How Low Can Your Credit Score Go?
Your credit score is one of the most critical numbers in your financial life. It can affect your ability to rent an apartment, buy a house or get a job. A low score can result in higher interest rates and may even prevent you from obtaining credit in the first place.
In common credit scoring models, 300 is typically the lowest possible score. However, scores that low are extremely rare.
There are two major credit scoring models: FICO and VantageScore. FICO is the older and more common model, with modern FICO Scores first introduced in 1989. VantageScore was established in 2006 by the three major credit bureaus, Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.
A number of factors go into determining your credit score, including:
- Payment history
- Credit utilization (the amount of debt relative to your credit limit)
- Length of credit history
- New credit
- Types of accounts
The most influential factor in both your FICO Score and VantageScore is your payment history, but the amount of debt you owe compared to your credit limit also has a big influence.
What is the lowest possible credit score?
Both FICO and VantageScore use ranges of 300 to 850 to determine your creditworthiness.
If your FICO Score is between 300 and 579, it is considered “poor.” According to Experian, 17% of consumers have a score in this range. If you find yourself in this category, you may be denied credit or required to pay additional fees or deposits. When it comes to VantageScores, just under 17% of people fall into the 300-549 range, with applicants unlikely be approved for credit.
Though scores can drop as low as 300, most credit scores tend to range from 600 to 750. If your credit score falls in the “poor” range, it’s likely that you have a history of delinquent payments, bankruptcies or loan defaults.
Getting a rock-bottom score of 300 is nearly impossible, said credit expert John Ulzheimer, formerly of FICO and Equifax. “To get a score that low you have to be doing everything wrong. Multiple, severe and frequent derogatory entries, maxed out credit cards and excessive inquiries — you almost have to make a concerted effort to trash your scores that badly,” he said.
If you’re wondering why FICO Scores start at 300 rather than zero, Ulzheimer said it’s because Fair Isaac Corp. (FICO) used to build custom scores for individual lenders, which ranged from 1 to 299. “So, 300 to 850 was chosen to ensure nobody got confused between a custom score versus a credit bureau score,” he said.
Why does a low credit score matter?
As mentioned above, your credit score is a very important number. A low credit score can hurt you in a number of ways. Here are some factors to consider:
- Obtaining credit with reasonable rates. The lower your credit score, the more risky you appear to potential lenders. A creditor may choose to mitigate that risk by offering you higher interest rates or refusing to extend a line of credit to you at all.
- Employment. When applying for a new job, the employer might want to run a background check on you that could include a credit check, especially if the job entails financial responsibilities.
- Cellphones and utilities. Some cellphone providers might not accept you for service if you have a low credit score, and utility companies might require a deposit before providing you with gas or electric service.
- Housing. Renting an apartment with bad credit can be tough. Landlords want the rent paid on time, and a low credit score is a warning that you might struggle with that. If you’re looking to buy, bad credit could make it difficult to obtain a mortgage, or require you to pay higher interest rates or make a bigger down payment.
Ways to raise your credit score
The good news is that there are a number of ways to raise your credit score, including:
- Paying your bills on time. As mentioned above, this is the most influential aspect of your credit score. It may take some work, but setting up automatic payments and bill reminders is a great way to avoid accidentally missing a payment.
- Keeping balances low. The percentage of your available credit that you’re using is one of the biggest components of your credit score. This goes hand-in-hand with reducing your overall level of debt, if needed. There’s no quick fix, but start with not incurring new debt and applying any available funds in your budget to paying down the debt you have.
- Seeking help. Credit counseling and credit repair services are options if you’re struggling with bad credit or too much debt. Getting the perspective of an experienced professional can help you approach your finances with confidence. Before you reach out, do your research to make sure a credit repair company is on the level.
- Using secured credit cards. A secured credit card is similar to a traditional card but is backed by a security deposit. Secured cards also tend to have lower limits and higher fees. However, if you open one and practice responsible credit habits — including paying the balance in full each month and using it sparingly — you should be able to boost your credit score and eventually switch to an unsecured card.
The bottom line
A bad credit score is bad news, but there are steps you can take to get out of the dumps. With good financial habits, people can and do raise their scores. It may take hard work and focus, but a poor credit score doesn’t need to be a life sentence.