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Did you know that the average credit-visible individual has hundreds of credit scores?
How about the fact that debit cards can never help you build credit? Or that you’ll never find your credit scores on your credit reports?
If this is all news to you, there’s no need to worry because you’re not alone.
A new Credit Card Insider survey of 1,051 adults found that an accurate understanding of credit scores is far from universal. To the contrary, the survey revealed several widespread credit-related misconceptions.
A few surprising findings include:
These figures suggest that there’s a bit of mystery surrounding what does and doesn’t affect your credit scores. The good news, however, is that credit scores are fairly easy to understand, and knowing how they work is an important step on the journey toward not only great personal credit, but long-term financial stability.
In America’s financial landscape, your credit scores are undeniably important. They help determine your worthiness as a borrower, directly affecting your ability to buy cars, houses, and other expensive necessities if you can’t do so with cash.
But our survey shed light on an important issue: The public perception of what affects credit scores — and what doesn’t — isn’t entirely accurate.
Your credit scores are based on your credit reports, which include certain personal information, as well as credit accounts and collections, bankruptcies, credit inquiries, and any consumer statements, alerts, or disputes. Note that this list doesn’t include credit scores, but we’ll touch on that later.
Your income is never included on credit reports.
Income does matter for credit card and loan applications. In fact, banks are legally obligated to ask for your income according to the Credit CARD Act of 2009, with the law stating that they can only lend you money if they’re confident you can make monthly payments.
Income can also come into play with new credit scoring models such as UltraFICO, which allows you to voluntarily submit information — including your income — for FICO to consider when calculating your UltraFICO scores.
When asked whether the use of debit cards builds credit history or credit scores, 27% of people responded, “yes.” A further 15% of respondents agreed that it does, but “only if I choose “credit” at checkout.”
Both are false.
Debit cards don’t affect credit history and have no impact on your credit scores, even if you select “credit” at checkout. Selecting “debit” or “credit” just determines how the merchant processes the card, and what fees it pays.
Aside from contributing nothing to your credit history, debit cards also usually lack the security protections provided by credit cards, which may make things difficult if the card is lost or stolen.
When you apply for a new credit account, such as a credit card, mortgage, or cell phone contract, a lender usually performs a hard inquiry to check your credit in order to make a lending decision.
A hard inquiry can have a negative impact on credit scores. This is normal in the application process for most cards, and one credit inquiry won’t impact credit scores very much or for very long.
However, if you have several hard inquiries within a relatively brief period of time, such as more than four per year, it can cause problems when applying for new cards.
There are some cards that don’t require a credit check, but we usually don’t recommend them since they often come with high fees, poor customer service, and outdated payment processing systems.
In reality, closing credit cards can hurt, not help build, credit scores.
Two relevant factors that impact your credit scores are the average age of your accounts and the ratio of your amounts owed to your total available credit, also known as the credit utilization ratio.
Older accounts (coupled with a solid payment history, of course) show that you’ve been responsible with credit over time.
And when it comes to utilization, in general the lower your ratio, the better your scores.
When you close a credit card account that was in positive standing, it will usually remain on your credit reports for 10 years. So your average age of accounts won’t be affected immediately, although later on you’ll see a difference.
Credit utilization, however, is a different matter. When you close a credit card, that card’s credit limit will no longer be available for calculations of credit utilization. So, if you’re carrying balances on other cards, you’ll likely see your overall utilization increase.
Usually, the only time you should consider closing a credit card is if you’re paying an annual fee but you’re not using or getting enough value from the card.
Unfortunately, as the majority of respondents indicated, it’s not that easy.
Establishing a robust, positive credit history is virtually impossible without consistent, on-time payments. Payment history accounts for 35% of FICO scores (the largest component), and any late or missed payments will usually reduce your scores.
Plus, as covered in the previous section, credit scoring models factor in the average age of your credit file along with your amounts owed.
Your credit mix also impacts your credit scores. Having a diverse mix of credit, such as credit cards, auto loans, and/or mortgages allows you to earn more points than someone that only has one type of account.
“New credit,” including any recent searches and applications for new credit that resulted in hard inquiries — which we also covered above — make up the last factor of your credit scores.
So, yes, minimizing your debts is important, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.
Now that we’ve set the record straight on some of the most prominent myths about how credit scores work, let’s talk about monitoring those scores.
There were certainly some promising results (60% of respondents had checked their credit scores in the last month — nice!), but the survey also unearthed a few important misconceptions that we thought we’d clear up.
The next two most popular responses were one single credit score (18%), and then two credit scores (12%), which are also wrong!
Contrary to popular belief, you have hundreds of credit scores, because there are numerous credit scoring brands, like FICO and VantageScore, and these brands employ a vast array of scoring models for a variety of applications.
And that’s on top of the fact that credit scores are calculated from the reports of three different bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion), which may include different information about your credit.
The reason most people have heard about FICO is likely because it’s the most widely used credit scoring brand. In fact, it’s reported by FICO that 90% of “top lenders” use one of FICO’s scores in lending decisions.
VantageScore, while used quite widely, isn’t nearly as universal.
VantageScore was created by the three major credit reporting agencies. A lot of the free credit scores you can get are VantageScores, and the brand is becoming more popular among lenders every year.
The main difference between FICO and VantageScore is that each brand has developed its own proprietary scoring systems. And while fairly similar, all of these models weigh certain factors a bit differently, leading to different scores.
Another key difference between the two brands is that it doesn’t take as much credit history to generate a VantageScore credit score. FICO scores require six months of data before producing a score, whereas VantageScore only requires one month.
Actually, credit scores are based on the data that are in credit reports, but they’re not listed on reports themselves. When ordering credit reports you can often pay extra to see your credit scores as well, but those scores aren’t technically part of your report.
Lenders often order multiple reports and scores for a given applicant. Likewise, credit monitoring services will often show information from one or more reports, plus the corresponding scores based on those data.
You should monitor your credit reports to look for any fraudulent activity or inaccuracies. Dispute any legitimate errors. If you notice any fraudulent activity, contact the three major credit bureaus immediately, and file an identity theft report (or even a police report) if you believe the situation warrants it.
When asked how often they check their credit scores, the most popular answer from respondents was “every few months” at 24%. “Monthly” followed closely with 21%.
If you want to get your FICO scores for free, it’s recommended to go through credit card issuers. Many major card issuers, like American Express, Bank of America, and Citi, offer free FICO scores to cardholders.
Getting free VantageScores is easier. There are quite a few companies and card issuers that offer VantageScores to anyone that signs up, and many issuers even provide free scores to non-cardholders.
Just take note that most free services only give you access to one credit score for free, usually from just one of your credit reports. If you stack multiple free score services together, you’ll have a better idea of what credit range you stand in.
However, if you do want to see all of your scores from the three bureaus, you can pay for a three-bureau credit monitoring service. Only 10% of survey respondents said they have paid to check their credit scores, compared to 83% who have checked for free (there may be some overlap between these groups).
We recommend checking in on your credit scores several times per year, and whenever you plan to apply for new credit.
Understanding the different components of credit scores now enables you to fix habits that may have damaged your credit in the first place.
Armed with the knowledge of what actually affects credit scoring models, you should be able to develop and display good credit habits over time. This will likely lead to increased scores and, in turn, long term benefits, including the ability to get better credit card, mortgage, and auto loan offers!
Credit Card Insider commissioned SurveyMonkey to conduct this online survey of 1,051 adults over the age of 18. All fieldwork was completed on May 29–30, 2019. This survey employed a non-probability-based sample during collection to provide nationally representative results.
Ready to put your knowledge to work? Learn all about how to build your credit with credit cards, including when and how to pay your bills.
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