Good Credit Scores and How to Get There: A Detailed Guide For Moving From Average to All-Star

You can ask a lot of people about what creates good credit and you’ll get a lot of different answers. 

Some say timely payments. Others say keep your balances low. Still others advise you to keep balances on just one or two cards. Making sense of all this can be overwhelming and even a little stressful because, as you’ve probably heard, bad credit can really hurt your chances of getting good deals on credit cards and loans.

We wanted to clear the air about credit, so we did a lot of research and talked with a couple of experts to learn everything we could about what good credit is, how you can build it, the mentalities that hold you back from achieving and how all this affects your financial well-being.

Over the next few minutes we’re going to talk about each of these topics.

What Exactly is Good Credit? 

You can look at good credit one of two ways: from your view as a consumer, or from the perspective of lenders who will give you loans or credit cards.

From the consumer’s perspective, good credit is a certain number (more on that in a second). But viewing your credit rating this way is only half the story, says John Ulzheimer, a nationally recognized credit expert

The other half of this discussion is the lenders who are prepared to offer you credit cards, auto loans, mortgages and other loans. When it comes to these offers, consumers should remember that their credit score isn’t the end all. What actually matters most is how that score affects the kind of interest rates and loan amounts they can receive. 

“A good credit score is any score that will lead to a lender to give you the best deal they offer. In some cases, that’s 700; in some cases, it’s 750 and in other cases it’s 780,” he said. 

Now, even though what you can get out of a good credit score is really important, we know it’s also important for consumers to have a general sense of what a good credit score is. A “good” score is actually misleading because “good” is one of the categories used in credit-score scales. 

According to Credit.org, a good score is between 680 and 740. But that’s not the highest tier of credit scores: “excellent” credit is anything between 740 and 850.

Is there really a big difference between good credit and excellent credit? Definitely, because it determines whether or not you’ll get the absolute best interest rate and/or loan amount from lenders.

Your credit score determines whether or not you’ll get the absolute best interest rate and/or loan amount from lenders.

The ultimate credit score, John pointed out, is 780 or higher. 

“If you want to put yourself in a position where you get the best deal from any lender you approach, be in the 780-plus range,” he said. “There’s nothing better than that. Your score gets to a point where, if you cross a certain line, you’re golden; that line is about 780.”

Now, that doesn’t mean that if you have a 740 you’re going to get a bad deal from your lender, but it does mean there’s a possibility that you won’t get the best deal from them. 

And that’s where consumers need to remember that, as much as we like to focus on our scores, it’s how lenders respond to our scores that really matters. A good score, John said, is an indication that there’s very little risk involved in a car dealership, for example, giving you a loan for a new car.

“Auto lenders, mortgage lenders and credit card companies are leaning on your score as a tool to lend to you,” John said. 

The implications of this idea are pretty huge, but we’ll get to more of that later in this article. For now, we’re guessing you’re wondering how you can get to the point where you can get the best possible deal from lenders.

What Can I Do to Get a Good Credit Score? 

As we wrote in another article about credit scores, most credit scoring systems put a huge emphasis on timely payments and low balances in relation to your overall credit limits. 

We talked with Experian’s Public Education Director Rod Griffin about how these factors play a role in achieving a good credit score. Before jumping into a list of tips for bumping your score up, download your credit history, Rod said. 

Credit Karma is a good place to start. I opened a free account with them and received a credit report from credit bureaus Equifax and TransUnion. You can use the report to identify past late payments and also get stats about how much of your overall credit limit you are using. 

Once you have a good sense of this, you can get a read on your past habits, and, as we pointed out a few seconds ago, those habits play a role it getting a great score. 

“Consumers get their credit scores and they want to know that they can do,” Rod said. “In order to raise your score, you have to know what’s causing it.” 

The Two Most Important Things for Boosting Your Score

Usually, the two factors keeping your score from rising are late payments and high utilization.

“The two things we always see most are the presence of delinquencies in your credit report,” Rod said. “The other thing that tends to get people is their utilization rate, because that’s the second most important factor in your credit scores.” 

According to the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO), the company responsible for one of the most-used credit scoring systems in the country, your payment history and your utilization make up 65% of your score

So, are you looking for a way to bump up your score? Make your payments on time and keep your credit card balances as low as possible. 

In a 2016 article about boosting credit scores, NerdWallet personal finance columnist Liz Weston said one missed payment could drop your score by 100 points. Our advice? Pay on time, every time.  

The general rule of thumb with credit utilization, John Ulzheimer said, is to keep all your balances under 30% of your total credit limit. So, if you have five cards with a total credit limit of $20,000, maintain an overall balance of $6,000 or less.

And just like credit scores themselves, your credit utilization has a golden line, John said: keep your balances under 10% of your total credit limit. 

How Opening New Accounts Can Drop Your Score

Another common factor you can control in order to boost your score is the number of new accounts you open, John said. 

The holidays are a good example of our knack for opening new accounts. We make big purchases and, while we’re at the cash register, the sales associate tells us we can get 10 percent off our purchase if we sign-up for and pay with a store credit card. 

That one-time savings, John said, isn’t worth it if our score drops (usually one to two percent per new account). 

“Apply for credit only when you need it, not all the time,” he said. “During the holidays, we tend to use our credit report as a discount coupon for getting store credit cards, but every time we do that an inquiry shows up on our report and it’s just not worth it.”

Finding and Reporting Errors Can Help You

The last tip for strengthening your credit score isn’t as solid as the advice we just mentioned, but it’s worth checking. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), about 5 percent of consumers have an error on their credit report that can affect the offers they get from lenders. Furthermore, about 1 in 4 consumers have errors on their report, minor or major. 

Correcting these errors, the FTC said, has the potential to raise your score from anywhere between 25 to 100 points, although big jumps in scores are rare. FICO has a great info page on how to correct errors on your credit score.

Related: Bad Credit Scores: What They Are, Why They Exist and How You Can Repair Them

If you can put these three habits into practice, you credit score will benefit. But remember, in most cases your score won’t change overnight; it takes time. 

“Lenders rely on your credit history to help know you as a borrower,” he said. “They look at patterns of behavior over time, so time is the key. Continue to do the same good habits and, over time, your scores will increase.”

As you build your score, your mindset is an important part of your success, and that’s what we want to talk about in the next section. 

The Mindsets That Can Keep You From Having a Great Credit Score

One of the things we’ve learned over the past couple of years is that consumer behaviors are usually driven by a mindset

Credit scores are the same way, John Ulzheimer said. What you believe about the factors that create good credit will influence how you manage your credit. A big trend these days is ditching credit card accounts and loans because banks are untrustworthy. 

“This idea has gained a lot of momentum in the past five years. People are trying to live off the credit grid, meaning they believe that no credit is better than credit,” he said. “A lot of people don’t like banks and hate credit cards.” 

The “no-credit-is-better-than-credit” philosophy is a dangerous one, John pointed out, because it’s going to cause you a lot of problems when you go to apply for a mortgage. 

Your lack of credit history could be a red flag to lenders and make them wary of giving you a mortgage.

Along with this line of thinking, he said, is the idea that having credit cards and checking your credit score is an incentive for getting into debt. 

But, John said, that’s not how good credit works. If your goal is to build an excellent credit score, you’ll put a huge emphasis on paying on time and avoiding debt. Because, as we talked about earlier, the less credit card debt you have, the higher your score will be. 

Now, if you’re free of these mentalities and you want to build good credit, you’re probably asking yourself if all this work is worth it. We think that’s an excellent question, because it brings up the focus of our next section: the benefits of good credit. 

What Advantages Will I Have If I Own a Good Credit Score? 

In the wake of the financial crisis, there are lingering fears that the average consumer is at the mercy of the banks. And when you believe you are at the mercy of other people, you start to believe that your credit score is out of your control. 

But as we’ve talked about over the past few minutes, you actually have a lot of control over your score. And when you have a lot of control, you can use your good credit score to your advantage. 

To explain this principle, John talked about football free agents – players who reach the end of their contract and want to move to another team who will pay them more money. The better the player, the better the offer from other teams. 

“Having a good credit score is like being a really, really good free agent. Every team wants you and each team wants to pay you an enormous amount to play for them,” he said. “You get to choose the best offer.” 

The correlation to the credit world is pretty clear. If you have a great credit score, mortgage and auto lenders — and credit card companies — are going to throw their best offers at you because they see you as one of the all-stars among all the other consumers out there. 

“If you have a fantastic credit score, every lender wants to do business with you and give you an amazing deal, and you, as the consumer, get to pick which one is best,” he said. “In terms of the financial services world, you are in the best possible position.” 

Now think about this in reverse. If you have bad credit, most likely you won’t get to choose your offers. Your options will be limited and the ones you do have are plagued with high interest rates and terms that benefit the lender, not you. 

“If you have poor credit, the number of “teams” who want you is low and the offers are bad,” John said. “You can be stuck using second-rate lenders … and even if you are able to get credit from a bank or a traditional lender, you are paying higher rates.” 

So, if good credit gets you better rates, what kind of difference does that make for your financial situation? How much money does it actually save you, if any money at all? 

The Financial Impact of Having a Good Credit Score

Both John Ulzheimer and Rod Griffin made a point to say that a good credit score isn’t just something you can share on Facebook; it’s actually a “powerful financial asset”

  • Rod: “A good credit score is a tremendous financial tool if you manage it well.”
  • John: “Good credit is a wealth building opportunity. Having a solid credit report and score is not that different from picking the right mutual fund or choosing the right stock.” 

Why is good credit a “tremendous financial tool” and a “wealth building opportunity?” The answer is based in the long-term consequences of the interest rates you’ll get from lenders. 

How A Good Score Affects Your Mortgage

So, let’s say you apply at the bank for a $160,000 home loan. Your credit score is in the low 600s and the loan officer says you’ve been approved for your loan at 8.6%. 

Now, let’s change the scenario a bit. Instead of a low-600 score, you’re sporting a 790. The loan officer gives you a rate of 3.9%. 

That 4.7% difference may not look like much on paper, but think about how much of a difference it makes over 30-year life of the loan.

According to Credit.org, your low-600 score will make you pay about $229,000 over the life of the loan. A 790 will result in about $89,000 in interest. That’s a difference of $140,000, which is about $388 per month. 

The benefits of a good credit score are enormous and the penalties are very, very expensive.” 

How A Good Score Affects Your Credit Card Payments

The same goes for credit card rates. Take the Bank of America Cash Rewards card, for example. Their APR’s range from 12.99% to 22.99%. We know that the average balance for someone who has credit card debt is about $7,700.

How much difference does 10% make each month? About $64. You’re paying nearly 70 bucks less each month just because of your good credit score. 

How a Good Score Affects Your Auto Loan

Okay, so you’ve got your home loan and credit card and you’re happy because your great credit score has saved you about $450 in monthly payments. Let’s take it one (and final) step further. 

According to the 2015 numbers from Kelley Blue Book, the average price of a new car was $33,560. There’s a good chance that a credit score of 790 will get you 0% financing from your new-car dealer, which means you won’t pay any interest on your loan.

Now let’s compare that to the average APR on a new-car loan at the time of our research: 3.37%. What’s the monthly difference between the two if you get a 60-month loan? About $55 per month. 

Based on our estimates, between mortgage and car payments, your good credit score could save you about $500 a month. Our recommendation? Do everything you can to raise your credit score. As we’ve discussed, it can make a huge difference in your monthly bills. 

Our Conclusions About Raising Your Credit Scores and What It Means For Your Future

Raising your credit score is a matter of creating good habits that show lenders you are a responsible borrower who will pay back your loans or balances in a timely, consistent way. To do that, you should:

  • Always pay your bills on time. Set up automatic payments through your bank, credit card company or loan lender to make sure you avoid 30-, 60- or 90-day late payments. 
  • Keep your balances low. Aim to keep your overall utilization around 25%, but under 10% is the ideal situation. 
  • Don’t sign up for one-time deals with store credit cards. There’s a chance the resulting score decrease could cost you percentage points on long-term loans for a home or a car. 

Your mindset is also really important in managing your credit. Don’t get stuck thinking paying on time is the sole way to raise your score; there are several factors involved. Remember, by practicing good credit habits you can make the banks and lenders come to you with their best offers. 

You have the ability to get the loan offers and interest rates you want, but it’s going to take some work to get your credit score into the high 700s and beyond.

The financial empowerment you get is worth the work, though. If you’re like the average consumer, putting in the time to gain excellent credit can, at certain points, save you about $500 a month.

If you’re still unclear about the basics of what a credit score is and how it’s calculated, take a look at our article, “Making Sense of Your Credit Scores: Your Comprehensive Guide”. You’ll learn how credit scores started, what factors into good and bad scores and how those scores affect your life.


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