A credit score is a number that lenders use to determine the risk of loaning money to a given borrower.
Credit card companies, auto dealers, and mortgage bankers are three types of lenders that will check your credit score before deciding how much they are willing to loan you and at what interest rate. Insurance companies and landlords may also look at your credit score to see how financially responsible you are before issuing an insurance policy or renting out an apartment.
Here are the five biggest things that affect your score, how they affect your credit, and what it means when you apply for a loan.
- Payment history, debt-to-credit ratio, length of credit history, new credit, and the amount of credit you have all play a role in your credit report and credit score.
- Landlords may request a copy of your credit history or credit score before renting you an apartment.
- Your FICO score only shows lenders your history of hard inquiries, plus any new lines of credit you opened within a year.
- Experts suggest that you should never close credit card accounts even after paying them off in full because an account’s long history (if it’s strong) will boost your credit score.
What Counts Toward Your Score
Your credit score shows whether or not you have a history of financial stability and responsible credit management. The score can range from 300 to 850. Based on the information in your credit file, major credit agencies compile this score, also known as the FICO score. Here are the elements that make up your score and how much weight each aspect carries.
1. Payment History: 35%
There is one key question lenders have on their minds when they give someone money: “Will I get it back?”
The most important component of your credit score looks at whether you can be trusted to repay funds that are loaned to you. This component of your score considers the following factors:
- Have you paid your bills on time for each account on your credit report? Paying late has a negative effect on your score.
- If you’ve paid late, how late were you—30 days, 60 days, or 90+ days? The later you are, the worse it is for your score.
- Have any of your accounts been sent to collections? This is a red flag to potential lenders that you might not pay them back.
- Do you have any charge-offs, debt settlements, bankruptcies, foreclosures, lawsuits, wage garnishments or attachments, liens, or public judgments against you? These items of public record constitute the most dangerous marks to have on your credit report from a lender’s perspective.
- The time since the last negative event and the frequency of missed payments affect the credit score deduction. Someone who missed several credit card payments five years ago, for example, will be seen as less of a risk than a person who missed one big payment this year.
2. Amounts Owed: 30%
So you might make all your payments on time, but what if you’re about to reach a breaking point?
FICO scoring considers your credit utilization ratio, which measures how much debt you have compared to your available credit limits. This second-most important component looks at the following factors:
- How much of your total available credit have you used? Don’t assume you have to have a $0 balance on your accounts to score high marks here. Less is better, but owing a little bit can be better than owing nothing at all because lenders want to see that if you borrow money, you are responsible and financially stable enough to pay it back.
- How much do you owe on specific types of accounts, such as a mortgage, auto loans, credit cards, and installment accounts? Credit scoring software likes to see that you have a mix of different types of credit and that you manage them all responsibly.
- How much do you owe in total and how much do you owe compared to the original amount on installment accounts? Again, less is better. Someone who has a balance of $50 on a credit card with a $500 limit, for instance, will seem more responsible than someone who owes $8,000 on a credit card with a $10,000 limit.
3. Length of Credit History: 15%
Your credit score also takes into account how long you have been using credit. For how many years have you had obligations? How old is your oldest account and what is the average age of all your accounts?
Long credit history is helpful (if it’s not marred by late payments and other negative items), but a short history can be fine too as long as you’ve made your payments on time and don’t owe too much.
This is why personal finance experts always recommend leaving credit card accounts open, even if you don’t use them anymore. The account’s age by itself will help boost your score. Close your oldest account and you could see your overall score decline.
4. New Credit: 10%
Your FICO score considers how many new accounts you have. It looks at how many new accounts you have applied for recently and when the last time you opened a new account was.
Whenever you apply for a new line of credit, lenders typically do a hard inquiry (also called a hard pull), which is the process of checking your credit information during the underwriting procedure. This is different from a soft inquiry, like retrieving your own credit information.
Hard pulls can cause a small and temporary decline in your credit score. Why? The score assumes that, if you’ve opened several accounts recently and the percentage of these accounts is high compared to the total number, you could represent a greater credit risk. Why? Because people tend to do so when they are experiencing cash flow problems or planning to take on lots of new debt.
5. Types of Credit in Use: 10%
The final thing the FICO formula considers in determining your credit score is whether you have a mix of different types of credit, such as credit cards, store accounts, installment loans, and mortgages. It also looks at how many total accounts you have. Since this is a small component of your score, don’t worry if you don’t have accounts in each of these categories, and don’t open new accounts just to increase your mix of credit types.
What Isn’t in Your Score
The following information is not considered in determining your credit score, according to FICO:
- Marital status
- Age (though FICO says some other types of scores may consider this)
- Race, color, religion, national origin
- Receipt of public assistance
- Occupation, employment history, and employer (though lenders and other scores may consider this)
- Where you live
- Child/family support obligations
- Any information not found in your credit report
- Participation in a credit counseling program1
Example of Why Lenders Look at Your Debt
When you apply for a mortgage, for example, the lender will look at your total existing monthly debt obligations as part of determining how much mortgage you can afford. If you have recently opened several new credit card accounts, this might indicate that you are planning to go on a spending spree in the near future, meaning that you might not be able to afford the monthly mortgage payment the lender has estimated you are capable of making.
Lenders can’t determine what to lend you based on something you might do, but they can use your credit score to gauge how much of a credit risk you might be.
FICO scores only take into account your history of hard inquiries and new lines of credit for the past 12 months, so try to minimize how many times you apply for and open new lines of credit within a year. However, rate-shopping and multiple inquiries related to auto and mortgage lenders will generally be counted as a single inquiry since the assumption is that consumers are rate-shopping—not planning to buy multiple cars or homes. Even so, keeping the search under 30 days can help you avoid dings to your score.
What It Means When You Apply for a Loan
Following the guidelines below will help you maintain a good score or improve your credit score:
- Watch your credit utilization ratio. Keep credit card balances below 15%–25% of your total available credit.
- Pay your accounts on time and if you have to be late, don’t be more than 30 days late.
- Don’t open lots of new accounts all at once or even within a 12-month period.
- Check your credit score about six months in advance if you plan to make a major purchase, like buying a house or a car, that will require you to take out a loan. This will give you time to correct any possible errors and, if necessary, improve your score.
- If you have a bad credit score and flaws in your credit history, don’t despair. Just start making better choices and you’ll see gradual improvements in your score as the negative items in your history become older.
The Bottom Line
While your credit score is extremely important in getting approved for loans and getting the best interest rates, you don’t need to obsess over the scoring guidelines to have the kind of score that lenders want to see. In general, if you manage your credit responsibly, your score will shine.