Two years ago I started the painful process of finding affordable, rodent-free housing in New York City. My roommate and I went from Craigslist to brokers to emotional meltdowns on street corners. During this process was the first time I learned my credit score, in the small, back-alley office of a Russian broker who seemed as cuddly as Ivan Drago.
(Yes, I know this movie came out 4 years before I was born. I grew up overseas so my pop culture references are a decade delayed.)
As I started filling out my application for an apartment, Ivan gruffly said, “We need $30 for the credit score, dah?” I glimpsed helplessly at my roommate wondering if this was some scam to a separate a poor, recent college grad from all the money in her wallet? Naively I asked (in my best Rocky voice), “Why do you need my credit score?” Ivan turned to me and said, “So we know if you’re trustworthy or not.”
I handed Ivan $30 to find out I was indeed trustworthy, but that the landlord was not and I ended up having to repeat the process all over again. Don’t worry, we ended up with a delightful landlord who reminds me of “Gus” Portokalos from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, only with much less Windex.
(I can’t say it wouldn’t have surprised me if my landlord had me fix our pipe problem with a little Windex.)
After my encounter with Ivan I wanted to learn how I had managed to create a “trustworthy” credit score. This is what I discovered…
What goes into a credit score?
A big, scary company named Fair Issac and Company (or FICO) uses five different factors to give you a credit score. Your score will range between 150 to 990 points (hearing 300 to 850 is more common). Similar to pretty much any sports competition (except golf because it’s just silly) the higher your score the better.
The five factors are:
- 35% – Payment history
- 30% – Amounts owed
- 15% – Length of credit history
- 10% – New credit
- 10% Types of credit used
However, the percentage chart shouldn’t make you think you can disregard any particular piece of the pie. Just because your credit cards would only make up about 10% of your credit score doesn’t mean you can run up a bunch of debt and expect only marginal impact on your credit score. If you max out your credit card and then are 30 days late on a payment it could cost you 110 points. It’s similar to getting a zero on a pop quiz in college and then losing your A in a course. It may be a small piece, but a low score can still hurt.
You should also keep in mind that credit reports were not created equal. FICO makes it clear that categories vary for each person.
“Your FICO credit score is calculated based on these five categories. For some groups, the importance of these categories may vary; for example, people who have not been using credit long will be factored differently than those with a longer credit history….Therefore, it’s impossible to measure the exact impact of a single factor in how your credit score is calculated without looking at your entire report.” – myFICO
Why does your credit score matter?
Because it will cost or save you money. A low credit score could make lenders wary of loaning you money, or more realistically, make them salivate because you’ll probably rack up fees and they can charge you a higher interest rate. A low score can also hike your car insurance or offer on a home loan, prevent landlords from wanting to have you as a tenant and allegedly prevent you from getting a job.
What hurts your credit score?
Probably what you’re already thinking: debt, maxed-out credit cards, late payments and heavy-hitters like foreclosure, accounts sent to collections, defaulting on a loan and bankruptcy.
How can you improve your credit score?
What happens if you already ran into a few issues and tanked your credit score? Or you might just be curious about how to keep it “trustworthy”?
- Pay your bills on time.
- Be consistent about paying off any debt.
- Try to stick with a credit card (or two) and avoid constantly opening and closing accounts.
- Don’t apply for credit too frequently.
- Do the best you can to prevent identity theft. Watching what you put on social media, keep your account and password information private (even from significant others, friends and possibly family), monitor your credit report, review your monthly bill (or even be more proactive and check on a regular basis for any abnormal activity), protect your computer and don’t click on links in emails from unknown senders.
How can you check your credit score?
I’m sure most (American) readers have at one point or another had a catchy Free Credit Report.com jingle stuck in their heads.
(I apologize that it is now likely stuck in your head. Several choruses of “It’s A Small World After All” should remove it.)
With terrifying statements like “Well I married my dream girl, but she didn’t tell me her credit was bad. So now instead of living in a pleasant suburb, we’re living in the basement at her mom and dad’s. Cause we can’t get a loan for a respectable home, because my girl defaulted on some old credit card…” the jingle encouraged viewers to use freecreditreport.com to check and monitor their credit.
You can go to sites like creditkarma.com to see a non-FICO version of your credit score. This will be a close approximation to your actual FICO credit score.
If you’re interested in feeling a great sense of accomplishment, then bypass the middle man and just go straight to the source. There are three main credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Oddly enough, they may (and likely do) all have different reports for you, so it’s best to receive of a copy from all three and analyze for any inaccuracies you may need to dispute. You are entitled to a free copy of your report every 12 months. However, these reports will not contain your credit score, because that you have to pay for. You can go to annualcreditreport.com to view all three copies of your credit report for free.
You can request your credit score from all three credit reporting agencies through FICO for $19.95 each.
Credit scores aren’t fairest way to asses your “trustworthiness” but it happens, especially if you’re looking for housing in New York City.
When did you first learn the importance of your credit score? Have you been proactive about improving or maintaining your score?
22 responses to “Do You Have a "Trustworthy" Credit Score?”
This explains everything 🙂 “so my pop culture references are a decade delayed”
Good tip on requesting the free annual scores from the bureaux. I try to space them out so I get one of the three every four months or so. It’s imperfect because they’re all different, but it’s the best I think I can do with the freebie
Spacing them out is a good idea. Perhaps I’ll try it too.
I found out my credit score when my credit union sent my report in the mail. I am pretty good, but I know that having a maxed out credit card doesn’t always help.
Did you have to request the report or was it just sent proactively?
Creditsesame.com will give you your score for free, no strings attached. I’ve been using it for 2 years and love it!
Checking out Creditsesame now!
Nice post Erin! I seem to remember finding out about mine after I had already damaged it with crazy spending. Love the references though, sadly, I remember seeing Rocky IV in the theatre. 🙁
Not sadly, awesomely! Rocky movies are the best! I’ve seen all of them including Rocky Balboa.
Great movie references, although like John, I remember seeing Rocky IV when it came out. 🙂 And I think it’s totally false advertising for freecreditscore.com to not really be free, especially since we have put up with that stupid jingle getting stuck in our head! Unfortunately, too many people don’t think about their credit scores until the damage is already done. But the good news, I guess, is that with time you can fix your score too.
I find it most interesting each personal is evaluated differently. It certainly makes sense, I guess I’m just impressed they bother to treat people as individuals. And I’m glad you appreciate the Rocky IV references!
I was pretty lucky in that I worked for a bank when I was young. I learned all about credit scores and had a pretty good handle on how credit works. These days I have a great credit score, but I am far more concerned with debt-to-income and net worth.
I think both those factors are more of a concern too, but it’s good to have a handle on your credit score/reports. I also think it’s good to check just so people can make sure no errors have been made.
I agree 🙂
fun fact I learned about credit scores… they are based on EXACTLY that time they are checked. Meaning if you do it the day before your monthly credit card bill is paid in full, your score will be lower than if you wait until that bill clears. I learned this the hard way! That’s why people suggest if you plan on taking out a major loan, it’s best to pay things in cold hard cash for a month or two so that your debt to credit ratio is super low and sexy to the credit reporting agency.
Wow, great tip! Thanks for sharing.
I got curious about what my score was so I did one of those free trial things I had to unsubscribe from afterward. One of my friends was talking about it, so I decided it was a good thing to do. Mine has always been good, and I plan to keep it that way! I see people’s credit scores all day and it amazes me how low some of them are. Very rarely do I see 800+. It’s usually due to late payments – being past due on your mortgage does not help in getting approved for financing.
I’m sure it’s hard to get above an 800, especially when you’re young. It’s a bit scary how one little misstep can really destroy your score. Best to be informed though so you know how to avoid making a mistake. What do you do that involves eyeballing credit scores all day?
I process applications for financing. It’s pretty interesting to see what aspects of your credit report lenders actually look at.
I’m pretty cynical about FICO. Something as important as the formula by which our credit scores are tallied should be public knowledge. As you said here, it determines the interest rates we receive on loans, whether or not we’re chosen as tenants, whether we’re given credit in the first place. It really burns my bacon that something so monumental is kept secret from people (though I did appreciate the creditcards.com article you linked to – that was informative!).
I realized my credit report – not as much the score – was important after I screwed it up with credit cards. Now I’m working on building my credit report and history back to a “trustworthy” level.
I’m curious how long it takes to get back to “trustworthy” status.
I too found the credticards.com piece interesting, especially because we’re so kept in the dark about our credit scores/reports. You’re right to be a little cynical about FICO for that reason. There should be more public knowledge surrounding credit scores.
Credit scores are so important! When we got our house, I was happy to see that my years of keeping a low balance, paying my bill in full each month, and never missing a payment (I think I did accidentally pay one late, actually…) had paid off.
The nice thing about credit scores is with a few years of hard work you can improve your score. Even if it’s in the dumps, you can slowly continue to move up until you have absolutely stellar credit.