Credit Score Zealots Pursue Fool’s Errand

Jeff Rose, a 33-year-old financial planner, is trying to improve his credit score even though it’s 780, which is 69 points above the median score.

Rose, who lives in Carbondale, Illinois, said he opened up a second credit card last year to establish another line of credit and help boost his score. He said he doesn’t know exactly what actions will help or hurt his score, so wants to get it above 800 to ensure he gets the best rate if he refinances his mortgage.

Three years after the credit crisis when lenders abruptly closed accounts and cut limits, consumers, including those who have excellent scores, have become more focused on getting the number above 800. Those efforts may be futile because once consumers have FICO credit scores of 760, a higher one doesn’t mean they’ll get better interest rates on mortgages and credit cards or more elite card offers, said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com, a unit of Bankrate Inc.

“There’s very little incremental benefit to getting a score above that,” said McBride, who’s based in North Palm Beach, Florida. Once consumers are above 760, “it’s a lot more difficult to move the score up in any noticeable way, and little reward.”

Mayank Maheshwari, 26, a business analyst who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, said his FICO (FICO) score is 780 and he’s still trying to get it higher. He has a student loan that he hasn’t paid off in full, although he can afford to, because he thinks maintaining monthly payments on time will help increase his score.

FICO Scores

The most common scores are based on models established by Minneapolis-based FICO, formerly known as Fair Isaac Corp., which are used to gauge a consumer’s financial health. The numbers, which range from 300 to 850, affect the ability to get mortgages and credit cards, as well as the rates borrowers pay for them. The score is used by 90 of the 100 largest U.S. financial institutions, according to FICO’s website. There are other scores used by lenders, such as VantageScore, which has a 501 to 990 range for measuring credit risk.

About 18 percent of 200 million consumers in the U.S. with credit scores, or 36 million Americans, had credit scores of 800 or higher in 2011, according to estimates from FICO. More than 75 million had scores of at least 750 while the median credit score last year was about 711, FICO said.

‘Bragging Rights’

The percentage of consumers with scores of 750 or more has fluctuated only slightly during the past five years, said Barry Paperno, consumer affairs manager for myFICO.com. That’s because consumers with high credit scores tended to maintain their good behaviors during the credit crisis, such as paying down debt and cutting expenses, Paperno said.

The score that’s considered the cutoff to qualify for the best rates, however, has changed. Before the recession, it was generally 720 instead of at least 750, said Ben Woolsey, director of marketing and consumer research at CreditCards.com, a website for cardholders based in Austin, Texas.

FICO credit scores rank borrowers according to the likelihood of default and there’s almost no difference in the probability of default when a consumer has a 780 or an 820, said Ken Lin, chief executive officer and founder of San Francisco- based Credit Karma. That means lenders won’t price a consumer differently and extend different rates, since the risk is virtually the same, Lin said.

“If you’re at 780 plus, it’s all bragging rights from there,” Lin said.

Credit Decisions

The average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage was 3.89 percent in the week ended Jan. 12, according to Freddie Mac. The average interest rate charged on credit-card balances was 12.8 percent in November, according to Federal Reserve figures released Jan. 9.

A FICO score of 760 or higher on a $300,000 30-year fixed mortgage may qualify a borrower for a 3.62 rate or $1,368 monthly payment, compared with a 3.85 percent rate and monthly payment of $1,406 for those with scores from 700 to 759, according to myFICO.com. Having a credit score of at least 720 means a consumer may get a 3.89 rate on a 36-month auto loan of $25,000 and pay $737 a month, compared with 5.31 percent and a payment of $753 for those with scores from 690 to 719.

The decision to offer a mortgage and the size and rate on that loan is based on many factors about a borrower’s financial history, Tom Kelly, a spokesman for JPMorgan Chase & Co., the largest U.S. bank by assets, said in an e-mail. JPMorgan’s risk management approach is proprietary, and criteria that go into the decisions on credit cards may be based on income and credit history with other Chase products, said Paul Hartwick, a spokesman for the New York-based bank, also in an e-mail.

Elite Offers

While the type of mortgage product and region may impact rates, generally FICO scores above 720 receive the lowest rates, Terry Francisco, a spokesman for Bank of America Corp. in Charlotte, North Carolina, said in an e-mail. A FICO score is one of several considerations the bank uses in determining credit-card rates, Betty Riess, a spokeswoman for Bank of America, which is the second-biggest U.S. lender, said in an e- mail.

Elite card offers are more likely to be based on income and assets than solely on high credit scores, Bankrate’s McBride said. When making credit decisions, American Express Co. (AXP) looks at a cardmember’s credit profile, which includes total debt level, reported income, credit bureau score, credit report and payment history, Melanie Backs, a spokeswoman for the New York- based firm, the biggest credit-card issuer by purchases, said in an e-mail.

Hiccups Happen

Revolving debt, which includes credit cards, climbed in November by $5.6 billion, the biggest advance since March 2008, according to Federal Reserve data.

“There are a lot of companies out there competing for credit,” said Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action in Washington. “Once you’re there, your dance card is going to be full,” she said, referring to a score of about 770.

The benefit for consumers who have good scores and are still trying to raise them is that they’ll have more of a cushion in case they do something that negatively affects their scores, said Woolsey of CreditCards.com. Borrowers should also keep in mind that each lender may vary on what they use as a cutoff for qualifying for the best rates, although anything above 750 generally should be sufficient, he said.

“Some hiccups could happen and I get whacked and I’m a 720, so you shouldn’t be too comfortable because you never know what might happen,” said Rose, the CEO and founder of Alliance Wealth Management.

Timely Payments

Consumers with scores from 750 to 800 who want higher numbers should continue what they’re doing, just for a longer period of time, said FICO’s Paperno. That means continuing to pay bills on time, keeping a low amount of debt relative to available credit and not opening accounts unless needed, he said.

Making a payment 30 or more days after the due date could cut a score by as much as 110 points while applying for a new card may result in a five point drop, said Liz Weston, author of “Your Credit Score.”

Borrowers should avoid using more than 30 percent of their available credit, even if they pay their balances in full, because the balance owed may be reported to the credit bureaus before the payment is due, according to McBride.

Credit Monitoring

Credit scores are usually a lagging economic indicator, since delayed payments on mortgages and subsequent foreclosures may take time to show up on reports, said Lin of Credit Karma. The average score will rise this year as a result of the economy recovering, Lin said.

Some things consumers do to try to improve their scores, such as paying for a credit score monitoring service, aren’t worth it, said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington. Monitoring doesn’t prevent errors or identity theft and consumers may not understand the cost of the service, Mierzwinski said.

Instead, borrowers may want to just stagger looking at each one of the free credit reports they’re entitled to annually from the three major credit bureaus every four months, he said.

“Credit is there to save you money,” said Lin, referring to how a high credit score can help consumers qualify for lower interest rates. “You shouldn’t be using money to build credit.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexis Leondis in New York aleondis@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rick Levinson at rlevinson2@bloomberg.net.

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