score adjusts to factor in that possibility.

5. Types of Credit (10%)

What types of credit do you have: installment loans, mortgage, line of credit, credit cards, etc.? Demonstrating that you are capable of paying back multiple types of loans can improve your credit score.

However, since this is one of the smallest factors, it would not be advantageous to take on new types of loans just so you could raise your credit score. Whatever benefit you would get from a slightly higher credit score would certainly not outweigh the cost and interest from a new loan.

What factors are not included in my credit score?

· Income

· Assets

· Age

· Where you live

· Gender

· Race

· Family size

Lenders may consider some of these factors (income, assets, other liabilities) in addition to your credit score. But by law, some factors (age, gender, race) cannot be used and would be considered discriminatory.

Based on these five factors, your credit score can range from 300-850. Each lender makes its own determination on what they consider to be “good” or “bad” credit scores. But generally speaking, here is how lenders grade these scores:

Borrowers with scores of 740+ are more likely to be approved and more likely to receive the lowest offered interest rates. Borrowers with scores between 580-739 may still be able to be able to get approved but will likely pay a higher interest rate. Borrowers with scores of 579 or below will find it difficult to be approved for a loan. Any loans they do receive will typically have very high interest rates.

Now where do credit bureaus fit into this picture? Many people have heard of the “Big Three” credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. These companies do not determine your credit score. Instead, their job is to collect relevant data about you that’s used to calculate your credit score . When a lender wants to inquire about your credit score it will go to a credit bureau (usually one of the Big Three) and the credit bureau will take the information they have about you, apply FICO’s formula, and report your score to the lender.

Side note: sometimes these bureaus report different credit scores for you. The reason could be that either (a) they don’t all have the same information about you or (b) the scores being reported were calculated on different days.

5 Ways to Improve Your Credit Score

· Make your payments on time

It’s pretty straightforward: consistently paying your bills when they are due goes a long way to building your score over time.

This is the biggest factor. Have a plan to pay off your loans. I recommend using the "debt avalanche". Budget your payments for the upcoming month and set automated reminders so that you don't miss the deadlines.

· Check your credit report

A few years ago, the Federal Trade Commission ran a study that found that as many as 1 in 5 Americans had inaccurate information on at least one of their three credit reports.[2] Your credit report contains all the information that the credit bureaus use to calculate your score. So, if the information they have is wrong then your score will be wrong.

You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report every year. If any information is missing or incorrect you can notify the credit bureaus to make changes accordingly. You can access your free personal report here.

· Keep accounts open

Even if you don’t use that credit card any more you probably don’t want to close it out. You don’t have to keep using it, but by keeping it open it helps increase the average age of your credit accounts and helps build your score.

· Keep utilization rate low

Only use your credit cards for regular purchases and pay them off at the end of the month. Don’t use credit cards as your emergency backup and avoid getting near the credit limit. Remember, a 10-30% utilization rate is preferred and can help boost your score.

· Avoid opening too many new accounts

Keep it simple. You don’t need 20 different credit cards from every retail store and airline. Every time you open a new account it can lower your score and it pulls down the average length of your accounts. Only open new lines of credit when it is clearly advantageous.

One final word of advice: be careful that you don’t get the cart before the horse. A good credit score can be an incredibly helpful tool. But that’s all it is: a tool. It is not an end in and of itself. There are times in life where borrowing can be a wise decision that helps propel you into a stronger financial position. But over time, we should moving toward a position where we no longer need to borrow money.

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