A FICO score is used by creditors and lenders to determine the overall credit risk of any individual consumer. Individuals with higher ratings are considered to have greater creditworthiness. Each score is calculated using a proprietary tool developed by the Fair Issac Corp (FICO), and each of the three major credit bureaus in the United States—Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion—rely on Fair Issac's technology to calculate a FICO score for any borrower.

Understanding FICO Scores

FICO scoring is based on five categories of borrower information: payment history, total debt, length of credit history, new credit, and types of credit. The more information a credit bureau has on you, the more accurate their calculation will be. However, since some bureaus have more information than others, you may have a different FICO score from each of the three major credit bureaus.

Key Takeaways

  • Credit rating bureaus use the FICO scoring system to determine a borrower's creditworthiness.
  • The scoring system considers factors like total debt, repayment history, and length of credit history.
  • Scores above 800 are considered excellent, while scores of 600 or less suggest bad credit or no credit history.
  • Making payments in full and on time can help boost an individual's FICO score.

FICO scores range from 300 to 850, where 850 is considered to be the best score achievable. According to FICO, scores have been rising and more than 20% of the U.S. population has a FICO score greater than 800, while only 4% has a FICO score lower than 500. Percentages of Americans with other scores are (approximately): 7% for the 500-549 range, 8% for the 550-599 range, 10% for the 600-649 range, 13% for the 650-699 range, 16% for the 700-749 range, and 20% for the 750-799 range.

Fixing Your FICO Score

If your FICO score is not as high as you would like it, there are things you can do to improve it. First of all, be sure to keep all of your bills current and in good standing. Always pay your bills when they come due, never make late payments, and pay more than the minimum balance on your credit cards or pay them off completely if you can. The longer you have a good payment history, the higher your credit score will be.

Advisor Insight

Alexander Rupert, CFP®
Sequoia Financial Group, Cleveland, OH

Equifax, Experian and TransUnion also have their own methods of calculating a credit score in house, although most lenders will use a borrower's FICO score.

VantageScore, developed in partnership by all three credit unions, is an example of an in-house method used. There are many versions of VantageScore. VantageScore 2.0 has a maximum score of 990. This makes it possible for someone to believe they have a FICO score greater than 850 when in reality, the score of 990 translates into a FICO score of 850.

There are many credit algorithms used which is one reason people get conflicting scores. The newest FICO algorithm is FICO 9 but not every credit bureau or bank uses it.

FICO scores will also vary depending on what purpose the borrower is borrowing, such as applying for a car loan versus a credit card.

Keeping an eye on your FICO credit score can also help you spot problems before they happen. If you have been a responsible borrower and have a low score, the credit bureaus might have inaccurate information, or perhaps someone is taking out loans under your name.

You can request a copy of your full credit report from the credit bureaus and, once you have identified any erroneous information, contact both the credit bureau and the organization that provided the information to the bureau. All three credit bureaus accept the filings of disputes online.