Do you feel like you need an advanced degree to figure out what is affecting your credit score? Good news is you don't—it can actually be rather simple.
Behind the number itself (credit scores typically range from 300 to 850), there are five main factors used to calculate credit scores. Lenders use those scores to figure out how likely you are to pay back your debt—thus those scores are often the deciding factor in whether you will get a new loan.
As your financial profile changes, so does your score, so knowing what factors and types of accounts affect your credit score give you the opportunity to improve it over time.
Top 5 Credit Score Factors
While the exact criteria used by each scoring model varies, here are the most common factors that affect your credit scores.
- Payment history. Payment history is the most important ingredient in credit scoring, and even one missed payment can have a negative impact on your score. Lenders want to be sure that you will pay back your debt, and on time, when they are considering you for new credit. Payment history accounts for 35% of your FICO® Score*, the credit score used by most lenders.
- Credit utilization. Your credit utilization ratio is calculated by dividing the total revolving credit you are currently using by the total of all your revolving credit limits. This ratio looks at how much of your available credit you're utilizing and can give a snapshot of how reliant you are on non-cash funds. Using more than 30% of your available credit is a negative to creditors. Credit utilization accounts for 30% of your FICO® Score.
- Credit mix. People with top credit scores often carry a diverse portfolio of credit accounts. Credit scoring models consider the types of accounts and how many of each you have. Lenders use this credit mix to understand past debt experiences and how you have handled them.
- Hard inquiries. Hard inquiries are recorded in your credit file each time a lender requests your credit report as part of their decision-making process. Hard inquiries remain in your credit file for up to two years and can in some cases have a negative impact on your credit scores.
- Negative information. Late or missed payments, foreclosures, collection accounts, and charge-offs are all examples of negative information that can appear in your credit file. These typically indicate that you have defaulted on a loan in the past and can be red flags for lenders looking to approve you for new credit. The effect negative information has on your credit score depends on your overall credit profile and what type of record it is. These records typically stay in your file for at least seven years, so it's best to avoid any negative infraction if at all possible.
Types of Accounts That Impact Credit Scores
Typically, credit files contain information about two types of debt: installment loans and revolving credit. Because revolving and installment accounts keep a record of your debt and payment history, they are important for calculating your credit scores.
- Installment credit usually comprises loans where you borrow a fixed amount and agree to make a monthly payment toward the overall balance until the loan is paid off. Student loans, personal loans, and mortgages are examples of installment accounts.
- Revolving credit is typically associated with credit cards but can also include some types of home equity loans. With revolving credit accounts, you have a credit limit and make at least minimum monthly payments according to how much credit you use. Revolving credit can fluctuate and doesn't typically have a fixed term.
How Does Having Different Accounts Affect My Credit Score?
Credit mix—or the diversity of your credit accounts—is one of the most common factors used to calculate your credit scores. It is also one of the most overlooked by consumers. Maintaining different types of credit accounts, such as a mortgage, personal loan and credit card, shows lenders you can manage different types of debt at the same time. It also helps them get a clearer image of your finances and ability to pay back debt.
While having a less diverse credit portfolio won't necessarily cause your scores to go down, the more types of credit you have—as long as you make on-time payments—the better. Credit mix accounts for 10% of your FICO® Score and could be an influential factor in helping you achieve a top score.
Can Service Accounts Impact My Credit Score?
Service accounts, such as utility and phone bills, are not automatically included in your credit file. Historically, the only way a utility account could impact a credit score was if you didn't make payments and the account was referred to a collection agency.
Experian Boost works instantly, allowing users with eligible payment history see their FICO® Score increase in a matter of minutes. Currently, it is the only way you can get credit for your utility and telecom payments.
Through the new platform, users can connect their bank accounts to identify utility and phone bills. After the user verifies the data and confirms they want it added to their credit file, they will receive an updated FICO® Score instantly. Late utility and telecom payments do not affect your Boost score—but remember, if your account goes to collections due to nonpayment, that will stay on your credit report for seven years.
What Can Hurt Your Credit Scores
As we discussed above, certain core features of your credit file have a great impact on your credit score, either positively or negatively. The following common actions can hurt your credit score:
- Missing payments. Payment history is one of the most important aspects of your FICO® Score, and even one 30-day late payment or missed payment can have a negative impact.
- Using too much available credit. High credit utilization can be a red flag to creditors that you're too dependent on credit. Credit utilization is calculated by dividing the total amount of revolving credit you are currently using by the total of all your credit limits. Lenders like to see credit utilization under 30%—under 10% is even better. This ratio accounts for 30% of your FICO® Score.
- Applying for a lot of credit in a short time. Each time a lender requests your credit reports for a lending decision, a hard inquiry is recorded in your credit file. These inquiries stay in your file for two years and can cause your score to go down slightly for a period of time. Lenders look at the number of hard inquiries to gauge how much new credit you are requesting. Too many inquiries in a short period of time can signal that you are in a dire financial situation or you are being denied new credit.
- Defaulting on accounts. The types of negative account information that can show up on your credit report include foreclosure, bankruptcy, repossession, charge-offs, settled accounts. Each of these can severely hurt your credit for years, even up to a decade.
How to Improve Your Credit Score
Improving your credit score can be easy once you understand why your score is struggling. It may take time and effort, but developing responsible habits now can help you grow your score in the long run.
A good first step is to get a free copy of your credit report and score so you can understand what is in your credit file. Next, focus on what is bringing your score down and work toward improving these areas.
Here are some common steps you can take to increase your credit score.
- Pay your bills on time. Because payment history is the most important factor in making up your credit score, paying all your bills on time every month is critical to improving your credit.
- Pay down debt. Reducing your credit card balances is a great way to lower your credit utilization ratio, and can be one of the quickest ways to see a credit score boost.
- Make any outstanding payments. If you have any payments that are past due, bringing them up to date may save your credit score from taking an even bigger hit. Late payment information in credit files include how late the payment was—30, 60 or 90 days past due—and the more time that has elapsed, the larger the impact on your scores.
- Dispute inaccurate information on your report. Mistakes happen, and your scores could suffer because of inaccurate information in your credit file. Periodically monitor your credit reports to make sure no inaccurate information appears. If you find something that's out of place, initiate a dispute as soon as possible.
- Limit new credit requests. Limiting the number of times you ask for new credit will reduce the number of hard inquiries in your credit file. Hard inquiries stay on your credit report for two years, though their impact on your scores fades over time.
What to Do if You Don't Have a Credit Score
If you want to establish and build your credit but don't have a credit score, these options will help you get going.
- Get a secured credit card. A secured credit card can be used the same way as a conventional credit card. The only difference is that a security deposit—typically equal to your credit limit—is required when signing up for a secured card. This security deposit helps protect the credit issuer if you default and makes them more comfortable taking on riskier borrowers. Use the secured card to make small essential purchases and be sure to pay your bill in full and on time each month to help establish and build your credit. Click here to learn more about how secured cards work and here to browse Experian's secured card partners.
- Become an authorized user. If you are close with someone who has a credit card, you could ask them to add you as an authorized user to jump-start your credit. In this scenario, you get your own card and are given spending privileges on the main cardholder's account. In many cases, credit card issuers report authorized users to the credit bureaus, which adds to your credit file. As long as the primary cardholder makes all their payments on time, you should benefit.
Want to instantly increase your credit score? Experian Boost™ helps by giving you credit for the utility and mobile phone bills you're already paying. Until now, those payments did not positively impact your score.
This service is completely free and can boost your credit score fast by using your own positive payment history. It can also help those with poor or limited credit situations. Other services such as credit repair may cost you up to thousands and only help remove inaccuracies from your credit report.
*Credit score calculated based on FICO® Score 8 model. Your lender or insurer may use a different FICO® Score than FICO® Score 8, or another type of credit score altogether. Learn more.