If you thought ancient Greece was the home of myths, you should check out modern America. Certainly when it comes to credit scores, many of us believe stories that would make Homer blush. Here are seven mythical monsters that need slaying:
1. Credit scores and credit reports are much the same -- False!
Your credit report is just a file that contains a list of your past and present accounts, along with a record of how you've managed them. That's mostly based on lenders reporting to credit bureaus on amounts you owe and payments you make. It also shows applications you've made for credit, whether successful or not. Entries generally remain on your report for seven years, although some sorts of bankruptcy can appear for 10. That seven-year rule applies to virtually all entries, including -- in spite of another myth -- those concerning accounts you've closed.
A credit score is a three-digit number that presents a snapshot of your overall creditworthiness on a particular day. It's entirely based on information contained in your report (your age, ethnicity, salary, assets and place of residence don't come into it), and is calculated by computers using highly sophisticated algorithms. These assign negative or positive values to all the entries in your file, weighted according to their recency and significance, and are designed to provide the best possible indicator of your likely ability, readiness and willingness to handle future credit well.
2. Scores and reports are infallible -- False!
So we have a system based on lenders reporting to credit bureaus, and then computers storing information and calculating scores. What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot. In fact, in 2013, the Federal Trade Commission reported that one in four consumers in a study had found errors in their credit reports that were sufficiently serious to materially affect their scores.
This means one thing. It's vital that you check your report and score regularly -- at least annually -- for errors. In fact, it's widely regarded as good practice to monitor them much more often, something that might help you actively manage your score, as well as uncover identity fraud before too much damage is done. Check out the WisePiggy.com truly free credit score service.
3. Employers check your credit score -- False!
If you're worried about existing or potential employers accessing your credit score when you apply for a promotion or new job, relax. Or, at least, relax a bit. It's unlikely to be your score they would see. They might, however, get a copy of your report. Your best bet may be to get your own copy upfront, and address any issues during your interview.
4. Checking your credit report hurts your score -- False!
Many people believe that accessing their own credit report harms their score. That's just not true, but you can see why this is a common myth. If lenders check your report because you've applied to them for new credit, that does have an impact. According to VantageScore, one of the companies that devise scoring systems, each such inquiry could decrease your score by 10 or 20 points.
However, the damage done by comparison shopping is much less. Providing your applications are for a single loan (for example, you're trying to find the best mortgage rates, and check a number of potential lenders), and are carried out within a short period, they should usually all count as a single inquiry. And, as long as you make prompt payments on your new account, the impact of opening it should fade away very quickly -- maybe within three months, VantageScore says.
5. Closing paid-down accounts is always a good move -- False!
The single biggest determinant of your credit score (accounting for 35 percent of it, according to FICO) is your record for making payments. At 30 percent, the amount you owe comes a close second. But lenders tend to be much less interested in the dollar sum of your debt than in the proportion of your available credit you're using. In industry jargon, this is your credit utilization ratio.
"You want to keep your balances on your credit cards below 30 percent as a minimum, if not lower," says Anthony A. Sprauve, FICO senior consumer credit specialist. "Thirty percent or less is the magic figure. You're rewarded a little more for 20 percent, and a little more for 10 percent, but the difference between 10, 20 and 30 is minimal."
This explodes another myth: that having too many credit cards hurts your score. Providing you use only a small proportion of your available credit, you can have as many as you need. However, Sprauve warns against opening new accounts unless you do actually need them.
6. Rich people have great scores, poor people bad ones -- False!
Being rich doesn't automatically make you a good money manager, which is all scoring systems care about. Plenty of people on below-average incomes have stellar scores, while many seriously wealthy individuals would struggle to get a cell phone account without first paying a deposit.
7. A poor credit score will dog me forever -- False!
Maybe this is the key myth to get past. It may take you a while to get current with all your accounts, and then build a record of prompt payments, but, once you have, your score can change dramatically and relatively quickly. VantageScore says that its systems can see the impact of even a default fade away to nothing over 18 months or so -- providing you maintain a perfect record during that period on all your accounts. However, it may take longer for your FICO score to bounce back.
It may take you a few years (longer if you've been bankrupt) to get your score from sub-prime to super-prime, but that doesn't stop it being a highly achievable ambition.