Dear Liz: I have been reading your Money Talk column for years and it seems that about a third of the questions pertain to credit scores. Why are people fixated on their FICO result?
I was unaware of my score until recently, when my bank accounts started showing my score when I am online. I am 65 and have had credit cards since college over 45 years ago. I pay my bill in full each month. I have never been late with a mortgage payment or any other bill. When I have gone to buy real property or an automobile, I have never been turned down.
In other words, I have used credit successfully for decades by behaving responsibly without knowing my score. Are people interested in their FICO mostly to be used as a status symbol or way to brag?
Answer: Some are, but most understand that credit scores are hugely influential in our financial lives. Scores help determine whether we can get credit and the interest rates we pay, but also whether we’re able to rent an apartment, get affordable auto and homeowners insurance (in most states) and qualify for a cellphone carrier’s best deals.
Credit scores do reward responsible behavior, but have some quirks that are worth knowing about. Using more than a small percentage of your credit cards’ available limit, for example, can hurt your scores, even if you pay your balances in full. And closing credit accounts might seem like the responsible way to deal with a card you no longer use, but that can hurt your scores as well.
Also, you should know that you don’t have a single credit score; you have many, and they will differ based on which credit bureau and credit scoring formula was used.
FICO is the leading credit scoring formula, but there are many generations of the FICO score currently in use, from the older versions that have long been used in mortgage lending to the most commonly used version (FICO 8), to the most recent version (FICO 10). Auto lenders and credit card issuers use versions of the FICO that are adapted for their industries.
FICO’s main rival is VantageScore, which also has different generations in use. On top of that, credit scores change constantly, based on the ever-changing information in your credit reports.
Your bank is making it easy for you to monitor one of your scores, which can give you a general idea of how lenders might view you as a borrower. Just don’t be surprised if the score your bank shows you doesn’t match what a lender uses the next time you buy a car or refinance your mortgage.
Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.