According to a recent survey, most consumers don’t understand credit scores very well...
WASHINGTON – June 11, 2019 – Knowledge about credit scores is at its lowest level in the past eight years, according to the ninth annual credit score survey by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and VantageScore Solutions. On most knowledge questions, correct scores declined by more than 10 percentage points – and sometimes by more than 20 percentage points. For example:
- 78% of respondents in 2012, but only 62% in 2019, correctly indicated that people have more than one credit score
- 85% in 2012, but only 66% in 2019, correctly answered that keeping a low credit card balance helps raise a low credit score or maintain a high one
However, over the same period, the proportion of respondents who considered their knowledge of credit scores excellent or good rose from 54% to 60%.
"Consumers know less about credit scores but think they know more," says Stephen Brobeck, CFA senior fellow.
"We are pleased that many consumers now have free access to their credit scores, but consumers must also take advantage of all the additional information about credit scores and credit files in order to make better credit decisions," says Barrett Burns, president and CEO of VantageScore Solutions.
Consumer knowledge levels may have deteriorated, in part, because of improvements in the overall economy and consumers' financial condition. In 2012, large numbers of Americans faced challenging credit card and mortgage debts, so consumers may have been especially concerned about credit scores.
Since then, as the nation's economy and family finances recovered, and as consumers reduced unsustainable credit card and mortgage debts, consumers may have felt that it was less important to fully understand credit scores. Reports of increases in average credit scores nationwide may also have lessened people's feelings of financial vulnerability and the need to fully learn about their scores and its impact.
Despite overall rising score levels – now averaging 680 according to Experian – a large minority of consumers have fair or poor scores (below 670). Low scores can especially harm these people by:
- Denying access to credit
- Increasing the costs of consumer and mortgage credit they can obtain. Subprime mortgage loans can cost over ten thousand dollars more than conventional loans
- Higher deposits required by utilities and cell phone companies
Low credit scores may also make it more difficult for people to get a job. While credit scores themselves are not used by employers, the credit reports the scores are based on frequently are.
"Those with low credit scores should be aware that they are at risk not only for paying higher costs for credit and utility services, but may also struggle to obtain a good job with which to afford those higher costs," says Brobeck.
While consumers' knowledge of their actual credit scores has declined overall, the latest survey shows large majorities of consumers did correctly answer key knowledge questions related to important facts:
- Mortgage lenders and credit card issuers use credit scores (83% and 82% respectively)
- Missed payments are used in calculating credit scores (86%)
- Making all loan payments on time helps a consumer raise a low credit score or maintain a high one (87%)
However, significant minorities of respondents did not know other key facts:
- Cell phone companies might use credit scores in pricing services (41%)
- Borrowing from a 401k retirement account or paying a parking ticket late will not lower your credit scores (30% and 22% respectively)
- Opening several credit card accounts at the same time might lower scores (38%).
- Frequently checking credit scores will not lower their scores (38%)
- Checking the accuracy of one's credit reports is very important (33%)
Consumers can raise credit scores or maintain high ones by:
- Consistently making loan payments on time. A late payment may lower credit scores by dozens of points
- Using a small portion of available credit on a credit card. In general, the higher the percentage of credit line drawn down, the lower one's credit scores
- Paying down credit card debt rather than just shifting it to another credit card or to a home equity loan
- Regularly checking one's credit reports to make sure they're error-free. This can be done for free annually by going to annualcreditreport.com or calling (800) 322-8228
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