How credit scores are like cats

Cute cat enjoying himself outdoorsWhen people complain that credit scoring formulas aren’t fair or consumer friendly, I think of my Great Auntie M.

Great Auntie M. was a lovely older woman, and she was besotted with her cat. Great Auntie M. once told me that if she died first, she wanted the cat euthanized since he “couldn’t possibly live” without her.

Just as Great Auntie M. misunderstood the fundamental nature of cats, so many people misunderstand the fundamental nature of credit scores. There are more than a few parallels between the two, so let me explain:

They’re finicky. Your cat may turn up its nose as its food bowl, or kick litter out of a box that’s not perfectly clean. Credit scores are similarly fussy about certain things: paying bills on time, not using too much of your available credit limits, not applying for new credit too often.

They hold grudges. When my husband moved in with his sister years ago, her cat was not amused by the presence of a new person. The cat expressed himself by depositing a single turd in the exact middle of hubby’s bed. One of our own cats once stalked up behind her brother, lifted up her paw like a prizefighter and smashed his head with it. There was no immediate provocation to this act of vengeance, so we can only speculate what he did earlier to tick her off. Credit scores don’t quickly forgive infractions, either, especially big ones. A single skipped payment can affect your scores for up to three years, a foreclosure for up to seven years, a bankruptcy for up to 10 years. (The impact decreases over time if you use credit responsibly, but it can still persist.)

They have their own agenda. Cats can be cuddly, playful, affectionate. (I have one sitting on my lap right now, monitoring my typing.) But cats typically are independent. They can withdraw affection in an instant, stalk away and regard you with indifference. Cats feel no obligation to oblige, conform or bend to the will of another. They are, in other words, the polar opposite of the dog now sleeping at my feet, a desperate-to-please golden retriever whose primary need is reassurance that yes, he is still part of the pack.

Like cats, credit scoring formulas don’t particularly care what you think. Credit scores were constructed for lenders, not consumers. In fact, originally you were never supposed to know that credit scores even existed, let alone what yours were. Credit scores have their own, internal logic that they follow, regardless of its impact on you.

Here’s another similarity: credit scores, like cats, can reward you if you figure out what they like and don’t like. With both, the effort is worthwhile.