There have been huge changes to the credit scoring landscape in the past 15 years, and the average credit score is now at an all-time high. But I worry it’s that way not because Americans are more creditworthy.
Following the surprising 41-point drop in my credit score last fall, I’ve continued to monitor my credit diligently.
I recently noticed another oddity: my mortgage servicer says my FICO score is 776, American Express says it’s 815 and Wells Fargo says it’s 828. Who’s right?
It turns out, all three are correct because they’re using different vintages of the FICO formula.
- Mr. Cooper (the mortgage servicer, which used to be called Nationstar) is displaying “a FICO Score 4 based on TransUnion data,” according to its website. The company adds this “is the same score that Mr. Cooper uses, along with other information, to manage your account.”
- American Express writes, “Your FICO Score 8 based on Experian data is the same score used by American Express.”
- Wells Fargo says it’s using FICO Score 9, also from Experian.
FICO 4 came out in 2004, FICO 8 in 2008 and FICO 9 in 2014. There have been huge changes to the credit scoring landscape in the past 15 years, and clearly those have aided my score. I experienced a massive 39-point leap from FICO 4 to FICO 8, and another 13-point gain from FICO 8 to FICO 9.
See related: Why is there a difference between my credit scores?
This is good news, right?
The average credit score hit a record-high 704 last year. But as a consumer analyst and advocate, I worry that credit scores may be improving in part because lenders want to expand their customer bases, not just because Americans are more creditworthy. After all, I’m the same guy, yet the 2014 FICO release rates me a whopping 52 points higher than the 2004 model.
“Lenders have been asking credit-reporting firms and FICO to figure out a way to help them boost lending without significantly more risk,” the Wall Street Journal wrote last October regarding the recently unveiled UltraFICO score. This is the new second-chance program which aims to expand access to credit by examining – with their permission – the bank accounts of consumers whose credit applications are rejected.
UltraFICO is looking for a lack of overdrafts and an average balance of at least $400 over the past three months. This last piece, in particular, strikes me as a slippery slope. What if that number becomes $1,000? Or $10,000? I’d rather see people rewarded for how well they manage their money, not how much money they have.
Experian Boost is another new initiative that pledges to help people with damaged or nonexistent credit. I like this one better than UltraFICO because it focuses on phone and utility payment histories. People can give Experian access to their bank accounts to look for these types of bills, which aren’t typically included in credit scores because they’re not credit obligations.
Rewarding people for their positive phone and utility payments seems fair and could legitimately help those who have been responsible while living off the credit grid.
Pay down debt, build your savings while the economy is strong
Ultimately, whether we’re talking about FICO 4, FICO 8, FICO 9, UltraFICO or Experian Boost, my advice is the same. Make sure you can repay your obligations in all economic conditions, not just the best-case scenario. Don’t stretch your credit cards, your mortgage or your car budget to the max just because a lender is willing to let you.
Economic conditions have generally been very good the past several years. Growth is up and unemployment is down. There have been some hiccups on Wall Street of late, but in general, money matters have been in solid shape for almost a decade.
Take advantage of these good times to pay down your debt and fortify your savings so that you’re in the best possible position the next time an economic downturn inevitably occurs.