Your credit score not only dictates whether or not you can buy a house, a cell phone or even car insurance, it determines just how many credit cards you'll have access to.
Right now, consumer credit in the United States isn't looking great. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, mortgage debt ($8.63 trillion, up $258 billion), student loan debt ($1.34 trillion, up $83 billion) and auto loan debt ($1.17 billion, up $96 billion) have ballooned within the last year. It also doesn't help that credit card debt has also soared ($764 billion, up $52 billion).
Roughly 11% of all student loan payents are past due, as are 7.5% of credit card bills. Despite this, and despite the fact that more than a quarter of Americans (26%) check their credit scores monthly or more often, nearly 1 in 8 (12%) have never checked their scores. An online survey by NerdWallet and Harris Poll conducted in April found that 23% of consumers think they have one credit score (you have several calculated based on what you're buying) and (41%) think carrying a balance on a credit card improves your credit score (nope, quite the opposite).
"The idea that you have to carry debt to have good credit is a dangerous, expensive myth that needs to die," says NerdWallet columnist Liz Weston, author of the book Your Credit Score. "Carrying a balance will mean you pay interest, but it probably won't have any impact on your credit — just your wallet."
That has significant repercussions in just about every aspect of your life. Though 49% don't know it, having bad credit can limit your options for mobile phone service -- which typically requires a credit check unless you pre-pay. Other things you're blissfully unaware of: having bad credit can negatively impact the price of car and homeowners insurance (43% of you don't know this), it can jack up your deposits for heat or electricity (more than half of you didn't know that) and it can prevent a landlord from renting you a home (23% were oblivious to this).
In fact, in a recent poll of 2,000 people conducted by finance site NerdWallet last year, 40% said their partner's financial situation is more important than how they look. Nearly half (48%) of those surveyed say they flat-out wouldn't date someone with bad credit. As for those with bad credit, they prefer digging themselves out of debt instead of bringing someone else down with them. A survey by MassMutual conducted found that 47% of singles would rather experience an unexpected financial challenge over a romantic breakup.
There are more than 40 million people in the U.S. with credit scores of 600 or below, but 21% of you think that score would qualify you for any credit card on the market. In fact, people with excellent credit have 7.7 times more credit-card options as consumers with credit scores of 600 or below.
This is odd, since consumers generally embrace the idea that good credit is something that's good to have. A recent survey from CapitalOne found that 66% of consumers believe that good credit is not only worth maintaining, but should be grounds for better treatment. Meanwhile, (55%) believe that bad credit is a smudge on your social standing.
About 12% of U.S. adults with debt expect to die in debt, down from 21% about a year ago, according to a new CreditCards.com report. Yet just 4% of those between ages 18 and 29 feel they'll die in debt, compared to 28% of those 65 and older who feel the same.
Though 24% of American adults tell CreditCards.com they are currently debt-free, up from 14% in 2014, those soaring debt numbers from the Federal Reserve are cause for concern.
"While it's good to see Americans feeling better about their debt, I'm worried that some people are getting carried away," says Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com's senior industry analyst. "For example, credit card debt has been rising steadily for more than five years and is close to $1 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. It seems like a lot of people are forgetting the painful lessons of the Great Recession."
NerdWallet just completed its annual survey of household debt and found that the average household with credit card debt has a balance of $16,061. That household pays a total of $1,292 in credit card (assuming an interest rate of 18.76%) interest per year on $7,941 in debt -- which is just $523 less than WalletHub considers unsustainable for a median household income of little less than $52,000.
Though mortgage debt is the heaviest and typically paid off over the longest period of time, revolving credit card debt can follow you to the grave. Households that bring in more than $157,479 per year pay almost four times more in credit card interest than households that make less than $21,432. However, when a household making $150,000 a year has $10,036 in credit card debt, that's less than 7% of its income. Unfortunately, when a person who makes $20,000 a year owes $3,611 in credit card debt, that's 18% of their annual income. Meanwhile, households led by self-employed individuals spend $1,631 in credit card interest annually, while heads of household who work for someone else pay only $1,211 to finance their credit card debt each year.
None of that debt is helping households that are already being squeezed by other costs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the consumer price indexes for medical costs increased by 57% and food and beverage prices by 36% between 2003 and 2016. During that same span, NerdWallet found that median household income has only grown 28%, from $43,318 to $56,578 in 2003 and 2016, respectively. As a result, according to NerdWallet's projections based on data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, total debt in the U.S. hit $12.5 trillion by the end of 2016.
That debt results in a lot of trouble for those who can least afford it. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's 2015 Consumer Credit Card Market report, According to the CFPB report, 80% to 90% of consumers with deep subprime scores well below 600 allow their credit card balances to linger from month to month. By comparison, only 20% to 30% of consumers with excellent credit do the same.
However, the most cash-strapped consumers tend to be the least able to afford to pay off their balance that regularly. As a result, someone who carries $200 on a subprime credit card with an average interest rate of 29.46% -- typically targeted toward those with lower score -- would pay $88 in interest on it a year. However, even folks who sign up for "secured" cards -- offered by major issuers (Citi, Discover or Capital One) who require cardholders with subprime credit to make deposits equal to their card's limit -- pay just 20.31% annual interest, on average, and $61 on that $200 annual debt. Keep in mind that the best secured card's interest rate is 11.75%, while the worst subprime card carries a whopping 36% rate, making annual interest on a $200 balance just $35 for the former and $108 for the latter.
Eliminating bad credit behaviors is only helpful if you know what those behaviors are. Your credit history, payment history, credit-to-debt ratio (at most, you should only be using 30% of your available credit, but the ideal is 0%), mix of credit accounts and number of new accounts you've opened recently all have an effect on your credit. The first step toward achieving excellent credit is getting your free annual credit report from the main credit bureaus -- Experian, TransUnion and Equifax -- and dispute any errors you find. From there, take out low-interest "credit-builder loans" that don't give you the money until you pay off the loan. Yes, it's basically a savings account with no access, but your bank reports your on-time payments to credit bureaus and helps boost your score.
If you have a bad credit card history or none at all, invest in a secured credit card. It requires a security deposit that's usually equal to the card's credit limit, but sometimes is less, but it allows you to "graduate" to an unsecured card and earn back your deposit.
"You don't need to carry credit card debt to have great credit scores," Weston says. "But you do need to have credit accounts and use them responsibly."