One late payment shouldn't ruin a credit score -- or a romance

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the expert Dear To Her Credit,
I went on a date recently with a guy introduced to me by a co-worker. We talked about all kinds of things, from career goals to politics. It was going great until we got to credit scores. My credit score is good, but he says his credit score would be perfect except that he missed one bill when he was on vacation. Because of that, his score has totally tanked.

Is he telling the truth? Can one bill wreck a perfectly good score? -- Sheila

Answer for the expert Dear Sheila,
I don't know if one late bill can wreck a good score, but apparently it can wreck a good date.

Seriously, when did dating start sounding more like interviewing for a job? What's next, asking for a date's BMI? Things have certainly changed!

As far as his story goes: One negative mark can definitely hurt a person's credit score. The better the score, the more damage a single flaw can do (like the first scratch on a car after it leaves the showroom floor).

I see three problems with this guy's my-vacation-ruined-my-credit line:

  1. A slightly overdue bill wouldn't even show up on his credit report. He'd have to go on one long vacation to be more than 30 days overdue on a bill, which is how late a bill must be before creditors report them to the credit bureaus.
  2. If he was 30 days overdue by the time he caught up with his mail, it still shouldn't "tank" his score. A credit history doesn't just show how many overdue bills a person has had. It separates them by how far past the due date. A three-month-overdue bill is far more damaging than one that was just barely past 30 days overdue.
  3. Only 35 percent of a FICO credit score is based on bill payment history. Bill payment is the most significant factor in a score, but it's far from the only one. The rest of the score is based on debt amounts (30 percent), length of credit history (15 percent), new credit (10 percent) and having a mix of revolving and installment debt (10 percent). If his score is truly as bad as he says, either it wasn't that great to begin with, or there's a lot more going on than one accidentally misplaced bill.
Giving your date the benefit of the doubt, maybe one overdue bill knocked his score, which had always been in the 800s, down to somewhere in the 700s. He may be mortified, and he may think his credit is ruined. However, if that's the only thing wrong with his score and he's paid the bill, his credit history and score will quickly recover. A paid bill, even if it was overdue, is less damaging than a bill that is still outstanding. Further, a late bill from last year is less of a big deal than a recently overdue bill. All he has to do is keep his balances low and his bills paid on time, and he'll soon have a score he can brag about on dates.

Most of us need a little grace from time to time. If you like this guy, don't block his calls based on what he's told you so far about his score. If he's hopelessly irresponsible with money, you should be able to figure it out while there's still time to run for your life. If he's just a normal person who made an isolated mistake, however, his credit history and score won't hold it against him for long. Whether you do is up to you.

See related: How bad credit affects a new marriage, How late can a payment be before it dings your credit?, Even barely late payments can impact your credit score 

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Updated: 04-20-2019