USAA Tips: Correcting myths about credit scores

Content provided courtesy of USAA | By Mikel Van Cleve

Strategizing with USAA members on tactics to improve their credit, I hear a lot of commonly held beliefs. Some carry bits of truth, and others are just flat-out wrong. The confusion around credit scores is understandable. From the number of credit scores we have to contend with to their impact on life’s biggest purchases, our number can sometimes feel beyond our control.

The good news is, we can control our credit scores, and there are actionable steps you can take to improve yours. For part two of this credit-score series, I’ll share seven of the most common misconceptions — and set the record straight.

Myth 1: A higher credit score just means you have more debt.

Fact: Credit scoring models take into account the different types of credit you have, from credit cards and auto loans to your mortgage. However, these models do not reward owing more money. In fact, the second largest factor in the FICO® credit scoring model is the amount you owe. The less you owe, the better.

Myth 2: Checking my own credit will hurt my credit score.

Fact: Checking your own credit creates an inquiry on your credit report, but not all inquiries impact your credit score. There are two types of inquiries: “hard” inquiries related to a credit application and “soft” inquiries from looking at your own credit report. Hard inquiries influence your score, and soft inquiries do not. You should review your credit report at least annually to ensure accuracy and to check for signs of fraudulent activity.

Myth 3: Married couples have a joint credit score.

Fact: There’s no such thing as a joint credit report or score; you will continue to maintain separate credit information. However, if you open any joint credit accounts, they will appear on both of your credit reports. This is where your spouse’s credit history can impact you. Let’s say you and your spouse decide to apply for a home loan together. If one of you has bad credit, it could impact your qualification/interest rate, as the lender may not look to the highest credit score between spouses when making the determination.

Myth 4: Closing a credit account will improve my credit score.

Fact: Closing an account does not immediately remove it from your credit report, and could have the opposite effect. Negative history can remain up to seven years, and positive history remains for 10 years. One of the biggest factors impacting your credit score is the amount of credit you have available versus the amount of debt you owe (known as your utilization). If you close a credit account, you lose the available credit limit on that account, which increases your utilization and thus could lower your credit score. If you plan to apply for new credit in the next three to six months, you may want to wait before closing an account.

Myth 5: Credit scores take into account income and demographics.

Fact: While lenders may consider your income in relation to the amount of debt you owe, income is not included in your credit report and has no impact on your credit score. Neither does demographic information such as race, origin, religion, profession, disabilities, sexual orientation, military status, etc.

Myth 6: Employers can check your credit score before offering you a job.

Fact: Some employers may check your credit history as part of the hiring process; however, they do not have access to your credit score. Common examples of employers who may check credit history include those in the financial services industry or the military. Why do they check? According to them, it’s helpful to know how responsible and financially stable you are.

Myth 7: I can improve my credit score by carrying a balance on my credit card.

Fact: This may be the most common misconception. While you do need to demonstrate that you can properly use credit cards — which means actually using them — you do not need to carry a balance from month-to-month, all the while paying unnecessary interest to the card issuer. I have always, since day one of having a credit card, paid off my balance in full every month. When your billing cycle ends for the month, any outstanding balance is reported to the credit bureaus, which shows usage. Paying off that balance in full and on-time will not only save you money, it will also be reflected in the two biggest factors of your credit report, which are payment history and the amount you owe.