5 Fascinating Things You Probably Didn't Know About Credit Scores

By Maurie Backman Markets Fool.com

Though your credit score might seem like nothing more than a random number, those three digits carry a ton of weight. Your credit score can impact your ability to get a mortgage, auto loan, credit card, and even a job. Here are a few credit score facts that might come as a surprise.

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1. There are five factors that go into a credit score

Your credit score isn't based on a single piece of information. Rather, it's calculated as follows:

  • Payment history (35%): Your payment history speaks to your actual payment habits. Paying your bills on time will improve your payment history, while skipping payments will hurt it.
  • Credit utilization ratio (30%): Your credit utilization ratio is the percentage of available credit you're using at a given point in time. Lenders want to see a ratio of 30% or less.
  • Length of credit history (15%): Your credit history speaks to the amount of time you've had your accounts open. Long-term accounts in good standing can boost your score.
  • New credit accounts (10%): The number of new accounts you open can impact your score. It's best to open new accounts slowly over time, as opposed to all at once.
  • Credit mix (10%): Your credit mix represents the various lines of credit you have. You might, for example, have several credit cards, as well as a mortgage and car loan.

Image source: Getty Images.

Because payment history and credit utilization ratio play the largest roles in factoring your score, it pays to focus on these aspects when working to build your credit.

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2. The average American's credit score is 700 even

Credit scores range from a low of 300 to a high of 850. And while most Americans don't come close to having perfect credit, the typical U.S. adult does have a score of 700, which according to Experian would essentially fall into the "good, but not great" category.

In fact, here's how Experian classifies different credit score ranges, as well as the estimated percentage of Americans who fall into each category:

Credit Score

Classification

Percentage of Consumers

800-850

Excellent

19.9%

740-799

Very good

18.2%

670-739

Good

21.5%

580-669

Fair

20.2%

300-579

Poor

17%

Data source: Experian.

The good news here is that more people fall into the "excellent" category than fall into the "poor" category. On the other hand, those with "good" or "fair" scores outnumber those whose scores are "excellent" and "very good."

3. Three out of five Americans don't know their credit scores

Knowing your credit score can help you determine your likelihood of getting approved for a loan and give you a sense of what sort of rate you'll be looking at. But an estimated 60% of Americans have no idea what their credit score is. The easiest way to get this information is to check your credit card or loan statement, as lenders have gotten into the habit of including it as a courtesy. If that doesn't work, you may need to pay a small fee to access your credit score online.

4. Your credit report won't give you your actual score

It may seem counterintuitive, but even though you're entitled to a free copy of your credit report every year from each of the three major bureaus, that won't actually tell you what your official score is. Rather, you'll usually need to pay a small fee to access your score. That said, it still pays to check your credit report on a regular basis because doing so might uncover errors that, if corrected, can boost your score quickly. It's estimated that 20% of credit reports contain mistakes, so read yours thoroughly -- even if you will need to go elsewhere for your actual score.

5. A single late payment could lower your credit score by 100 points

As we saw above, your payment history is the single largest factor in determining your credit score -- and it doesn't offer much leeway. According to FICO data, a single 30-day late payment could cause a score of 780 to plummet 90 to 110 points, even if it's never happened before. Not only that, but a single missed payment could remain on your credit report for up to seven years. That's why it's crucial to always pay your bills on time, even if you're just making the minimum payment. And if you do happen to miss a payment, call your lender and rectify the situation right away. If it's your first offense, your lender might be willing to let it slide and not report it.

The higher your credit score, the more financial flexibility you'll have in life. It pays to learn more about how credit scores work so that you can take steps to improve yours.

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