The intricacies of the credit system and how your credit score and credit report are calculated is a dull subject for most consumers. Getting a handle on how this all works while in your 20's can set you on a path towards a stable financial future.
Credit Reports and Scores: What 20-Somethings Need to Know
A credit report shows your payment history, which credit accounts are open in your name, how much credit has been extended to you, and other financial details. Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax are the three major credit bureaus that track all the information and organize it into your credit report. Each bureau's report may be slightly different, but for the most part they should be the same.
If you requested a copy of your credit report and expected to see a score, you may be in for a surprise: It isn't there. That's because a credit report and a credit score are not the same thing. The data in your credit report are used to determine how much of a risk you are, which is presented as a credit score (denoted in points), but that number is not integral to your credit report.
The three primary credit bureaus as well as lenders (such as big banks), specialized credit reporting agencies (e.g., for mortgages), and vendors of financial products (e.g., insurance) analyze your credit report and calculate a credit score based on their own interpretation of the data and scoring model. As a result, you actually have many different credit scores. That said, the majority of lenders base their decisions on how much to lend and at what interest rate on credit scores generated by Fair Isaac Corporation's (FICO) algorithm.
According to FICO, your payment history is the primary factor affecting your credit score. Being a few days late isn't likely to kill your score, although you'll probably have to pay a late fee. A payment that is more than 30 days late, however, could shave 90 to 110 points from your total, regardless how high it was to start. A drop of that magnitude, myFICO points out, will cost you more than $10,000 on a 30-year, fixed-rate $150,000 mortgage.
Your score is also influenced by the average length of time your credit lines have been open. This is why it's important to get a credit card as early as possible and to leave accounts open unless you absolutely need to close them (or if you're paying an annual fee but not using the card). While you may want to cut up a card so you won't be tempted to use it, the better plan is to leave it in a drawer so your credit history continues to grow.
If you find yourself stuck juggling a car payment, student loans, credit card debt, and whatever, remember that you're not alone. Consumer Credit Counseling Services offers free counseling and planning sessions with a credit and debt counselor. This service may be able to help you consolidate your debt into one low monthly payment or walk you through the steps needed to get back in the black.