How to understand credit scores

Americans’ total debt tops $ 252 billion dollars, according to Federal Reserve data, yet most don’t have a basic understanding of credit information like who calculates credit scores, what constitutes a “good” score, the financial impact of a “bad” score, and what basic information is on a credit report.

Only a quarter of consumers know that generic credit scores are now available from multiple sources – not just the three main credit bureaus – according to a Consumer Federation of America survey of 1,000 people. And a third to 40 percent don’t know that their age and marital status are not used to calculate a credit score, the survey revealed.

Even if you review your credit report every year – and you should view it more frequently than once every 12 months – it’s easy to be confused by credit scoring. While the factors that go into calculating a credit score largely remain the same no matter who’s doing the calculating, the weight each factor is given can vary. And more importantly, so can the score range and what constitutes a “good” versus a merely “fair” score.

To help you better understand credit scoring and how it affects your financial well-being here are answers to six basic credit score questions:

Q. What is a credit score?

A. A credit score is a three-digit number that creditors (from banks to credit card issuers to landlords) use to evaluate your credit worthiness. It’s intended to be a predictor of how likely you are to repay a debt.

Q. How is a credit score calculated?

A. Scoring agencies such as the credit bureaus draw information from your credit report and plug it into complex algorithms that calculate your score. The information on your credit report comes from a number of sources, including credit card issuers, mortgage companies, auto lenders, landlords and more. The calculations generally take into account whether you pay bills on time, the length of your credit history, the amount of credit you’re using versus the amount you have available, the types of credit accounts you have, and how frequently you’ve applied for new credit in recent months.

Q. Why do I have more than one credit score?

A. Every consumer’s credit score will vary, depending on who’s calculating it. And the score you see when you request one from a reporting agency may not be the same as what a lender would see when asking the same agency. The two most popular scoring models are FICO and Vantage, with credit ranges of 300 to 850, and 501 to 990, respectively. Your score will vary depending on which of these models an organization uses. That said, there are also a myriad of others out there, mostly due to that fact that organizations often use their own proprietary scoring models, so one consumer can have many scores.

Q. How do I know if I have a “good” score?

A. Generally, the higher your score number, the better – and the more likely that you will be perceived as creditworthy by potential lenders. For FICO, a score above 700 can be considered good and may qualify you for better interest rates and other loan terms. VantageScores consist of both a number and a letter grade. Every hundred points equates to a letter grade, so if your score falls in the range of 700 to 799, your letter score would be a “C ” – and likely considered merely average by lenders. A score of 800 to 899 would rate a “B” and anything higher than 900 would be an “A.”

Q. How can I stay on top of my credit score?

A. The only way to know your credit score is to ask for it, and yes, you’ll almost certainly have to pay for it. While you’re entitled to one free look at your credit report once a year from the three major bureaus, that does not include your credit score. The good news is you have many cost-effective resources for accessing your score. If you’re interested in keeping close track of your credit – and who isn’t in this economy? – credit monitoring can help you know what’s on your credit report, better understand your credit and keep tabs on the type of information that can influence your credit score.