How to Maintain and Protect Your Credit Score

Maintaining and protecting your credit score is easy when you have good financial habits. Make sure that you pay your bills on time, avoid racking up credit card debt, and avoid applying for new credit.

Apps that Tell You Your Free Credit Scores

Many apps can provide your credit score for free, which can help you stay on top of your credit score and fraudulent activity/negative information that needs to be disputed.


Credit Score Ranges - The Best Credit Scores

Credit scores range from 300 (worst) to 850 (best). Most people’s scores fall in the middle range.

Credit score ranges

What Are Good Credit Scores?

Each lender differs, but in general, a good credit score is between 670 and 739. Scores below 670 are fair or poor, and scores higher than 739 are very good or excellent.

What Is the Highest Credit Score?

The highest credit score is 850, but only about 1.2% of Americans actually achieve this score. Rarely, some credit models have credit scores that go up to 950, but most banks and lending institutions use FICO, which goes up to 850

What is An Average Credit Score?

According to Experian, the average credit score is 703. This was a significant increase from 2009, when the average credit score was just 690. 

What Is My Credit Score and How Can I Make It Better?

Your credit score is a three-digit number that tells lenders your level of financial responsibility, based on your past and current behavior. Scores range from 300 to 850, with 850 being the highest (best) score you can get. The average person has a credit score between 600 and 750.

What Factors Contribute to My Credit Score?

There are several factors that contribute to your credit score. Each credit scoring model will weigh them differently in their calculation:

  • Payment history: Since you first established credit, on-time and late payments on your accounts have been tracked and will impact your score.
  • Credit utilization: The amount of credit you use – compared to the amount of credit you have – should not exceed 30%.
  • Length of your credit history: The longer your credit history, the better. It’s recommended to keep your old accounts or credit cards open unless it’s  essential to close them.
  • Credit mix: It’s best that your credit types vary, including installment debt and revolving debt.
  • Time since you last applied for credit: Every time you apply for credit through a hard inquiry, it causes your credit score to drop a couple of points.
  • Total balances and amount of debt: Keep the balances on your credit cards low and pay them off every month. The amount of credit you have versus your available credit is important.

Why Are Credit Scores Important?

Lenders, employers, insurance companies, and even utility companies check your credit score to determine your creditworthiness. Your score also determines how risky you are as a borrower. The higher your credit score, the better terms you’ll get on loans and the more loan options you’ll have. You may even get a better job or lower insurance rates because of it.

How Are Credit Scores Calculated?

Credit scores are calculated using either the FICO Score 9 (2014) or VantageScore 4.0 (2017) models. These credit scoring models analyze sections of your credit report to generate your credit score. Scores will vary between the two models because they value factors on your credit report differently.

Fico Scoring Model

The FICO Scoring Model is used by over 90% of US lenders. To calculate your credit score, it takes the following into account:

  • Payment history 35%
  • Credit utilization 30%
  • Length of credit history 15%
  • New credit 10%
  • Credit mix 10%

VantageScore Model

The VantageScore model weighs the following criteria to calculate your credit score:

  • Payment history 41%
  • Age/mix of credit 20%
  • Utilization 20%
  • New credit 11%
  • Balance 6%
  • Available credit 2%

Who Calculates My Credit Score?

Each credit bureau (ie. Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) calculates your credit score based on the information reported to them. Some creditors only report to one or two bureaus while others report to all three. Your credit scores may differ slightly between the three bureaus.

When Do Credit Scores Update?

On average, credit scores update every 30 to 45 days, depending on the credit bureau and your creditor’s reporting schedule. Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion don’t require a specific reporting schedule. However, you’ll find that your credit score can change daily, weekly, or monthly, depending on the type of credit pull or lender.

What Credit Score Do Banks Use?

Most banks use FICO Score 9 (latest model) but it varies by bank. Some banks use VantageScore, which is just as reputable as FICO. However, since banks may choose which model suits their evaluation of risk, it’s best to ask your bank what they use. This is important if you’re looking to understand which score lenders will see.

How to Check My Credit Score

Most credit card companies and banks offer free access to your credit score. All you need is to sign up for their online portal and you’ll have access to your credit scores. Many credit card companies and banks allow you to sign up for alerts, which will inform you if your credit score changes. 

Experian also offers free access to your credit score. After confirming your identity, you’ll have free access to your credit score and notifications when your score changes.

Where to Check Your Annual Free Credit Report

Checking your credit score isn’t the same as checking your credit report. If you want to see your credit history (which makes up your credit score), check your credit report at Annual Free Credit Report. You’ll receive free access to one report from each bureau annually (through April 2021, everyone gets free weekly access).

Because it’s considered a “soft inquiry”, checking your credit score or credit report will not affect your credit score. Soft inquiries are not visible to potential lenders, however, you will be able to see them on your credit report for 12-24 months. 

Hard inquiries, however, do affect your credit score. They occur when a lender reviews your credit history after you apply for a loan or credit card. If you’re planning to make a large purchase (like a mortgage), you can still shop around for the best interest rates without multiple hard inquiries appearing on your credit report. If you initiate multiple credit pulls within 14 to 45 days, it will typically be counted as one hard inquiry.

Apps that Tell You Your Free Credit Scores

Many apps can provide your credit score for free, which can help you stay on top of your credit score and fraudulent activity/negative information that needs to be disputed. Each of the following companies have created apps for free credit scores that are both user-friendly and easy to sign up for:

  • Mint
  • Credit Karma
  • Credit Sesame
  • TransUnion
  • Experian
  • CreditWise

Are Credit Score Apps Safe?

Credit score apps that are well-known and well-reviewed can be trustworthy sources for obtaining your credit score. Only provide your personal, sensitive, and identifying information to apps that are vetted.

How to Dispute a Charge on Your Credit Report

You can dispute a charge on your credit report by mailing the applicable information to each credit bureau. It is important to use certified mail and a request return receipt. This ensures that your personal information stays safe. The credit bureau has 30 days from the date of receipt to respond to your dispute. Provide as much proof as possible so that the inaccurate information can be removed from your credit report.

Why Do Credit Scores Go Down?

Credit scores drop for a variety of reasons, but the biggest is making late payments. Even a single late payment can lower your score 50-100 points, depending on the situation. 

Other factors that may include:

  • Closing old credit card accounts
  • Applying for multiple lines of credit over a short period of time
  • High credit utilization
  • Making risky purchases
  • Using too many low-limit credit cards
  • Getting a divorce
  • Making only the minimum payment
  • Unpaid tickets and library fees
  • Not exercising your credit
  • Reducing your credit limit
  • Paying off debt
  • Negative remarks or a mistake on your credit reports
  • Becoming a victim of identity theft

How To Raise Your Credit Score

There are many ways to raise your credit score, however, it won’t be a quick fix. To make a difference in your score over time, keep the following points in mind:

1. Pay Your Bills on Time

If you’re trying to boost your credit score, one of the easiest things you can do is pay your bills on time. Avoid missing payments by setting up automatic payments or putting a reminder on your calendar. Making frequent payments can also help. This lowers your credit utilization more often than if you paid once per month.

2. Get Credit for Utility and Cell Phone Payments

You can use services like Experian Boost to instantly improve your credit score. Once you provide access to your bank account, Experian will add up to 24 months of utility and cell phone bill payments to your credit history.

3. Pay off Debt and Keep Balances Low

Your credit utilization ratio measures the amount of credit you have used compared to your total available credit. In an effort to maintain or boost your score, you should not use more than 30% of your available credit. Simple methods include paying off your credit card each month and working towards debt repayment. This shows lenders that you understand how to manage credit responsibly.

4. Don’t Close Old Credit Cards

If you close old cards, it will affect your score and increase your credit utilization ratio. Keep them open unless you have an important reason (like high membership fees) to close them. A positive history can boost your score more than you might realize.

5. Only Apply for Credit You Need

When trying to raise your credit score, only apply for credit that you actually need. Avoid multiple inquiries, as they can cause your score to take a hit (by up to five points). Credit pulls become hard inquiries and stay on your credit report for two years and multiple inquiries over a short period of time may make lenders think you are a risky borrower for loans or credit cards.

6. Become an Authorized User

If you have a relative or friend with good credit history and a high credit limit, they may be willing to help you build your credit by adding you as an authorized user to their credit card. You don’t have to use the card or hold the account login details to reap the benefits. People who have little-to-no credit history can gain some history as well as a lower credit utilization.

7. Use a Secured Credit Card

Apply for a secured credit card that reports your activity to the three credit bureaus. You’ll pay an upfront deposit that becomes your credit limit on the card, reducing the credit card issuer’s risk while helping you build credit.

8. Keep a Good Credit Mix

The credit account types you hold (such as installment accounts and revolving credit) are important factors that go into calculating your credit score. Aim to have both types of credit. Installment accounts include monthly payments based on your spending such as credit cards, retail store cards, gas station cards, and home equity lines of credit (HELOC). Revolving credit includes fixed monthly payments such as mortgages, auto loans, and student loans.

9. Dispute Credit Report Errors

Errors on credit reports can lower your score. Be sure to check your free credit reports for mistakes, and if you spot any, dispute them so they get removed.

10. Avoid Bankruptcy, Delinquencies, Foreclosure, or Being Sent to Collections

Bankruptcies, delinquencies, and foreclosure will wreak havoc on your credit score. They will stay on your credit report for years and will make it hard to rebuild your history.

11. Increase Your Credit Limits

Asking to increase your credit limit is an easy way to lower your credit utilization – as long as your overall balances stay the same. When you inquire, ask your credit card company whether the change will reflect as a “hard inquiry” on your credit report.

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How to Maintain and Protect Your Credit Score

Maintaining and protecting your credit score is easy when you have good financial habits. Make sure that you pay your bills on time, avoid racking up credit card debt, and avoid applying for new credit. 

If you have a high credit utilization rate (ie. more than 30% of your credit line outstanding), pay the balance down, ask for a credit line increase, or consolidate your debt onto a balance transfer credit card. Also be sure to check your credit regularly to spot any errors or fraudulent activity.

Credit scores above 700 will instill more confidence about your creditworthiness. With a credit score in the “good” range, you’ll show that you handle credit responsibly and are less likely to default on a loan. You’ll also receive significantly lower interest rates and will be approved for lines of credit more easily.

Check Your Credit Score Annually

At minimum, it’s important that you check your credit score annually. This will help you find opportunities for improvement and ensure that there are no errors or fraudulent transactions. If your credit score isn’t between 600 and 750, find out how you can raise it. To simplify the process, ask your credit card companies or bank for free credit monitoring.

Monitor Regularly For Changes

Sign up for credit monitoring with Experian and receive notifications whenever your credit score changes. There are also multiple avenues to receive free credit scores, such as through your bank and credit card companies, as well as credit bureaus each year.

Keep a close eye on your credit score to prevent fraudulent activity and ensure that all changes are accurate. If you experience a drop in credit score, determine how you can improve it moving forward, prevent drops in the future, and dispute the issue (if you weren’t responsible).

Build Your Score Over Time

It takes time to build a credit score, especially if you’re starting from a poor or fair credit rating. Positive financial habits will eventually pay off. Though you won’t see a drastic credit score change right away, consistent efforts should help your score to rebound over time.

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Ask an Expert
All of our content is verified for accuracy by Rachel Siegel, CFA and our team of certified financial experts. We pride ourselves on quality, research, and transparency, and we value your feedback. Below you'll find answers to some of the most common reader questions about Discover How to Build & Maintain Your Best Credit Score .

What Should I Do If My Credit Report Shows Different Scores?

Since they might be calculated differently, it’s common for different credit reports to show varying scores. Your primary focus should be comparing them to ensure that all of the information is consistent and accurate. Your score will be within a range, depending on the credit bureau and credit scoring model used.

How Do Credit Scores Affect Mortgage Rates?

Credit scores and mortgage rates are directly related. If you have a high or good credit score, you’ll likely receive a low mortgage rate. The more your credit score drops, however, the higher the interest rate mortgage lenders will charge. They base your risk of default on your credit score, and a lower score will signify a higher risk of not being able to repay the loan.

What Credit Score Is Needed to Buy a House?

Each lender differs, but if you want conventional or government-backed financing, you’ll need a 620 credit score to qualify for a mortgage. If you use a private lender or subprime financing, you might secure financing with a lower credit score. The higher your credit score, the lower your interest rate will be. 

Don’t let your FICO score drop during the underwriting step of applying for a mortgage since your lender will keep a close eye on your credit score during the process. They may not approve your application if there are significant changes to your credit score before closing.

When Should I Pay for a Credit Monitoring Service?

If you’ve been a victim of identity theft or credit fraud, you may be eligible for free credit monitoring from one of the three credit bureaus. If not, you can pull your free credit report and review your credit score often (you can even get free alerts from Experian).

Are Credit Scores and FICO Scores the Same?

Credit scores and FICO scores are not the same, but they’re related. Credit scores are calculated using credit scoring models like FICO and VantageScore (which can differ by up to 100 points). The credit scoring models analyze the history on your credit report to generate a credit score. FICO is the most commonly used.

How Are Credit Scores and Credit Ratings Different?

Both credit scores and credit ratings convey creditworthiness and the probability that a borrower will pay back their debt. They both look at credit history and current financial decisions. 

Credit ratings are reserved for businesses or the government and are determined by independent third parties. Credit ratings are signified by a letter (e.g AAA, AA, A, BBB, BB, B, CCC, CC, C, and D). You may also see them with pluses and minuses. Credit scores are created by creditors or bureaus for individuals or businesses and are on a number system of 300-850.

Rachel Siegel, CFA
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Rachel Siegel, CFA is one of the nation's leading experts at ensuring the accuracy of financial and economic text.  Her prestigious background includes over 10 years of experience in creating professional financial certification exams and another 20 years of college-level teaching.

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