A credit score is an important tool that lenders, billers and even landlords use to make decisions about you. A good credit score can mean you get a good interest rate on a mortgage or auto loan or get approved to move into that dream rental apartment. A bad credit score can mean you're paying much more in interest--if a lender will lend to you in the first place--because you're a much riskier financial proposition.
It's important to know the factors that make up your credit score because then you know what behaviors to control or reign in so that you can improve your score and be able to not just obtain loans, but to get good interest rates on them as well.
Unfortunately, a recent phone survey of 1,000 adult Americans shows that consumers may not know as much about credit scores as they used to. The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and VantageScore Solutions, LLC, recently released the results of its seventh annual credit score survey, which indicated this development, particularly in terms of knowing that non-lending entities like cell phone providers and electric utilities use credit scores to provide services and set prices.
Consumers also had less awareness of elements that cause a score to decrease. Just 18 percent knew that a low credit score could change the terms on an auto loan enough that you could pay upwards of $5,000 in extra interest.
More startling was the fact that fewer respondents knew what a credit score actually meant. Thirty-eight percent knew that the credit score is a representation of how much of a financial risk you are for lenders in terms of paying back a loan. That's a five percent decrease from last year's survey.
While knowledge of what elements go into a credit score decreased, more consumers knew what their credit score was. Fifty-six percent of respondents had gotten at least one credit score in the past year, up seven percent from 2014. "One would think that increasing access to one’s credit scores would help increase knowledge about these scores," said Stephen Brobeck, CFA’s executive director, in a statement. "But that apparently has not been the case, to the detriment of consumers. Low credit scores can cost consumers hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars a year in higher loan and service costs."
This may be due to several credit card companies, card issuers and some credit bureaus offering free credit scores. "The greater availability of credit scores and credit reports is certainly a net positive for consumers, however the data demonstrates that we collectively have work to do to help consumers understand that credit scores are used by more than just lenders," said Barrett Burns, president & CEO of VantageScore Solutions.
The survey showed that the vast majority of respondents could identify key factors that can negatively influence a credit score, including missed loan payments, high credit card balances and personal bankruptcy. Respondents also overwhelmingly knew that making on-time loan payments and keeping low balances on their credit cards could raise their credit score or keep it high.
Women fared better than men on credit score knowledge, as did higher income consumers. "Certainly one reason for the knowledge gap is that low-income consumers have much less experience with credit than do high-income consumers," said Brobeck. "Yet, understanding credit scores is absolutely essential to lower-income consumers who can ill-afford to pay high loan rates and service fees."
In an effort to educate consumers about credit scores, CFA and VantageScore put together an interactive credit score quiz that's in English and Spanish. Find it at creditscorequiz.org.