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5 Reasons Your Credit Score Is Lower Than You Thought, and What to Do About It

June 26, 2017
Credit Score, Personal Finance
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We adhere to strict standards of editorial integrity. Some of the products we feature are from our partners. Here’s how we make money.

No one likes getting a nasty surprise about their finances. If you check your credit score and discover it’s much lower than you anticipated, you’re likely wondering what went wrong.

Here are five reasons your credit score may be in a lower range than you thought it would be — and how to remedy the situation.

1. You carry a high balance on your card every month (even though you pay it off)

If you make it a priority to pay off your credit card balance in full when the bill arrives, you’re doing the right thing. But if your charges tend to run high every month, you might still be doing damage to your credit score.

Here’s why: Your credit utilization ratio, which is the amount of credit you have in use compared with your total credit limit, heavily influences your credit score. But the problem is that your issuer might not report your balance to the credit bureaus after you make a payment — it could send that information over at any point during the month. Consequently, your score could get dinged if a high, mid-cycle credit utilization ratio is reported.

The solution is to make a few payments spread throughout the month, to avoid using more than 30% of your available credit at any time. This will ensure that no matter when what you owe is reported to the bureaus, you’ll be in good shape.

2. You apply for every new card that hits the market

If you’re a rewards hound, the impulse to apply for the latest-and-greatest piece of plastic out there is natural. But applying whenever a new card hits the market could end up harming your credit.

Every time you apply for a new credit card or loan, you’ll lose points from your score. If several hard inquiries hit your report within just a few months, the hit will be bigger. This is because too many applications are associated with a higher credit risk.

Your best bet is to think carefully before obtaining new credit, and only move forward with the application if it’s a card or loan you really need.

3. You’re in collections and don’t know it

Payment history makes up about one-third of your FICO credit score, and is heavily weighted by its competitor, VantageScore. If you’ve missed a payment for so long that one of your accounts has gone into collections, this will have a large, negative impact on your credit.

But the trouble is, some people who are in collections don’t know it. This is especially common with medical debts, because there’s sometimes confusion around whether the patient or the insurer is expected to pay. In the meantime, the doctor’s office gets tired of waiting for the cash and sells the account to a collector.

The only way to know if an account in collections is what’s dragging down your score is to check your credit report for negative information. Don’t worry, you won’t have to pay for this. NerdWallet offers free credit report  info that’s updated weekly. You can also get at least one report direct from each major credit bureau once a year.

If you do find an account in collections on your report, it’s smart to pay it off. It will still appear on your credit report, but some scoring formulas disregard paid collections. Paying an account off also removes the threat that you could be sued for the debt.

4. You just recently got your first credit card or loan

Part of your credit score is determined by the length of your credit history. If you’ve only recently gotten your first credit card or loan, this could be the cause of a lower-than-expected score.

The only thing you can do in this situation is to keep using credit responsibly (which means paying your bills on time and in full) and wait for time to pass. Before you know it, your score will be in great shape.

5. There’s an error on your credit report

According to a 2013 study by the Federal Trade Commission, one in five consumers had an error on at least one of their credit reports. Although many of these errors aren’t significant enough to affect a person’s credit score, some are. So if you’re surprised at how low your score is, a mistake on a credit report might be to blame.

If you find an error on a credit report, take steps to have it corrected immediately — the sooner it’s corrected, the sooner your score will begin to bounce back.

This article was updated June 26, 2017.