A bad credit score is a FICO score below 670, meaning it falls in the fair or poor credit ranges. Along the same lines, a bad score in the VantageScore model is one below 661, which would belong in the fair, poor or very poor credit ranges.
Scores in these ranges are often referred to by lenders as “subprime” and people with a bad credit score may find it difficult to gain access to credit with favorable terms.
Bad credit makes many common financial activities more difficult, whether you’re opening a new credit card or taking out a first mortgage. You might get stuck with lower credit limits and higher interest rates—and bad credit might even prevent you from getting that new job.
Let’s take a closer look at how credit scores work, what factors go into a bad credit score and how you can improve your credit score and access better financial opportunities.
Learn more: How to check your credit score
What is a bad credit score?
There are two widely used credit scores: FICO Score and VantageScore. While both scoring models use a credit spectrum ranging from 300 to 850, their credit scoring ranges are somewhat different.
FICO credit score ranges
Here’s how the FICO credit scoring system ranks credit scores:
- Exceptional: 800-850
- Very Good: 740-799
- Good: 670-739
- Fair: 580-669
- Poor: 300-579
In 2021, the average FICO credit score was 716 points, which is squarely in the good range. If you have bad credit (less than 670), your credit score is significantly below average, in either the poor or fair range.
VantageScore credit score ranges
The VantageScore model breaks down its credit score ranges as follows:
- Excellent: 781-850
- Good: 661-780
- Fair: 601-660
- Poor: 500-600
- Very Poor: 300-499
The average VantageScore in 2021 was 698—well within Vantage’s good credit score range.
In the VantageScore model, a score between 300 and 660 is considered a bad credit score, with scores below 500 deemed very poor.
Factors that impact your credit score
Your credit score is based on the information in your credit report. Each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) builds a unique credit report based on the way you use the various credit accounts under your name.
Here are the five factors that make up your credit score, according to the FICO model:
- Payment history (35 percent): Your track record and timeliness of payments on your credit accounts.
- Credit utilization (30 percent): Your debt-to-credit ratio, or your current credit balances compared to the amount of credit available to you.
- Credit history (15 percent): The length of your credit history—that is, how long you’ve successfully maintained open credit accounts.
- Credit mix (10 percent): The mix of credit in your account. Lenders like to see that you can manage both revolving credit, like a credit card, and installment loans, like a car loan.
- Credit applications (10 percent): How often you apply for new lines of credit.
It’s possible to have a high credit score even if you are weak in one of the five factors. If you are relatively new to credit, for example, you might not have an extensive credit history—and you might only have one or two credit cards under your name, which means you don’t have much of a credit mix yet. However, if you make on-time payments, keep your balances low and avoid applying for too much credit at once, you can still build and maintain a good credit score.
The impact of a bad credit score
Here are some of the unfortunate ways a bad score can impact your life.
- Harder time getting credit approval: Lenders view borrowers with bad credit as a risk, which means they’re less likely to approve you for credit. Since banks and lending institutions typically have rigorous qualification standards for their products, getting approval for a loan or credit card can be difficult for anyone with a bad credit score.
- Higher interest rates and more restrictive terms on loans and credit cards: Some lenders have more lenient guidelines and will approve a borrower with bad credit for credit products. However, they’ll likely offset their risk by attaching a higher interest rate to the loan or credit card—the higher your interest rate, the more you’ll pay in interest.
- Higher insurance premiums: Most states allow home and auto insurance carriers to check your credit scores as part of their risk analysis. Your insurer may consider your bad credit score an indicator of higher risk overall and charge you a higher premium.
- Tougher time renting an apartment: Many landlords run credit checks on potential tenants. The landlord won’t see your credit score, but your credit report allows them to review your payment history, collection accounts and other information to determine your creditworthiness. Ultimately, landlords are less likely to approve a lease for applicants with bad credit than they are for tenants with good credit.
- Could restrict career opportunities: With your written permission, it is legal for an employer to review your credit report and use the information when making hiring decisions. Although some states have laws that restrict using credit information in the hiring process, other states don’t offer such protections.
- May have to make a deposit for utilities: Utility companies can and do perform background checks on those who seek their services. If your credit history is poor, you may be required to pay a security deposit in order to establish utility services.
If you’re concerned your credit may be having a negative impact on your life, rest assured that you can take proactive steps to raise your credit score.
How to improve a bad credit score
There are many ways to improve your credit score. Ultimately, it comes down to taking strategic action and consistently making strong financial decisions. Here are four steps you can take to improve your credit profile.
- Check your credit reports: Start by getting a free credit report and score from each of the three major credit bureaus at AnnualCreditReport.com. Dispute any errors and identify the negative information bringing down your score so you know where to focus your credit repair efforts.
- Avoid late payments: Since payment history makes up 35 percent of your credit score, paying your bills on time is one of the best ways to build and maintain strong credit. Consider setting up autopayments on your accounts to prevent late payments.
- Lower your credit utilization ratio: Your credit utilization ratio accounts for 30 percent of your FICO score. A common rule of thumb is to keep your balances below 30 percent of your credit limit, while the highest credit score achievers use less than 10 percent of their available credit.
- Become an authorized user: If your credit history is thin or you just want to improve your payment history, consider asking a friend or relative to add you as an authorized user on their credit card account. Assure the person helping you that you don’t even have to use the card or even know their account number. This strategy can be beneficial if the person you ask has an account with a high credit limit, low credit utilization and a strong history of timely payments.
The bottom line
A bad credit score is a FICO credit score below 670 and a VantageScore lower than 661. If your credit isn’t where you would like it to be, remember that a bad credit score doesn’t have to weigh you down. Fortunately, you can take simple steps to improve your credit, and you could see results quickly. It’s worth the effort, because good credit can lead to more opportunities and financial benefits.