Q&A: How to improve your credit score and whether you should bother

Dear Liz: My credit scores are good, but I was wondering if there is a way to bring your scores to 800 or more if your income isn’t that high. I always pay my bills on time and my credit card off each month. In the last two years, I took out a small loan to pay off a car, then paid off furniture and now am paying on six new windows for my home.

My FICO scores run from 747 to 781. I’m told the reason they aren’t higher is that the number of accounts I have is too low and that my credit report shows no recent nonmortgage installment loans or “insufficient recent information” about such loans. I’m pleased that my scores are that high, but they say you get the best low-interest loans with a score over 800.

Answer: It’s not true that you need FICO scores of 800 or above to get the best deals. The best rates and terms typically are available once your scores are above 760 or so on the usual 300-to-850 FICO scale. Some lenders set the bar lower, to 740, 720 or even less. Also, your income is not a direct factor in your credit scores — although having a higher income can lead to creditors granting larger lines of credit, which could favorably impact your scores.

If what you’re after is bragging rights, there are some ways to boost good scores even higher.

The easiest may be to make more frequent payments on your credit card to reduce your credit utilization, or the amount of available credit you’re using. If your issuer reports your statement balance each month to the credit bureaus, paying off what you owe a few days before the statement closing date will reduce your apparent credit utilization. Just remember to pay off any remaining balance once you get your bill.

Another approach would be to apply for another credit card and spread your purchases between the two cards, which also can lower your credit utilization. Either way, continue to pay your cards in full, since there’s no credit scoring advantage to carrying a balance.

Taking out another installment loan could boost your scores, but it’s not smart to borrow money you don’t need if your scores are already good.

Remember, too, that there are many different credit scoring formulas. There are different versions and generations of the FICO score as well as FICO rivals such as VantageScore.

If you achieve an 800 with one type of score, you might not with another — and whatever score you achieve, you might not keep for long. Your scores fluctuate all the time, based on the changing information in your credit files.

It’s worth the effort to improve bad or mediocre scores because those can cost you in many ways such as higher interest rates, higher insurance premiums, bigger utility deposits and fewer options for cellphone service. Improving already good scores doesn’t offer much if any payoff, so it’s usually not worth incurring extra costs to do so.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Whittle down your debt while having bad credit. Also in the news: 6 secrets from flight crews to stave off jet lag, what to buy every month of the year in 2018, and 3 ways you can better save for retirement.

Bad Credit? You Still Have Tools to Whittle Down Debt
You must be proactive.

6 Secrets From Flight Crews to Stave Off Travel Exhaustion
Keeping jet lag away.

What to Buy Every Month of the Year in 2018
Plan your shopping accordingly.

3 ways you can save better for retirement
Every penny counts.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How that new store card could torpedo your credit score. Also in the news: Insuring expensive gifts, the right mortgage to ask, and how to quickly figure out how much spending money you’ll have for the year.

That New Store Card Could Torpedo Your Credit Score
That immediate discount could cost you in the long run.

Splurged on an Expensive Gift? Don’t Forget to Insure It
Protect your purchase.

13 Mortgage Questions to Ask — and the Answers You Want
Everything you need to know.

How to Quickly Figure Out How Much Spending Money You’ll Have for the Year
Calculating discretionary income.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What doesn’t affect your credit score. Also in the news: A crash course for first-time Black Friday shoppers, how far your money will stretch on Black Friday, and how to pick a college that won’t break the bank.

What Doesn’t Affect Your Credit Score
Focusing on the important factors.

A Crash Course for First-Time Black Friday Shoppers
Tips for rookies.

See How Far Your Money Will Stretch on Black Friday
Getting the most for your money.

How to pick a college that won’t break the bank
Avoiding years of student loan repayment.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to boostrap your credit for free or cheap. Also in the news: 3 ways to get your business up and selling on Amazon, three things to do for the best online banking, and how to save at the start of your career.

How to Bootstrap Your Credit for Free — or Cheap
Slow and steady.

3 Ways to Get Your Business Up and Selling on Amazon
Start making money.

For the Best Online Banking, Do These 3 Things
Easy steps.

How to save at the start of your career
The earlier the better.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Lock down your data right now after Equifax breach.Also in the news: Health insurers ease rules for Harvey Victims, protecting critical documents from disaster with a bug-out bag, and the credit move than can bump your score in 30 days.

Lock Down Your Data After Equifax Breach — Right Now
Immediately.

Health Insurers Ease Rules for Harvey Victims
Checking your options.

Protect Critical Documents From Disaster With a ‘Bug-Out Bag’
Be ready to go at a moment’s notice.

The credit move that can bump up your score in 30 days
Pay your bill early.

Credit bureaus ease medical debt pain for a few

Too many Americans have bad credit because of unpaid medical bills. That’s not likely to change anytime soon, despite two reforms in how those bills will be reported to the credit bureaus.

Starting Sept. 15:

—There will be a 180-day waiting period before unpaid medical debts can show up on people’s credit reports.

—Medical collections will be deleted from credit reports if they’re paid by health insurers.

Credit bureaus Equifax, Experian and TransUnion agreed to the new standards as part of two settlements with state attorneys general in 2015. The changes in medical debt reporting were designed to help people whose bills fell through the cracks between their health care providers and their insurance companies, says Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center.

In my latest for the Associated Press, find out who these changes are expected to help.

Q&A: Making sure your free credit report really is free

Dear Liz: Please tell me again how to get my free credit report each year.

Answer: You can get a free annual look at your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com. If you search for “free credit report,” you may wind up at a look-alike site, rather than the federally mandated one. A good clue that you’re on the wrong site will be if you’re asked for a credit card number.

Your free reports don’t include free scores, which are the three-digit numbers lenders and others use to judge your creditworthiness. Your bank or credit card companies may offer free scores, or you can sign up with one of the many sites that offer them. Keep in mind that there are different types of scores, and the one that you’re seeing may not be the same as the ones your lenders use.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to lower your monthly mortgage payment. Also in the news: 5 things to do before changing careers, a Labor Day look at America’s workforce, and 3 myths that could tank your credit score.

How to Lower Your Monthly Mortgage Payment
Taking the first steps.

Want to Change Careers? Do These 5 Things First
Preparing for change.

Hard at Work: A Labor Day Look at America’s Workforce
Where we’ve been and where we’re going.

3 myths that could tank your credit score
Don’t believe the hype.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Costly subprime credit cards offer little help. Also in the news: Take charge of your credit score with your credit report, why you should consider a mortgage recast, and four ways to manage your credit card debt.

Costly Subprime Credit Cards Offer Little Help, NerdWallet Study Finds
Just digging a deeper hole.

If You Want a Good Credit Score, Read Your Credit Reports
Studying up.

Why You Should Consider a Mortgage Recast
Save on your monthly payment.

4 ways to manage your credit card debt
Getting it under control.