The ultimate guide to understanding your credit score

NNatalie September 16, 2023 12:31 PM

Your credit score is like a financial report card, and it can have a big impact on your life. Whether you're applying for a loan, renting an apartment, or even trying to land a job, your credit score can make or break your chances. Understanding your credit score, how it's calculated, and what can affect it is crucial for financial health.

What is a credit score?

In simple terms, a credit score is a numerical representation of your creditworthiness, or how likely you are to pay back your debts. It ranges from 300, the worst possible score, to 850, the best. There are various models used to calculate credit scores, but the most widely used is the FICO score. Your credit score is determined by several factors, including your payment history, the amount of debt you owe, the length of your credit history, the types of credit you have, and how much new credit you’ve applied for.

Factors affecting your credit score

1. Payment history

Your payment history is the most significant factor in your credit score. It accounts for 35% of your FICO score. If you consistently make payments on time, it can significantly improve your credit score.

2. Amounts owed

This accounts for about 30% of your score. It doesn't just look at the total debt, but also the ratio of your debt to your total available credit, known as your credit utilization ratio. Lower is better.

3. Length of credit history

This makes up about 15% of your score. It takes into account the age of your oldest account, the age of your newest account and an average age of all your accounts.

4. Credit mix

Representing 10% of your score, credit mix looks at the different types of credit you have, such as credit cards, mortgages, or auto loans. A variety of credit types can improve your score.

5. New credit

Also representing 10% of your score, this factor considers how many new accounts you've opened or applied for recently.

How to check your credit score

It's important to regularly monitor your credit score to ensure there are no mistakes and to understand your financial position. You can check your credit score for free once a year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

How to improve your credit score

Improving your credit score is not an overnight process, but there are steps you can take to start moving in the right direction:

  1. Pay your bills on time: This is the most effective way to improve your credit score. Even if you can only afford the minimum payment, make sure it's on time.
  2. Reduce your debt: Lowering your credit utilization by paying down debt can help improve your credit score.
  3. Don't close old credit cards: The length of your credit history can affect your score, so keep older accounts open, even if you don't use them often.
  4. Limit new credit applications: Each time you apply for credit, it can ding your score. Apply only when necessary.
  5. Dispute any errors on your credit report: Mistakes can happen, and they can negatively impact your score. If you find any, dispute them right away.

Myths about credit scores

There are plenty of misconceptions out there about credit scores. Here are a few of the most common ones:

  • Checking your credit lowers your score: This is a myth. You can check your own credit as often as you want without any impact on your score.
  • You only have one credit score: In fact, you have multiple credit scores. Different lenders use different scoring models, so your score can vary.
  • You need to carry a balance to build credit: Not true. Paying off your balance each month can help improve your credit score.

Understanding your credit score can be complex, but it's an important part of your financial life. By keeping tabs on your credit score and understanding what affects it, you can take steps to improve it and put yourself in a better position for the future.

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