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What is considered an average credit score and how to improve your credit

Fair or average credit will help you, but not as much as an excellent score will. CNBC Select explains what is a fair and average credit score for FICO and VantageScore —and how to improve your credit score with confidence.

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Average credit is a stepping stone to good credit, which can lead to an excellent credit score down the line.

While a fair and average credit score is better than having no credit or bad credit, you should actively work toward improving your credit score if you recently checked your score and learned it is lower than you expected.

You can qualify for a variety of financial products with average credit, but you likely won't receive the best interest rates, rewards and terms since lenders pull your credit report and weigh your three-digit credit score during the approval process. The higher your credit score, the better chances you'll have to qualify for the best credit cards, mortgages and competitive loan rates.

Below, CNBC Select explains what is a fair and average credit score for FICO and VantageScore, how to improve a fair and average credit score and how to get a free credit report.

The rundown: Fair and average credit scores

  • What is a fair and average credit score?
  • How an average credit score can hurt you
  • How to improve an average credit score
  • How to check your credit score for free

What is a fair and average credit score?

Credit score ranges vary based on two main factors: The credit scoring model used (FICO versus VantageScore) and the credit bureau (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) that pulls the score. Below, you can check which credit score range you fall into, using estimates from Experian.

FICO Score

  • Very poor: 300 to 579
  • Fair: 580 to 669
  • Good: 670 to 739
  • Very good: 740 to 799
  • Excellent: 800 to 850

VantageScore

  • Very poor: 300 to 499
  • Poor: 500 to 600
  • Fair: 601 to 660
  • Good: 661 to 780
  • Excellent: 781 to 850

What factors influence your credit score

Credit scores are calculated differently depending on the credit scoring model used. Here are the key factors FICO and VantageScore consider.

FICO Score

  1. Payment history (35%): Whether you've paid past credit accounts on time
  2. Amounts owed (30%): The total amount of credit and loans you're using compared to your total credit limit, also known as your utilization rate
  3. Length of credit history (15%): The length of time you've had credit
  4. New credit (10%): How often you apply for and open new accounts
  5. Credit mix (10%): The variety of credit products you have, including credit cards, installment loans, finance company accounts, mortgage loans and so on

VantageScore

  1. Extremely influential: Payment history
  2. Highly influential: Type and duration of credit and percent of credit limit used
  3. Moderately influential: Total balances/debt
  4. Less influential: Available credit and recent credit behavior and inquiries

How an average credit score can hurt you

Denials for credit

If you have bad or average credit (FICO scores below 670), you may have lower approval chances for credit cards and loans. This may impact some goals you're looking to achieve, such as getting out of debt. If you're in debt and considering debt-consolidation options, such as a balance transfer credit card, like the Discover it® Balance Transfer, you'll need good or excellent credit.

Less favorable loan and interest terms

While an average credit score can still allow you to qualify for credit products, you may be hindered by higher interest rates that can add up to lost money when you take out a mortgage or auto loan. And if you open a variable-rate credit card, you may receive an APR toward the higher range. 

Let's take an example where two people, one with average credit and the other with excellent credit, apply for the same card with a 15.74% to 23.74% variable APR. The average credit cardholder receives a 23.74% APR while the cardholder with excellent credit gets a 15.74% APR.

Both cardholders accrue $5,000 in credit card debt and plan to pay it off after 12 months. Here's roughly how much interest each cardholder would accrue during the 12-month period:

  • Average credit cardholder: $666
  • Excellent credit cardholder: $436

Compared to someone with excellent credit, an average credit consumer would $230 more in interest charges for the exact same decision.

Plus, some the best credit cards for fair and average credit have annual fees, such as the Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card with a $39 annual fee.

Limited credit card choices

Having average credit typically means you qualify for relatively no-frills cards with lower rewards rates or no rewards at all, such as the Capital One® Platinum Credit Card, which has no rewards program. And if you do qualify for a card with rewards, the rates aren't usually as competitive as some of the best cards for good or excellent credit.

For example, the Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card requires fair or good credit and offers 1.5% cash back on all purchases with a $39 annual fee. In comparison, if you have good or excellent credit, you may qualify for the no annual fee Citi® Double Cash Card and earn 2% cash back: 1% on all purchases and an additional 1% after you pay your credit card bill.

Take note that even if your credit score falls within the fair and average range, there is no guarantee you will be approved for a credit card requiring fair and average credit. Card issuers look at more factors than just your credit score, including income and monthly housing payments.

How to improve an average credit score

More than seven in 10 Americans (77%) report feeling anxious about their financial situation, according to the Mind over Money survey by Capital One and The Decision Lab. But there are actions you can take to improve an average credit score and achieve your financial goals. Follow these tips to help raise your credit score.

  • Make on-time payments. The most important factor of your credit score is payment history, so it's key to always pay on time. Consider setting up autopay or reminders to ensure timely payments.
  • Pay in full. While it's essential to make at least your minimum payment every month, you should aim to pay your bill in full each month to reduce your utilization rate, which is the percentage of your total credit limit you're using. To calculate your utilization rate, divide your total credit card balance by your total credit limit.
  • Don't open too many accounts at once. When you apply for credit, whether it's a credit card or loan, an inquiry appears on your credit report, regardless if you're denied or approved. Inquiries temporarily lower your credit score about five points, which doesn't seem like much but can add up if you submit multiple applications. Your score will bounce back within a few months, but you should still try to limit applications as needed. Fortunately, you can shop around with prequalification tools that don't hurt your credit score and can provide insight into the cards that you may have the best qualification chances for.

How to get a free credit score

Most card issuers provide free credit score resources that can help you track your progress toward good credit. And there are dozens of free credit score services available that offer your free FICO Score or VantageScore, regardless if you're a cardholder. Here are some popular free credit score resources.

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Information about the Discover cards, Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card, and the Capital One® Platinum Credit Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the cards prior to publication.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.