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How to understand and improve your credit score in under 30 minutes

Key Points
  • A FICO credit score is unique to you and it determines how much you pay for credit.
  • FICO scores range from 300 to 850 and that number helps lenders determine your risk profile.
  • Most people have credit reports from three companies: Equifax, Experian and Transunion.
  • To improve your score don't open or close too many credit cards at once, don't make huge purchases, and pay off the full balance each month. 
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How a FICO credit score affects your life

Do you know your credit score? It is a three-digit number that can affect virtually all expenses in your life, from renting an apartment to getting a loan for a new car. Your credit score is unique to you and it determines how much you pay for credit. In under 30 minutes, you can find your score and make a plan for building a stronger personal credit risk profile.

Your FICO score ranges from 300 to 850. That number helps determine how much of a risk you are. The lower the score the higher your risk and vice versa. FICO — that stands for Fair Isaac Corporation, which debuted the FICO Score three decades ago — looks at how well you have managed your debt. It calculates your score based on several factors including payment history, total debt, types of credit, new credit and duration.

According to FICO, a score of less than 580 is poor; a score of 670 is good; 740 or higher is very good; 800 is exceptional.

FICO scores do not take into account your income, savings, utility bills, job status or debit transactions.

While FICO is the standard scoring model, most people have three credit reports – one each from the three main credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and Transunion.

Your credit score matters but as many as 4 in 10 Americans have no idea how their score is determined.

If you have no credit history, then you likely don't have a score – meaning you are credit invisible.

Why you don't want to be credit invisible

Take the story of Samantha Barry, editor-in-chief of Glamour. In 2014, Barry moved from her native Ireland to New York City to start a new career. As she searched for an apartment her broker made it painfully clear that finding an apartment with no credit history was going to be difficult. To make matters worse, Barry was even denied a cell phone plan.

Despite saving and spending and establishing credit in Europe, none of her credit history made it to New York — Barry was credit invisible. She was forced to stay in corporate housing for four months while she built credit history in the U.S. About 1 in 10 Americans are credit invisible or without any credit history.

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How to build credit and improve your score

"People think that if you check your credit score it can hurt your credit score. This actually is not the case," says Winnie Sun, founder of Sun Group Wealth Partners.

Your credit card company will provide you with your FICO score. When you are doing a self-inquiry it doesn't affect your score, according to Sun. You can access this FICO score on your credit card company's account website or their app. While you can check your score almost every week, Sun suggests checking it at least once a year at annualcreditreport.com – where you can check for free.

Make sure that all of your cards are listed and that the information is being reported correctly.

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If you are looking to boost your credit score, Sun has a few suggestions:

1. Make sure you are paying the full balance on your cards every month. Creditors are looking for your creditworthiness, meaning if they loan you money they want to be sure they are getting their money back.

2. Don't try to improve your credit with big purchases that will put you in debt. Instead, make smaller purchases that you can pay back in order to increase your creditworthiness.

3. If possible, hold on to the first credit card you open. This will show that you have a track record of strong credit history. If you do not have credit yet it is wise to open an account that has no annual fee.

4. Don't close too many credit cards too fast. If you are looking to reduce the number of credit cards you hold, keep in mind that closing cards too quickly can have an adverse effect on your credit utilization.

5. Don't open too many credit cards too fast. That's because credit card companies will pull your credit reports when you apply. Sun's rule of thumb – you don't want to exceed two outside inquiries per month and ideally no more than once a quarter.

6. If your finances are in order, hold two cards. As long as you have a good credit score and can make payments on time, Sun suggests everyone should have two credit cards. The first should be a cashback card. Once you are comfortable using this card, you can then open a rewards credit card. This may be for travel or points towards experiences and goods. Whichever you choose it should align with your wants and needs.

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