Scoring For Credit

Fast Facts

  • Credit scoring is a system used by some creditors to determine whether to give you a loan or credit card.
  • To develop a system, a creditor will use statistical methods to identify and weigh characteristics based on how well each predicts who would be a good credit risk.
  • With credit scoring systems, creditors are able to evaluate millions of applicants consistently and impartially on many different characteristics.

How does a creditor decide whether to lend you money for such things as a new car or a home mortgage? Many creditors use a system called "credit scoring" to determine whether you are a good credit risk. Based on how well you score, a creditor may decide to extend credit to you or turn you down. The following questions and answers may help you understand who gets credit, and why.

What is Credit Scoring?

Credit scoring is a system used by some creditors to determine whether to give you a loan or credit card. The creditor may examine your past credit history to evaluate how promptly you pay your bills and look at other factors as well, such as the amount of your income, whether you own a home, and how many years you have worked at your job. A credit scoring system awards points for each factor that the creditor considers important. Creditors generally offer credit to those consumers awarded the most points because those points help predict who is most likely to pay back the debt.

Most lenders determine 35% of the score from payment histories on your credit accounts, with recent history weighing more heavily than the distant past. 30% is based on the amount of debt you have outstanding with all creditors. 15% depends on how long you've been a credit user. A longer history is better if you've always made timely payments. 10% is your very recent history and whether you've been seeking (and getting) loans or credit lines. And 10% is calculated from a mix of credit you hold, including installment loans (like car loans), leases, mortgage, and credit cards.

To help lenders make decisions, credit bureaus often provide a risk score. Credit bureau scores are often called "FICO scores" because most credit bureau scores used in the US are produced from software developed by Fair, Isaac and Company (FICO). FICO scores are provided to lenders by the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union.

More than one Score

In general, when people talk about "your score," they're talking about your current FICO score. However, there is no one score used to make decisions about you. This is true because:

  • Credit bureau scores are not the only scores used.
    Many lenders use their own scores, which often will include the FICO score as well as other information about you.
  • FICO scores are not the only credit bureau scores.
    There are other credit bureau scores, although FICO scores are by far the most commonly used. Other credit bureau scores may evaluate your credit report differently than FICO scores, and in some cases a higher score may mean more risk, not less risk as with FICO scores.
  • Your score may be different at each of the three main credit reporting agencies.
    The FICO score from each credit reporting agency considers only the data in your credit report at that agency. If your current scores from the three credit reporting agencies are different, it's probably because the information those agencies have on you differs.
  • Your FICO score changes over time.
    As your data changes at the credit reporting agency, so will any new score based on your credit report. So your FICO score from a month ago is probably not the same score a lender would get from the credit reporting agency today.

Why is Credit Scoring Used?

In smaller communities, shopkeepers, bankers, and others who extend credit often knew by word of mouth who paid their debts and who did not. As some creditors became larger and as the number of their consumer credit applications grew, these creditors needed to establish more systematic and efficient methods for evaluating which consumers were good credit risks. Credit scoring is one such technique.

Although smaller creditors still may rely on informal credit evaluations, many large companies now use formal credit scoring systems. Although no system is perfect, credit scoring systems can be at least as accurate as informal methods for granting credit — and often are more so — because they treat all applicants objectively.

How is a Credit Scoring System Developed?

Most credit scoring systems are unique because they are based on a creditor's individual experiences with customers. To develop a system, a creditor will select a random sample of its customers and analyze it statistically to identify which characteristics of those customers could be used to demonstrate creditworthiness. Then, again using statistical methods, a creditor will weigh each of these factors based on how well each predicts who would be a good credit risk.

How is a Consumer's Application Scored?

To illustrate how credit scoring works, consider the following example that uses only three factors to determine whether someone is creditworthy. (Most systems have 6 to 15 factors.)


Factors Points Awarded
Monthly Income
Less than $400 0
$400 to $650 3
$651 to $800 7
$801 to $1,200 12
$1,200 + 15
21-28 11
28-35 5
36-48 2
48-61 12
61 + 15
In Home
Yes 12
No 0

Some credit scoring systems award fewer points to people in their thirties and forties, because these individuals often have a relatively high amount of debt at that stage of their lives. The law permits creditors using properly-designed scoring systems to award points based on age, but people who are 62 or older must receive the maximum number of points for this factor.

If, for example, you needed a score of 25 to get credit, you would need to make sure you had enough income at a certain age (and, perhaps a telephone) to qualify for credit.

Remember, this example shows very generally how a credit scoring system works. Most credit scoring systems consider more factors than this example ¾ sometimes as many as 15 or 20. Usually these factors are obviously related to your credit worthiness. Sometimes, however, additional factors are included that may seem unusual. For example, some systems score the age of your car. While this may seem unrelated to creditworthiness, it is legal to use factors like these as long as they do not illegally discriminate on race, sex, martial status, national origin, religion, or age.

How Valid is the Credit Scoring System?

With credit scoring systems, creditors are able to evaluate millions of applicants consistently and impartially on many different characteristics. But credit scoring systems must be based on large enough numbers of recent accounts to make them statistically valid.

Although you may think that such a system is arbitrary or impersonal, a properly developed credit scoring system can make decisions faster and more accurately than an individual can. Many creditors design their systems so that marginal cases ¾ not high enough to pass easily or low enough to fail definitively ¾ are referred to a credit manager who personally decides whether the company will extend credit to a consumer. This may allow for discussion and negotiation between the credit manager and a consumer.

With the help of sophisticated credit-scoring models, lenders are rummaging deeper into consumer backgrounds, enabling them to reclassify some formerly prime customers as subprime. The benefit to the lender: increased profits. All this adds up to a profound change in lending that has gone largely unreported. While officials have been cracking down on the worst abuses of subprime lending, other practices have exploded into mainstream lending allowing lenders to charge premium rates, exploit shaky credit histories, and suck borrowers into subprime for life.

National Home Equity Mortgage Association on subprime lenders report that the subprime borrower's annual income is only about $3,000 less than prim borrowers, on average. They are school teachers, police officers, independent business people, lawyers, in some cases, and doctors and those with high income but equity challenged by big loans. Subprime debt comes in almost every form, including mortgages, refinance loans, credit cards, and new & used car loans. Total subprime lending increased tenfold in the last five years.

Credit bureaus have also become more meticulous. Today, they collect information that wasn't typically reported before the 1990's -- bill-paying data from phone companies, utilities, and even hospitals. That rigor turns up more people who have missed a payment somewhere, sometime, on some bill.

About FICO scores

Credit bureau scores are often called "FICO scores" because most credit bureau scores used in the US are produced from software developed by Fair, Isaac and Company (FICO). FICO scores are provided to lenders by the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union.

If the consumer requests the credit file and not the credit score, a statement that the consumer may request and obtain a credit score.

Any consumer reporting agency that furnishes a consumer report that contains any credit score or any other risk score or predictor on any consumer shall include in the report a clear and conspicuous statement that a key factor (as defined in section 609(f)(2)(B)) that adversely affected such score or predictor was the number of enquiries, if such a predictor was in fact a key factor that adversely affected such score.

One of the three largest credit bureaus, Equifax now offers an online credit score service on its web site. Along with your score, the company offers an explanation of how your score was arrived at and things you might do to improve it.

FICO scores provide the best guide to future risk based solely on credit report data. The higher the score, the lower the risk. But no score says whether a specific individual will be a "good" or "bad" customer. And while many lenders use FICO scores to help them make lending decisions, each lender has its own strategy, including the level of risk it finds acceptable for a given credit product. There is no single "cutoff score" used by all lenders and there are many additional factors that lenders use to determine your actual interest rates.

The Fair, Isaac and Co (FICO) is the company whose risk-scoring models are most commonly used to generate scores. They have found that certain things predict how well people will pay their bills. The most important factors are:

Previous payment record. Do you pay your bills on time or late? Obviously on-time is better and late is progressively worse depending on how late, how frequently, and how recently. The most important bill to pay on time is your mortgage. Renters get no credit for diligent monthly payments.

Current indebtedness. What are your credit limits and how much have you used up? Maxing out credit line is bad. Getting credit only when it's needed is good.

These first two factors drive 60 to 65 percent of the overall score. Three other factors make up the rest:

New credit. New credit, statistically, is looked at as "can you handle the added burden?" The model presumes no, until you prove over time that you haven't taken on more than you should be in order to make payments on time.

Applying for new credit. When you apply for credit, the prospective lender calls up your credit report and the credit bureau notes the inquiry on your record. That makes lenders wary. Someone seeking a lot of credit in a short time is inherently more risky than someone not seeking credit. The model doesn't penalize you if you're hunting for an auto loan or a mortgage within a short time frame. But your score will get hurt if you shop around for the best credit card or personal loan by actually applying. When a credit card company pulls your record to make you a "pre-approved" credit offer, the model ignores those inquiries.

Types of credit used. Lenders look to other debt besides credit cards. A mortgage and auto loan show that you can handle the money-management peculiarities of obtaining and maintaining each. Finance company loans are a black mark.

In order for a FICO® score to be calculated on your credit report, the report must contain at least one account which has been open for six months or longer. The report must also contain at least one account that has been updated in the past six months. This ensures that there is enough information — and enough recent information — in your report on which to base a score.

Depending on the credit reporting bureau, FICO scores are now at BEACON (Equifax), EMPIRICA (TransUnion) and the Experian/Fair, Isaac Risk Model. FICP scores are based on information in consumer credit reports maintained at one of these credit reporting agencies.

Credit Scores Breakdown

Here is how Fair, Isaac & Co. measures financial risk:

Types of Credit Use 10%
New Credit 10%
Length of Credit History 15%
Amounts Owed 30%
Payment History 35%

FICO scores- higher score, better rating.

How Credit Scoring Can Help You

Credit scores give lenders a fast, objective measurement of your credit risk. Scoring has greatly increased the credit granting process. Before scoring it could be slow, inconsistent, and unfairly biased.

Lenders can also buy a credit score based on the information in the report along with the credit report. That score is calculated by a mathematical equation that evaluates many types of information that are on your credit report at that agency. By comparing this information to the patterns in hundreds of thousands of past credit reports, the score identifies your level of future credit risk.

Credit scores — especially FICO® scores, the most widely used credit bureau scores — have made improvements in the credit process such as:

  • Loans are granted faster.
    Scores can be given almost instantaneously, speeding up loan approvals. Credit decisions can be made within minutes. Mortgage application can even be approved in hours instead of weeks for borrowers who's scores are high enough. Scoring also allows "instant credit" decisions made by retail stores, Internet sites, and other lenders.
  • Fairer credit decisions.
    Lenders can focus only on the facts related to credit risk, rather than their personal feelings when using credit scoring. Your gender, race, religion, nationality, and marital status are not considered by credit scoring. This eliminates individual biases and judgments from the credit-granting decision.
  • Past credit "mistakes" count less.
    If you have had poor credit records in the past, credit scoring doesn't let that haunt you forever. Past credit problems are eliminated as time passes and the recent good payment patterns show up on your credit report. Credit scoring weighs all of the credit-related information in your credit report, both good and bad.
  • Credit is more easily available.
    Lenders can quickly approve more loans when using credit scoring. Credit scoring gives them more precise information on which to base their credit decisions. It allows lenders to identify individuals who are likely to perform well in the future, even though their credit report might show past problems. Even consumers whose scores are lower than a lender's cutoff for "automatic approval" benefit from scoring. Lenders may offer a choice of credit products geared to different risk levels. Each lenders have their own separate guidelines; if you are turned down by one lender, another may approve your loan. The use of credit scores helps lenders offer credit to more people, since they have a better understanding of the risk they are taking on.
  • Lower credit rates.
    The cost of credit for borrowers decreases when more credit is available. Credit scoring and other automated credit processes make the credit granting process more efficient and less costly for lenders. Who can in turn pass the savings on to their customers. Controlling credit losses by using scoring, lenders can make rates lower overall. For example, mortgage rates are lower in the United States than in Europe mainly because of the information — including credit scores — available to lenders here. Knowing and improving your credit score can lead to more favorable interest rates. The national averages of interest rates example can show you how much money you might be able to save. Click here.

Check your credit score and learn more about scoring at

Interpreting Your Score

When a lender uses the Fair, Isaac credit bureau risk score, up to four "score reason codes" are delivered. These explain the top reasons why your score was not higher. If the lender turns down your request for credit, and your FICO® score was part of the reason, these score reasons can help the lender tell you why your score wasn't higher.

Reasons for scoring are more useful than the score itself in helping you determine if your credit report might contain errors, and how you can improve your score over time. I you already have a high score (for example, in the mid-700s or higher) some of the reasons may not be very helpful, as they may be marginal factors related to length of credit history, new credit and types of credit in use.

Score Reasons

Below are the top most frequent reasons given for scoring . The specific wording used by your lender may be different from this list.

  • Repeated delinquency.
  • Derogatory public record (bankruptcy) or collection filed.
  • Time since delinquency is too recent or unknown.
  • Number of accounts with delinquency.
  • Amount owed on accounts.
  • Balances in relation to credit limits on charge accounts is too high.
  • Length of time accounts have been established.
  • Too many accounts that have balances.

Myths and Truths of Credit Scoring

Many long-held beliefs about what improves and hurts your credit score are wrong. Credit scores, a three-digit number ranging from 300 to around 900, are used by employers, lenders, landlords, and insurer; these myths can hamper your ability to get loans, jobs, and housing and can boost your insurance rates.

Myth: Canceling unused credit cards, thus reducing the amount of available credit will boost your score.

Truth: Canceling could hurt your score for two significant reasons:

  • One component of your score calculates a ratio based on how much you've borrowed vs. how much credit you have available. The lower this ratio, the higher the score. If you have 10 credit cards with an aggregate credit limit of $10,000 but have an outstanding balance of just $1,000, your ratio is just 0.10, which gives you a relatively high score in this area. On the other hand, if you have borrowed $1,000 on one card with a total credit limit of $1,000, your ratio is 1. That may give you a low score.

    Roughly 30 percent of your credit score is based on this ratio and five other factors related to the amount you owe today vs. the amount you initially borrowed. Having several loans that are paid down well below their initial balances boosts your score.
  • An additional 15 percent of your score is based on your "length of experience" with credit. However, that experience is measured only by what remains on your credit file. If you cancel your oldest credit cards, perhaps those high-rate cards you've had since 1975, and keep only the newer, low-rate cards, your long history with credit evaporates. This doesn't happen overnight. Generally, information, good and bad, takes seven years to expunge. But over time, canceling old cards will make you look like a relative credit newbie and lower your score. It's better to keep old cards and simply not use them.

Myth: Your score declines if your borrowing exceeds a particular percentage of your income.

Truth: The FICO program doesn't consider your income at all. This data is not collected by the program. (It also doesn't collect data on your age, assets, marital status, gender, ethnicity, or address.)

However, when a lender considers giving you a loan, it will check your income to determine a debt-to-income ratio. Generally speaking, lenders frown on people who have unsecured debt payments exceeding 20 percent of take-home pay and mortgage loan payments exceeding 30 percent of net income. Moreover, if you have substantial "available" but unused credit, such as high credit limits on numerous credit cards, they're less likely to extend another loan, fearing that you could become overextended.

When you're applying for a major loan such as a mortgage, anyone with a credit score above a certain level is considered a "no-brainer" for approval. But if you drop below that score by even 10 points, the lender must do considerably more underwriting to give you a loan and in the process will hold you to a higher debt-to-income standard.

Myth: There are different FICO scored for different industries.

Truth: The FICO score does not have industry-specific versions. The score is generic. But consumers are categorized. Here's how is works: Fair Isaac's program does a quick preliminary sweep of a credit file to deposit consumer into one of 10 categories before they are rated. The company is not yet willing to disclose what all of those categories are, but they include consumers with short credit histories; consumers with "thin" files (you may have long experience with credit, but you don't have many different types of loans); consumers with rich files (long and diverse histories with credit); and those with problem files (those that have negatives such as bankruptcies, foreclosures, and account that have gone to collection agencies).

Once consumers are categorized, the program creates a score that's aimed at ranking consumers in the same category, best to worst, based on their propensity to pay back a debt.

There are a lot of myths and misunderstanding about how to improve your credit and consumers can take inappropriate action.

Tips on Credit Scores

Here are some tips to keep in mind about credit scores and reports:

  • Pay your bills on time. Late payments can have a major impact on your score. The longer you pay your bills on time, the better your score.
  • Keep credit-card balances low.
  • Open new credit accounts only as needed. Don't open new account just to have a better credit mix, it probably won't rise your score. Applying for one new card will have less impact on your score than multiple cards.
  • Don't close unused credit cards as a short-term strategy to rise your score. This could backfire and actually lower your score.
  • Make sure all of your accounts are listed, particularly joint accounts. In one case, a score from one bureau said a lack of a mortgage brought a score down because paying a real estate loan on time shows a strong credit base. In fact, the consumer had a joint mortgage for the last seven years. Women often have to specifically ask the lender to report joint accounts.
  • Be cautious about taking advantage of too many "same as cash" offers. One or two may not matter, but multiple requests for special financing, like "six months same as cash" from personal finance companies, may negatively affect your FICO score, even if you plan on paying the balance off early. Statistics show those loans represent a higher risk to lender.

What Happens if You Are Denied Credit?

While a creditor is not required to tell you the factors and points used in its scoring system, the creditor must tell you why you were rejected for credit. This is required under the federal Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA).

So if, for example, a creditor says you were denied credit because you have not worked at your current job long enough, you might want to reapply after you have been at that job longer. Or, if you were denied credit because your debt-free monthly-income was not high enough, you might want to pay some of your bills and reapply. Remember, also, that credit scoring systems differ from creditor to creditor, so you might get credit if you applied for it elsewhere.

Sometimes you can be denied credit because of a bad credit report. If so, the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires the creditor to give you the name and address of the credit reporting bureau that reported the information. You might want to contact that credit bureau to find out what your credit report said. This information is free if you request it within 30 days of being turned down for credit. Remember that the credit bureau can tell you what is in your report, but only the creditor can tell you why it denied your application.

Indiana Insurance Regulation

The Indiana Department of Insurance and 33 other states will regulate how credit information is used to determine coverage risk. By October 1, 2002, all insurers that rely on credit data to rate personal insurance in Indiana must submit all related materials, including closely guarded mathematical scoring formulas, to the department for approval.

Insurers face a $25,000 fine for each policy written outside of compliance and $50,000 if done so knowingly. The Department issued a bulletin in early July that spelled out this rule.

Where Can You Go For More Information?

See Web Site: Credit Grade Calculator!

This JavaScript calculator will "score" your credit using the number of late payments you have on various credit accounts. This isn't a true "credit score," but will give you a pretty good idea of how you'd fare.

If you have additional questions about credit scoring issues, write to:

Correspondence Branch
Federal Trade Commission
Washington, D.C. 20580

While the FTC cannot resolve individual problems for consumers, it can act when it sees a pattern of possible law violations.

myFICO Calculators

Order your Score at myFICO

Scoring for Credit Brochure

Note: The links on this page that go to web sites outside of this agency's control are provided as a convenience only. The Department takes no responsibility for their content.