The highest credit score you can achieve is 850, and I’ve done so more than once. You can get a perfect credit score by paying your bills on time, every time, keeping your card balances low and having a mix of different types of credit. Here’s how I did it.
When I was 10, all my friends wanted a Chatty Cathy, a doll that talked, whispered and even sang nine different things each time you pulled her talking ring.
Me? I wanted a perfect credit score – before I was even completely sure what that meant.
It all started with my mom, a single parent who worked back-to-back waitressing shifts to support three kids.
And who had a near-perfect credit score her entire life.
From the time we were toddlers, she extolled the virtue of having spotless credit, even if she (or, in this case, we) rarely used it.
My mom used real envelopes for her money, not digital ones, and I’ll never forget the one marked “Credit Card” in large black letters.
She had one credit card – just one – which she used “only for emergencies” and paid off before her bill arrived in the mail (back then she would call and ask for her balance, then immediately send off the payment in the mail).
She was rabid about paying all of her bills in full and on time, and she passed that down to all three of her children.
If we borrowed a dime at school for milk, we paid it back – pronto.
We didn’t have money, but we paid our bills.
See related: What is a good credit score?
How to get a perfect credit score
Pay your credit card balances in full
Cut to me in my 20s, when I moved to California and took full responsibility for my finances.
I remember when my first credit card arrived in the mail – it was like a badge of honor for me.
And I respected the card.
I was saving money for a down payment on a house, which took 10 years, so I wasn’t charging a lot on the card, but just having it at my disposal represented financial security to me – it meant I had credit, the best thing in the world if you use it correctly.
Since then, I’ve gotten many more cards – and used them plenty.
But I’ve never, ever paid a cent of interest on a card in my life. Like my mom, I spent only what I knew I could afford come payment time, and I paid off any balances I had in full every month.
Keep your credit card balances low, and have a mix of credit types
One time I had to charge a very expensive car repair that I really couldn’t afford to pay off, so I got a personal loan and paid it off that way because the interest rate on the personal loan was significantly lower than on my credit card at the time.
Then, I doubled down on my personal loan payments and got it off my plate in record time.
That personal loan boosted my score even more because it represented the fact I had different types of credit, and your credit mix counts toward 10% of your FICO score calculation.
And by taking out that loan, I didn’t increase my credit utilization ratio on my card (meaning I wasn’t using a ton of my available credit), which counts toward 30% of your FICO score calculation.
Use your credit card only when you need to
I know now that the reason I’ve never treated credit like cash is because of my mom – to this day, every single time I go to use credit, I hear her saying, “Don’t use your credit card unless you absolutely have to, honey.”
That has always worked for me – it sounds so simple but it really does the trick to keep that in mind.
And I’ve paid that knowledge forward.
When I had my daughter I started talking to her about credit (and all things personal finance because I knew she’d never learn it in school) when she was a toddler – and today, her credit score is 825 and she can pretty much pick and choose a mortgage when she’s ready.
See related: 10 tips to improve your credit score
Credit scores frequently rise and fall
My credit score a few months ago was the usual 850, but when I canceled a card I rarely used and got a new one with a great bonus offer and better terms, my score went down – to 806.
That was a bad day for me, despite the fact that an 806 isn’t too shabby (in fact, if you’re in the high 700s, you just need to maintain, not improve, your score to gain access to the best credit card and loan terms and the lowest interest rates).
As I wait for my score to come up again – and wonder and fret over if and when it will – I am being extra careful with credit.
Credit scores – particularly very high ones – are elusive; they rise and fall, again and again.
My mom is gone now, but she left her children with solid values regarding money – and that gift is priceless.
My credit score might drop now and then, but I’ll always have my time with my 850 score – and I will always thank my financially savvy mom for helping me achieve that.