We’re not out of the woods yet, but with COVID-19 vaccines here, we’re moving in the right direction. I’m starting to see credit loosen up a bit, but it still takes a very good FICO score — think 760 or more — to qualify for the best credit cards and balance transfer offers.
So, get comfortable and reach for the credit score stars. If you follow these tips, you’ll get there.
— Check your credit reports.
— How high do credit scores go?
— Set yourself up for success.
— Keep low credit utilization ratios.
— Pay down your debt.
Check Your Credit Reports
This is like housekeeping for your credit. You need to review your free annual credit reports to make sure there isn’t anything in your report that’s inaccurate. If there is, that can bring down your credit score unnecessarily.
So, if you haven’t checked your free annual credit reports from the three major credit bureaus in a long time (or never), go ahead and check all three. Review every line and make sure it looks right. Also look for any new accounts that you didn’t open. This is a sign of fraud, and you’ll need to take action as soon as possible. The Federal Trade Commission offers steps to take if you need to dispute errors on your credit report. You can report identity theft at IdentityTheft.gov, which is also part of the FTC.
How High Do Credit Scores Go?
FICO scores range from 300 to 850. A very good FICO score is between 740 and 799. An exceptional score ranges from 800 to 850. Achieving a score of more than 800 is satisfying, but it’s unnecessary.
The highest credit score you need is 760, which is in the very good category. As long as you have a FICO score of 760 or higher, you’ll get the top interest rates when you apply for credit.
To get started on your quest for a 760 FICO score, you need to find out what credit score range you’re currently in. These days, if you can’t get an idea of whether you have fair credit or exceptional credit, then you aren’t looking very hard.
Here are just a few places you can often get a free credit score:
— Your monthly credit card statement.
— Your bank where you have checking or savings accounts.
— Free credit score websites.
— Credit card issuers that offer scores to everyone.
Any score you see may not be a FICO score, but even educational scores you get for free have value. If your only access is to a VantageScore and you want a FICO score, American Express and Discover both offer free FICO scores, and you don’t have to be a cardholder to access it. If all else fails, you can always pay for a FICO score at myFICO.com for $19.95. Be sure you select “One-time Reports” so you don’t sign up accidentally for a monthly subscription.
Set Yourself Up for Success
You need two basic things to give yourself a shot at a high credit score: a budget and a method for tracking your spending.
Fortunately, you have oodles of free options. You can use online software or a phone app. I use Mint online, but there’s also a Mint app if you prefer to deal with finances via your phone. Check out this list of the best free budgeting tools you can use, including pencil and paper if that’s what you’re comfortable with.
If you don’t have a budget and don’t track your spending, it’s highly likely you’ll overspend. Think of it this way: If you don’t know how much you’ve spent on takeout this month, how do you know when to stop?
Payment history makes up 35% of your FICO score, so it’s essential that you pay all of your bills on time. Set up reminders or automatic payments to make sure you don’t pay late.
Another good step to take is to set up budgetary limits on categories. You’ll get a notification when you get near the limit. This is the budget version of the “Stop Ahead” sign you might see out on the road.
Keep Low Credit Utilization Ratios
Your credit utilization ratio is the amount of credit you’ve used compared with the amount of credit you have available. Credit utilization is 30% of your FICO score, so it’s a big factor to keep in mind.
Example: You have a credit card with a $5,000 limit. Let’s say your balance is $2,000. This means you have a credit utilization ratio of 40% (2,000/5,000 = 40%).
Your utilization ratio should not exceed 10% if you’re going for a high credit score. So, in this example, your balance should not exceed $500 during the month (500/5,000 = 10%).
Keep a 10% utilization ratio on your cards overall and on your individual cards. The FICO algorithm considers both in the calculation.
[Read: Best Airline Credit Cards.]
Pay Down Your Debt
If you have a $5,000 balance on a credit card with a $10,000 limit, you have a ratio of 50%. Cut that balance in half, and your ratio is 25%. That’s much better, but your score won’t go as high as possible until your balance is below $1,000.
The best antidote for this is to pay down your debt. As your ratio starts going down, your score will start going up. As long as you have your budget in place and continue to track your spending, you’ll get a high credit score and keep it there.
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