For many novices to the world of credit, the first time you learn your FICO score is when you apply for a credit card and are denied. You’ll lament: Why do credit cards only go to people with good credit — and what does this FICO score mean anyway?
The three-digit score is basically your credit batting average — and like in baseball, the higher the number, the better. Scores are generally from 300 to 850, and if you score a 720 or above, congratulations! You are in the credit big leagues with an excellent credit score. You won’t have any trouble getting a variety of credit cards with excellent perks and low interest rates.
With a score in the 690 to 720 range, you’re considered a good credit risk — and the availability of credit will reflect that. But if your credit score is below 630, you are in the bad credit range.
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FICO stands for Fair Isaac Corporation, which developed this scoring system used by the three major credit reporting bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. It has a competitor, VantageScore, that produces a similar score using the same credit report data from those three bureaus.
When you are denied credit, the company that declined your application must reveal your score and the credit-reporting bureau it used. You have the right to a free copy of your credit score from the issuing company within 60 days of being denied.
You also are eligible for a free annual credit report from each of the three reporting bureaus — this is a deal you should take advantage of since there will be variations between the companies.
You can also monitor your credit information anytime with a free credit report summary, updated weekly, from NerdWallet.
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There are five elements that determine your FICO credit score:
- On-time payment history (35%): Always pay all of your bills — credit cards, phone, everything — on time. Nothing will bolster your credit score more than timely payments.
- Amount of credit used (30%): The less of your credit limit you use, the better. Keep your credit balance below 30% of your total credit line. Here, less is more: It’s even better if you can keep your balance below 10% of your credit limit.
- Length of credit history (15%): Time is on your side — the more that credit card companies see you handling credit, the better. Keep older credit card accounts open with minimum use to show a longer credit history.
- Credit mix used (10%): Credit companies prefer to see a mix of credit, such as car and student loans, in addition to credit card use. A credit variety suggests that you know how to use credit responsibly.
- New credit applications (10%): Too many credit applications in a short period of time will drag down your score. There’s no hard rule here, but try to apply for a new credit line no more than once every six months.
Getting a good credit score for the best credit card deals is a long game. But get a couple of years of good credit habits under your belt, and you’ll be getting big-league scores before you know it.