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How Did I Keep an 800+ Credit Score for 10 Years? My Secret May Surprise You 

I struggled with student loans and a meager salary. Here's the strategy that put me on the path to an exceptional score.

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Key takeaways

  • Your credit score is determined by a number of factors, and some carry more weight than others.
  • An exceptional credit score isn’t necessary -- most loan providers offer favorable terms and rates to those with credit scores of 670 or higher.
  • Raising your credit score requires time, patience and responsible credit usage.

As someone who writes about personal finance, you might assume I’ve always had my financial house in order. But like most young adults, I struggled with a heavy student loan burden in a profession that paid a meager salary. Right after we got married, my spouse lost a lucrative job and remained unemployed for more than a year while our credit card debt ballooned.

Today, I’m fortunate enough to have maintained an 800-plus credit score for the better part of a decade. And no, I didn’t stumble into a sizable inheritance or find a cushy, six-figure job. Our credit history started on shaky financial ground and was built one slow, careful step at a time. Here’s how you can do it, too.

Why your credit score matters

For most adults, credit scores determine many of the financial options available to us whether we like it or not. And a low credit score can plunge you into a cycle of financial missteps, exposing you to higher interest rates and challenging loan terms.

Those of us with “good” FICO credit scores of 670 and above tend to find financial doors open more easily. We can secure better loan terms, interest rates, and more competitive offers on everything from mortgages and car loans to credit card balance transfers.

It’s worth noting that an 800-plus or exceptional credit score isn’t necessary to secure a loan or reasonable interest rates. Most loan providers offer favorable terms and rates to those with credit scores of 670 or higher.

How I maintain an 800-plus credit score

It might surprise you to learn that the average FICO credit score in the US is 718, with a majority of Americans rated as having “good” credit. If you’d like to raise your FICO score into the “exceptional” category (and keep it there), here are the steps I’ve taken to manage my credit over the past decade.

There’s no way around it -- you need a budget 

Never missing a payment starts with knowing where your money is going. Once you determine what your expenses are, you can figure out how to keep enough in the bank to meet your financial obligations.

For me, it helps to remember that there are two ways to come out ahead on budgeting: save more money or make more money. If your bottom line isn’t balanced, it’s time to work the problem from both ends by trimming expenses and considering a side hustle.

Make saving easier

Use the set-it-and-forget-it method to help grow your savings. Automatically deposit part of your paycheck or set up monthly automatic cash transfers into a high-yield savings account.

Balance your credit usage carefully

Small fluctuations happen to my credit score on a regular basis, mostly due to credit card usage or any new loans I might take out. These changes are usually small and very temporary.

However, if you drastically increase your debt, coupled with canceling a credit card, be aware it can shift your credit usage dramatically. That’s why it’s advisable to keep a few credit cards open and active even if you don’t always use them on a regular basis.

Draft a get-out-of debt plan

Most people carry some debt, but large amounts of high-interest debt can snowball and bury your finances. Sit down and assess what debts you have, what currently has the highest interest rate and what you can do to pay it down as quickly as possible.

For my family, while our credit was slowly recovering, we did some balance transfers and consolidated debt at a lower interest rate. We then used all our spare cash to pay credit card debt off slowly over the course of several years.

Never miss a payment

If anyone were to ask what the single key to our successful FICO score was, I’d say it’s probably our payment history. We’ve made some other mistakes, but neither my spouse nor I have ever missed a scheduled payment for anything in the past decade.

How do I stay on top of our bills? I am the point-person who pays all our bills at the same time every month including utilities, mortgages, subscription services and credit card bills. To make it easier, I typically set-up electronic transfers, use auto-pay options and calendar any random due dates.

Try to avoid being “house poor”

This is a tough ask in today’s housing market, but we made it a priority to never be “house poor.” Being house poor is a term that usually refers to the 30% rule, which means your mortgage or rent payments shouldn’t exceed 30% of your gross monthly income.

In our case, this meant living in our “starter” home in a less than desirable neighborhood much longer than we had planned. We also had to wait until the housing market recovered and our equity was stable before we considered moving. 

If you live in an area where reducing your housing costs aren’t an option right now, consider other areas where you could curb your expenses and save money

Avoid multiple auto loans

Again, this isn’t always possible, but part of our recipe for financial stability wasn’t to juggle two auto loans at the same time. And yes, that means you may spend some years driving a reliable old clunker until the wheels come off.

In our case, my spouse drove an ’80s-era Pontiac Bonneville with threadbare seats for nearly a decade as a daily commute. Once we’d paid off our family SUV, we replaced the aging sedan with an electric vehicle.

Monitor your credit closely

Like most Americans, we’ve had our data exposed multiple times in the past few years. Having accounts with the three credit agencies and setting up alerts to flag suspicious activity early helps avoid fraudulent purchases.

In one case, after falling for a job scam and compromising my Social Security number, I froze my credit and several accounts for a few months so I could keep a close eye on any activity. As Experian explains, while credit freezes might be a hassle, they won’t affect your credit score.

What factors determine your credit score

Have a less-than-stellar number attached to your name? No judgment. You might not even understand how you ended up with a “bad” credit score. The following factors make up the formula FICO uses to determine credit scores and point the way toward the easiest ways to fix yours.

1. On-time payments

The greatest percentage of your score (35%) is based on data about your payment history. Making payments on time every month is one of the best ways to raise your credit score.

2. Your debt burden

How much you owe also matters. From mortgages to auto loans to credit card balances, about 30% of your score is assessed based on your total debts compared to your income -- also known as your credit utilization ratio.

3. Length of your credit history

It’s not the biggest factor in your credit score (15%), and there’s not much immediate action you can take to increase the length of your credit history -- it’s a matter of time. Factors that contribute to your credit history include the average age of your accounts, the age of your oldest and newest accounts and when you last used certain accounts.

4. Credit mix

FICO assesses how you handle different types of credit, so having a mix of accounts like credit cards, installment loans and mortgages can help your score, but only if you make on-time payments for all of them. At 10%, your credit mix is one of the smallest contributors to your FICO score.

5. New credit

Applying for a new credit card may ding your score temporarily, but applying for a lot of lines of credit in a short period of time could signal you need additional credit to cover costs you can’t afford. It counts for only 10% of your FICO score, but it could play a bigger role for those who don’t have a very long credit history.

Maintaining an 800-plus credit score is achievable

While an exceptional credit score may seem out of reach because of your current financial situation, it doesn’t have to be. You can make slow, steady progress on building your credit by organizing your budget, staying on top of your bills and making smart financial decisions for you and your family.

The best part is once you start to see your score inch up, every step toward financial stability becomes a little easier. A good credit score opens doors and provides opportunities to make better choices and to craft the kind of financial future you won’t have to borrow against.

The editorial content on this page is based solely on objective, independent assessments by our writers and is not influenced by advertising or partnerships. It has not been provided or commissioned by any third party. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products or services offered by our partners.

Kaz Weida is an educator and freelance journalist who covers insurance, taxes, banking, and a wide array of personal finance topics. In addition to CNET, Kaz contributes to Yahoo Finance, ConsumerAffairs, and Popular Mechanics.
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