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Having a good credit score can mean lower interest rates and more options for financial products and services. According to a new NerdWallet survey, nearly 4 in 5 Americans (79%) say they’re trying to improve their credit right now.
The survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults, conducted online by The Harris Poll, asked Americans about the importance of having a good credit score and what roadblocks, if any, are keeping them from building their score. We also asked Americans how they’ve been negatively impacted by their credit score in the past.
Some have been burned by credit scores. More than 2 in 5 Americans (43%) say their credit score negatively impacted them in the past; 21% of Americans say they’ve been rejected for a credit card, and 16% have paid a higher interest rate on debt as a result of their credit score, according to the survey.
Many are concerned about hurting their credit. Over half of Americans (58%) are worried they’ll hurt their credit score in the next 12 months. Nearly 2 in 5 Americans (39%) are worried they’ll harm their score by missing a payment, while 28% are worried about hurting their score by taking on too much debt, the survey found.
Barriers are keeping half of U.S. adults from improving their credit. Half of Americans (50%) say there are roadblocks for them to improve their credit right now. Around 1 in 7 Americans (15%) cite having a low credit limit as one of these roadblocks, according to the survey.
“Your credit score has the power to open a lot of doors — or slam them shut,” says Sara Rathner, a credit cards spokesperson and expert at NerdWallet. “If you’re planning on applying for any sort of loan or credit card in the next few months, it’s worth paying attention to so you’ve got higher odds of qualifying.”
Most care about their credit scores; many hurt by credit before
The vast majority of Americans (95%) say having a good credit score is important to them, according to the survey. (Survey respondents weren’t given a particular range to define a "good" credit score.) There are different credit score models in use, but generally, a good credit score is 690-719 on the commonly used scale of 300-850.
For the 5% of Americans who say having a good credit score isn’t important to them, the No. 1 reason they cite is that they don’t need a good credit score because they don’t plan to take on any loans or debt (45%), the survey found.
Nearly a quarter of Americans who say having a good credit score isn’t important to them (24%) say it’s because they think credit scores are a scam. Whether or not you think the credit scoring system is valid, credit scores are widely used, and it’s probably a good idea to make sure your credit score is in good shape.
Here’s why: According to our survey, more than 2 in 5 Americans (43%) say their credit score has negatively impacted them in the past. This impact isn’t restricted to debt products; 1 in 10 Americans (10%) say they had higher auto insurance costs, and 8% had to make a deposit to set up their utilities due to their credit score.
Around 1 in 8 Americans (12%) — including 19% of Gen Zers (ages 18-26) — aren’t sure if their credit score has ever negatively impacted them. For the youngest adults, it’s possible that they haven’t had to use their credit score for anything yet, or that a family member was able to co-sign for them when they needed to prove good credit.
More than half of Americans are worried about hurting their credit
Costs and interest rates have increased significantly over the past couple of years, which may lead to some people racking up more debt and having a harder time making payments, both of which could negatively impact their credit scores. According to the survey, nearly 3 in 5 Americans (58%) are worried they’ll hurt their credit score in the next 12 months. The No. 1 concern is missing any type of payment (39%).
Around 1 in 12 Americans (8%) are worried about hurting their credit score by missing a federal student loan payment in the next year. Federal student loan borrowers have a 12-month on-ramp period (ending Sept. 30, 2024) during which missed payments won’t result in delinquency. However, interest will still accrue on these balances, so it’s a good idea to make payments if you’re able to do so.
Some other ways that Americans are worried about harming their credit score in the next 12 months are taking on too much debt (28%) or spending too much money using credit (23%). With high inflation, sky-high interest rates and student loan payments resuming, it can be tough to avoid racking up credit card debt. That said, it’s a good idea to evaluate your spending and see where cuts can be made if you haven’t yet done so.
Some have barriers to improving credit
Half of Americans (50%) say there are roadblocks for them to improve their credit right now. Gen Zers and millennials (ages 27-42) are more likely to say this — 70% and 69%, compared with 50% of Gen Xers (ages 43-58) and just 27% of baby boomers (ages 59-77). Some of these roadblocks are having a low credit limit (15%), not being able to make debt payments (14%) and not being able to get approved for a credit card (14%).
For 1 in 10 Americans (10%), a roadblock to improving their credit right now is not being able to afford the deposit to open a secured credit card. Secured credit cards often have a deposit equal to the card’s credit limit, starting at a couple of hundred dollars.
What you can do
Understand why you might need a good credit score. If you don’t have plans to apply for a credit product, it might seem to make sense that you’re not concerned about your credit score. However, good credit isn’t just for those who plan to take on debt. For better or worse, your credit score can impact your ability to get lower car insurance rates, rent an apartment and more.
“Not only does good credit grant you access to all of these things you need, but it can also come in handy when you’re facing a tough financial situation,” Rathner says. “Qualifying for a credit card, for instance, means you have a way to pay for necessary purchases even if you don’t have the cash available right now.”
You don’t need to have a “perfect” 850 credit score to get the best rates, but hitting the excellent score range (720 and above) is a goal that could save money and give you more options.
Know what goes into your credit score. There are multiple credit scoring companies, but the two major ones are FICO and VantageScore. Both of these companies prioritize payment history and credit utilization in their scoring models. This means that the most positively impactful actions you can take for your credit score are (1) pay every bill on time and (2) use no more than 30% of your available credit.
Other credit score factors include length of credit history, mix of credit types and recent applications. These have less of an impact on your score, but are still important to keep in check.
Take steps to avoid harming credit, if you can. More than 1 in 5 Americans who say having a good credit score isn’t important to them (22%) say it’s because they don’t think it’s realistic for them to attain a good credit score. But there may be options for you if you’re struggling to build credit.
“You may not need to ‘spend’ your credit score right now, so to speak, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore your credit health,” Rathner says. “It can take months for positive actions, like on-time bill payments, to be reflected in your credit score. That’s why it can be so helpful to be proactive.”
Ask your creditors for help. If you’re unable to make the minimum payment for your debts on time, reach out to your creditors. They may be able to accommodate a one-time due date extension or modified payment, or even put you into a hardship program that lowers your interest or waives fees longer term.
Consider debt counseling if you’re having a hard time juggling multiple balances. If you’re overwhelmed by credit card debt, a debt management plan from a nonprofit credit counseling agency may be a good option. Under these plans, you may be able to cut your interest rates and consolidate several debts into one monthly payment. However, it’s important that you’re able to make these payments, and you likely won’t be able to use credit cards during the debt payoff period.
Federal student loan payments resumed in October, but if you aren’t able to pay, remember that you won’t be reported as delinquent for the next 12 months due to the on-ramp period. However, after 12 months of nonpayment, you’ll have a higher balance due to accrued interest. Instead, look into the new SAVE plan, which may lower your payments substantially, depending on your household income. And if those lowered payments don’t cover your monthly interest, it won’t be added to your balance, so your debt won’t rise as long as you’re making payments.
Look into secured credit card options. According to the survey, 14% of Americans say a roadblock for them when trying to improve their credit is not being able to get approved for a credit card. A secured credit card is often easier to obtain because it’s backed by a cash deposit, so it’s less risky for the creditor. Not sure if you can come up with the cash for a deposit? Check out our tips on saving up for a secured credit card deposit.
Don’t beat yourself up if your credit has to take a hit. A good credit score is a great tool to have in your financial arsenal, but it’s not a trophy. It doesn’t make someone better or worse than anyone else, and if you can’t do anything to build your credit right now, it’s OK. If your credit score has to take a hit, let it. You can address it later when you’re financially able to do so.
“Your credit score paints a picture of your finances, but it doesn’t reflect who you are as a person,” Rathner says. “Credit is simply a tool that can help you get the things you need and want.”
This survey was conducted online within the U.S. by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from Sept. 26-28, 2023, among 2,092 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. The sampling precision of Harris online polls is measured by using a Bayesian credible interval. For this study, the sample data is accurate to within +/- 2.7 percentage points using a 95% confidence level. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, contact [email protected].
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