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How to Have $8,500 in Credit Card Debt -- and a Great Credit Score

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- What do U.S. consumers with a sterling FICO credit rating know that the rest of the country doesn't?

MyFICO, the consumer division of the credit ratings giant FICO, takes a good whack at that question, with data out today examining what formula makes for a sky-high credit score.

What the company found is that consumers with a credit score of more than 785 -- the "gold standard," according to MyFICO -- actually have debt. It's just that those high-end consumers manage that debt masterfully.

In fact, MyFICO says that "many individuals with the highest credit scores owe more than $8,500 on nonmortgage accounts" -- usually debts accumulated from multiple credit cards.

The firm says 50 million American adults meet the standard for its "FICO High Achiever" level, meaning their credit scores are 785 or higher. That's about 25% of all U.S. adults who have earned a credit score, FICO says.

Typically, those high achievers share some financial planning traits that earn them great credit, no matter what their background or tax bracket.

What are the three that FICO says matter the most? Try these on for size:

  • Consumers with great credit ratings routinely keep low revolving credit balances, mostly on their credit cards.
  • They don't max out their credit cards.
  • They always make payments on time.

Of course, that means those high credit achievers do have debt. "High credit achievers are not debt-free. They typically have multiple credit cards with balances," MyFICO says in a press release. "They also tend to manage their accounts responsibly even if they have had mishaps along the way."

FICO notes that . . .

  • Consumers with great credit scores typically own seven credit cards.
  • They have an average of four credit cards with balances outstanding.
  • Almost 100% of those high achievers (96%) have zero missed payments on their credit reports.
  • About one in 100 high-achieving credit consumers have a collection listed on their credit report.
  • High credit score consumers typically use only 7% of their available card's revolving credit.
  • Virtually all high achievers have a spotless record of at least paying the minimum balance on their credit cards every month.

That last tendency of high-credit score consumers is huge, FICO says. Even if you have a spotty record, building a steady track record of paying those bills on time can help a consumer catch up eventually and build a better credit score.

"Missing payments will lower a person's FICO score, but if that happens establishing or re-establishing a good track record of making payments on time will generally improve a person's score," says Anthony Sprauve, credit score adviser for myFICO.

But rebuilding credit is, as Sprauve puts it, "a marathon and not a sprint."

Consequently, it's a better idea to take your time, focus on making every credit and loan payment on time; tone down your card-spending activity; and keep checking your credit report for errors that could hurt your credit score.

That's what high-achievers do.

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