credit cards

What is a credit score?

Your credit score can mean the difference between being denied or approved for credit, and a low or high interest rate. A good score can help you qualify for an apartment rental and even help you get utilities connected without a deposit.

What is it?

Your credit score is a three-digit number generated by a mathematical algorithm using information in your credit report. It's designed to predict risk, specifically, the likelihood that you will become seriously delinquent on your credit obligations in the 24 months after scoring.

There are a multitude of credit-scoring models in existence, but there's one that dominates the market: the FICO credit score. According to myFICO.com, the consumer website for the FICO score developer, "90 percent of all financial institutions in the U.S. use FICO scores in their decision-making process."

FICO scores range from 300 to 850, where a higher number indicates lower risk. What's a good score?

A consumer has three FICO scores, one for each credit report provided by the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Unfortunately, consumers currently have access to only their Equifax and TransUnion FICO scores. Experian ended its agreement with myFICO.com in 2009.

What goes into a credit score?

Data from your credit report goes into five major categories that make up a FICO score. The scoring model weighs some factors more heavily, such as payment history and debt owed.

Elements of your credit score
MyFICO credit score chart
Source: myFICO.com

Payment history: (35 percent) -- Your account payment information, including any delinquencies and public records.

Amounts owed: (30 percent) -- How much you owe on your accounts. The amount of available credit you're using on revolving accounts is heavily weighted.

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Length of credit history: (15 percent) -- How long ago you opened accounts and time since account activity.

Types of credit used: (10 percent) -- The mix of accounts you have, such as revolving and installment.

New credit: (10 percent) -- Your pursuit of new credit, including credit inquiries and number of recently opened accounts.

Personal or demographic information such as age, race, address, marital status, income and employment don't affect the score.

Different score impact for same missteps

How much does a specific change affect a credit score? The answer is usually "it depends," and for good reason. Credit score developers don't reveal the exact point deductions. The weight of any given activity can also vary for different credit histories.

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Within a scoring model, there's more than one formula used to calculate a score, and each formula is designed for a category of consumers with similar credit profiles. The information in your credit report determines which formula is used. If you are new to credit, for instance, the scoring model will put you into a category for people with young credit histories, and use a scoring formula specific to that group. Such groups are called scorecards. Within that group, recent inquiries may cost more points than they would for a different group.

How to check your credit score

Federal law mandates the consumer's right to a free credit report annually from each credit reporting agency, but not to a free credit score. Use our FICO score estimator to get your score range free of charge. To get your exact number, you have to purchase it from a score provider, such as myFICO.com or one of the reporting agencies.

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