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Understanding your FICO score

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The automated credit score was created in 1959 by the Fair Isaac Corporation. While "Fair Isaac" may not seem so aptly named for those who are struggling with low credit scores, the FICO system is the most commonly used numeric benchmark by which our lending and credit system measures financial wherewithal.

Unfortunately, so few of us really understand how that number is determined. In fact, if the credit rating system took a more open approach to communicating its processes, especially given the impact they can have on our livelihood, perhaps not as many people would be facing economic trouble. It is certainly worthwhile for anyone facing credit issues to understand as much as possible about how that three-digit number comes to pass.

Your FICO score is a comparative number, meant to contrast your ability to pay a lender back as agreed against another borrower's ability to pay back that lender. So, the FICO score ranks you according to others using "real-time" information from your credit report. Basically, it uses a scale of 350 to 850 to determine how much of a risk you pose to a potential creditor.

There are three different credit reporting agencies that may report a different number to a potential lender. Although, 90% of the largest banks in the United States use the FICO score, so the odds are very good that a lender will use that number.

Fair Isaac uses a number of facets from you financial history to determine your rank, the most important of which is payment history. The list of five factors is broken down accordingly:

  • Payment history - 35%
  • Amounts owed - 30%
  • Length of credit history - 15%
  • New credit - 10%
  • Types of credit used - 10%

Do you notice a few things missing from the list? How about income? Or savings? It's important to understand that even though you have a high-paying job, live in a highly-regarded zip code or have a comfortable cushion of cash in a savings account, you can still have a low FICO score. Only the data in your credit report is considered in your FICO score.

You may hear some people recommend that it's always good to have some credit or to carry a small balance on a credit card to demonstrate you are capable of handling debt. That is not necessarily true. And, you can't be hurt by not having debt. If you carry a balance, your risk increases. More to the point, your FICO score can take a hit if you carry balances too close to your limit. On everything from gas company cards to retail credit, you will see little benefit from letting a balance carry over each month.

The idea that carrying a balance is a good indicator of financial responsibility probably stemmed from the actual notion that it can benefit you to use credit from time to time. However, you should do so reasonably and when you do, pay the balance in full. A sizeable purchase--that you can pay off--every couple of months will contribute to a high FICO score.

Therefore, the best way to achieve a solid credit score is to be very careful when considering new accounts or loans. Those with the highest credit scores are the same people who are the most conservative when it comes to applying for credit. And your FICO can also be improved by paying your bills on time. Remember the breakdown above? Payment history is the most critical factor. Therefore, paying late is the single most damaging action to your FICO score.

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