“Apparently, I’m a financial unicorn,” says Lance Cairns of Georgia, Vermont. Cairns has worked his whole adult life to build a credit score higher than 800, a feat achieved by only 5.7% of all Americans, according to CreditKarma.com. That’s not exactly mythical, but is quite rare.
Cairns has maintained excellent credit since he began building his credit history in his early 20s. His 811 FICO score paid off when he secured low-interest rates on his mortgage and credit cards. But can someone who has accrued substantial revolving debt or made poor financial decisions in the past achieve such a score? Experts – and people who’ve done it – say yes.
Perks of the Credit Elite
Cairns was recently approved for a credit card with a 5.15% interest rate – lower than that of many fixed-rate conventional mortgages. The APR, or annual percentage rate, on his other major credit card is 7.25%. Thanks to his high credit score, Cairns also saves money on his car insurance.
Julie White, another member of the credit elite (her score is 813), enjoys multiple money-saving perks, as well as bragging rights. “My husband’s score is 793 and I lord those 20 points over him,” she jokes.
To start with, White recently obtained a 15-year mortgage with a 4.5% interest rate. “We also got lower fees on some closing costs associated with the bank, and lower homeowners’ insurance costs. Apparently, people with excellent credit are less likely to burn the house down,” she quips.
From 600 to 800+
Unlike Cairns, who has always had impeccable credit, White had a credit score in the low 600s in her early 20s. “When I was making less money, it was harder. I regularly carried balances until about 10 years ago,” she says.
Since debt utilization makes up 30 percent of your credit score – the second biggest factor after timely payments – carrying a balance can keep you out of the credit-elite category.
Once White was able to pay off those balances, her credit score spiked. She keeps it high by using Outlook reminders and online bill-paying so she never misses a payment. “Most of our household bills go on a cash-rewards credit card I pay off each month. I write only a few checks. This reduces the chance of a slipup,” she says.
Randy Mitchelson, owner of the Daily Dollar Newsletter personal finance blog, says White’s experience isn’t unusual. “Time heals all credit issues,” he says. “Assuming the consumer has perfect credit behavior for a 24-month period following bad credit behavior, he can earn a dramatically different score.”
Taking Your Credit from Excellent to Elite
Once you hit the 750 mark, it takes careful credit management to make the jump to 850. Some experts say there’s no real difference in 50 points when you reach the top of the pack, but others say that in today’s lending environment, every point helps. “A FICO score of 750 is great, but it’s no longer a guarantee for the best rates available,” says Wayne Sanford of YourCreditSpecialist.com.
Sanford points to the all-important debt-to-available-credit ratio as one way to give your score a nudge. “If you have a perfect payment history for six to 12 months, you may be able to get a credit line increase just by asking,” he says. That way, a credit inquiry won’t negatively affect your score, but you can lower your debt-to-credit ratio to gain points. “Credit unions and smaller banks are more likely to do this based on your credit history alone,” Sanford advises.
Another way to raise your score is to develop a variety of credit – a mixture of revolving and installment loans. “A good ratio is two revolving loans for every installment,” Sanford says. “So if you have a mortgage and a car loan, you should have four credit cards.”
Of course, you shouldn’t buy a new car just to improve your credit score. Sanford suggests adding your name to a spouse’s existing installment loan – another move you can make without a credit inquiry.
Credit inquiries account for 10 percent of your FICO score, so it’s a good idea to limit them if you intend to join the credit elite. “Retail store cards we apply for to get a discount, cell phone plans, auto loans, apartment rentals… these all count against our FICO score,” says Denise Winston, a money and time-saving expert. “I limit mine to no more than two per year.”
In general, the rules to join the credit elite are simple: make timely payments, keep your credit utilization up to about 25 to 35 percent of your available credit, and minimize credit inquiries.
In addition to the cost savings available to members of the credit elite, there’s another key benefit: peace of mind. The higher your score, the easier it is to stay within the “excellent” category should you make a small mistake. Mitchelson explains: “One late payment may bring you from 810 to 760 and keep you in the ‘A’ credit range, whereas a 720 person with a late payment will fall into the 600s and out of the ‘A’ range,” he says.
For more tips on improving your credit score, check out MintLife‘s Credit Score Primer.
Can You Increase Your Credit Score to 850 is provided by Experian.com