What is a credit score, and what is it used for?

·5 min read
If you have poor credit or no credit at all, don't fret. Read on for tips on improving your credit score. / Credit: / Getty Images
If you have poor credit or no credit at all, don't fret. Read on for tips on improving your credit score. / Credit: / Getty Images

Whether you're looking to open a new credit card account, buy a home with a mortgage loan or even purchase auto insurance coverage, you need good credit. That means your credit score will likely come into play. If your score is too low and you have poor credit, you might find that a lender will offer you a higher interest rate or other unfavorable terms -- or, in some cases, you could even be denied for the products and services you want most.

If you don't already know your credit score, you should consider using an online tool to help you. There are easy ways to find your score within just minutes.

Find out what your credit score is now!

While it can be stressful, having bad credit isn't the end of the world. Let's take a look at what it means to have a poor credit score, how this can affect you and the ways you can work to build your score back up.

What is a credit score?

Your credit score is a three-digit number that measures your creditworthiness, or how likely you are to responsibly manage your financial accounts, including your credit card debt. This number ranges between 300 and 900, depending on which credit bureau is calculating it. The higher your score, the more creditworthy you are believed to be.

If your credit score is on the lower end, don't panic: There are steps you can take to improve this number (which we'll get to later). It may not be a bad idea, though, to seek some expert advice and tips on how to improve the way you manage your personal finances.

Repair your credit with CreditFirm Improve your credit score with The Credit Pros

There are three credit reporting agencies in the U.S., which are responsible for tracking and maintaining the credit-based activity for American adults. These bureaus - TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian -  receive information from existing creditors and provide this information to potential creditors who may "pull your credit." These creditors can use any number of different models to calculate your score, including FICO (the most popular), VantageScore and others. So you actually may have more than one credit score.

Again, it's worth double-checking your score to make sure you have the latest number. Your credit score can change over time, so make sure you're using the tools available to you to have the most up-to-date information.

Whenever you open up a consumer-based account, such as a loan or credit card, the creditor will report the new account to at least one of the credit bureaus. Each month, they will also report your most recent account activity: whether the account is still open, how much you currently owe, what your credit limit is, whether you made your last payment on time and any personal information tied to the account.

These reports are added to your credit history, where they will remain for seven years before falling off.

Check your credit score at FICO What causes a bad credit score?

While each different credit scoring model has its own scoring ranges, anything below 580 to 600 is generally considered to be a poor score. If you have a bad credit score, this can result in denied loan applications, limited credit card options, and even higher car insurance rates.

Poor credit is usually the result of one or more of the following:Not having enough (or a varied mix of) different accountsPayment history: Late payments can particularly count against youUnpaid accounts or those that have gone to collections or been charged offCredit utilization: How much of your credit capacity is currently available?Too many inquiries in a short period of timeToo many recent new accounts openedA history of bankruptcy and/or judgments

You can also earn a bad credit score if your credit history is limited or nonexistent. If you've never opened (or tried to open) a credit account of any kind -- a credit card, a loan, a charge card such as American Express or even had a medical bill go to collections, chances are that your credit report will be pretty sparse if not blank. If the credit bureaus don't have any information on your creditworthiness, it's difficult for a scoring model to calculate a score for you.

How to improve a bad credit score

If you have a bad credit score, improving that three-digit number is a wise goal. A higher credit score can unlock lower interest rates, better loan terms, new credit card options, available lines of credit and lower rates on things like insurance. But wanting to improve your credit score and actually doing so are two very different things.

While a single late payment can drop your score by tens of points, building that score back up can take a lot more time and effort. In general, you'll better your chances of a good credit score by:

Filing disputes to correct any errors you may find on your credit reportMaking scheduled payments on time every monthKeeping the balances on revolving lines of credit as low as possible (ideally, try to have a utilization of less than 30-35%)Not applying for credit unless you need itConsider a secured credit card to help prove your creditworthinessLimiting how many new accounts you open in a short period of timePaying off debt as quickly and efficiently as possible

If your credit history is limited, you can sometimes get your rent payments and even the payment history on your utility bills added to your credit report. As long as you've been making those payments on time, this can serve to boost your score quickly and get you to a good credit score.

Bottom line

Your credit score may sometimes seem like three arbitrary numbers, but they have the power to control many factors in your financial life. Building, and maintaining, a healthy credit score can not only make life easier, but also save you money in the long run.

Having a bad credit score is worrisome, but can absolutely be fixed with a little time and some dedication.

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