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A Perfect Score

Donnie Mattox

THE HIGHEST CREDIT score possible is 850, and I’ve hit that mark in eight of the past 12 months. In the other four months, I had a score of either 844 or 846 under the credit rating formula created by FICO, formerly called Fair Isaac Corp.

A FICO score between 800 and 850 is considered exceptional and gets you the best rates on loans. A score of 670 or more is considered “good,” but more doors and opportunities are available when your score hits 740, where “very good” credit begins.

My perfect score partly reflects the care I take with my credit cards. I do the standard stuff. But I also have one or two tricks that aren’t found in the usual playbook. For example, when I use credit cards, I pay them off in full every month. Then I go one step further and pay a little extra toward the current month’s charges. I doubt that helps my credit score, but I figure it might impress the credit card company.

I always keep the total I charge far below my card’s credit limit. If the credit limit on the card is $10,000, the most I want to owe is 30%, or $3,000, and prefer to use just 10% of the card’s credit limit, or $1,000.

If it’s hard for me to stay below my self-imposed spending ceiling, I call the credit card company and ask it to increase my credit limit. The company is usually willing to oblige, especially if you’re a responsible borrower who always pays on time—or even a little early, as I do.

To stay under my spending ceiling, I’ve also found it helps to use several credit cards. Because I charge on two or three cards each month, I stagger their billing dates. For instance, I may have one card payment due on the first of the month and another on the 16th.

If you want to change your card’s billing date, call the card issuer. The company is typically happy to make an adjustment. When choosing payment dates, it’s helpful to synchronize them with your paychecks. Having multiple cards with staggered billing dates also creates a busy history of on-time payments—a positive for my credit score.

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This hasn’t happened to me recently, but sometimes you can find yourself late with a payment. Most card companies are willing to waive the late fee if you’ve consistently paid on time up until then. It can’t hurt to ask.

If you do carry a balance on your card, be sure to make at least the minimum payment. About 35% of your credit score is based on your payment history, so late, missed or insufficient payments will drop your number. Owing more than you can pay is not a good feeling, but you can put an end to that frustration by adopting the good money management habits that I was taught as a child.

My mother opened a checking account for me when I was 12. I would deposit some of my money from cutting grass, gifts or weekend work. That meant I often had money when my friends didn’t. This habit of “paying myself first,” by setting aside cash for later, gives me a financial buffer—and helps me avoid bank fees and exorbitant interest charges.

My tips may not get you to 850 because there’s a lot more to a FICO score than credit cards. Credit history length, the total amount you owe, recent credit inquiries and the mix of debt you hold all play a role. Indeed, to hit 850, it’s important to have both installment loans—think a mortgage or car loan—and to use credit cards. For those who have paid off their mortgage and don’t take out car loans, and hence their only borrowing is their credit card charges, it seems hard to get a credit score much above 820. But even 820 should put you in a great position if you need to borrow.

Donnie Mattox is an Air Force veteran and former radio technician with Atlanta’s metro transit system. He’s currently employed with Delta Air Lines as an aviation maintenance technician. Donnie has been married to his wife Viola for 34 years, and they have two adult children, Victoria and Darius.

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Mark Schwartz
Mark Schwartz
5 months ago

Donnie, I try and model and follow the U.S. Goverments model of spending more than I make, borrow more than I can afford, and blame everyone else and everything else. Who cares about FICO scores? It’s worked well for the Federal government so far…Why not me? Utt oh, must be the Propofol I had yesterday for a procedure talking, the Dr. Told me not to make any financial decisions so maybe that stuff hasn’t worn off yet…Dang it, that Propofol stuff is great while it lasts you feel super until it wears off.

mytimetotravel
mytimetotravel
5 months ago

I take it you are enjoying this exercise, because otherwise I simply don’t see the point. Provided your score is over 800, why worry? Mine will never be “perfect” because I don’t have a mortgage or a car loan, and I am certainly not going to waste time juggling payments on my credit cards – I simply pay the statement balance once a month.

M Plate
M Plate
5 months ago

I hit the mythical 850 several years ago. My score hovered near 850 for a time. When I made my final mortgage payment….the score dropped to the lower 800’s.

mjflack
mjflack
5 months ago

Just checked and I have a credit score of 901.

Luckless Pedestrian
Luckless Pedestrian
5 months ago

Are you sure that “the highest credit score possible is 850”? My FICO score is currently 857; my Experian score is 827.

Carl Book
Carl Book
5 months ago

I think I may have a score above 850 as well. Do the three credit rating companies all use the same scale?

Luckless Pedestrian
Luckless Pedestrian
5 months ago

As I’m sure you know, many bank websites now have a feature that allows holders of bank-issued credit cards to check their credit scores. My Citi Premier credit card shows my FICO score as 857, with the maximum possible score as 900. Is Citi wrong?

Luckless Pedestrian
Luckless Pedestrian
5 months ago

Never mind, Jonathan — after some internet sleuthing, I’ve discovered that FICO has two scoring models, a “base” model with a scoring range of 300-850, and an “industry-specific” model with a range of 250-900. The latter score is used by issuers of auto loans, mortgages, and credit cards. And that’s obviously the score I’m seeing on the Citi credit card website.

Sabine Nooteboom
Sabine Nooteboom
5 months ago

Amazing! We haven’t had any credit cards (except a Chevron card) for over 25 years – we only use debit cards, because it’s the simplest way for us not to accidentally overspend – and have no debt so even though we pay the very low Chevron card balance off each month our FICO score is always at around 800. Kind of a peculiar system we have, that rewards people for having access to more credit………

Andrew Forsythe
Andrew Forsythe
5 months ago

Donnie, thanks for this post and congrats on your frequent 850 score—very impressive.

I try to avoid debt whenever possible, but a few years ago co-signed a car loan at a low interest rate with my daughter. We got some advice that taking it out, paying on time, and then paying it off after a year would give her credit score a nice boost out of the starting gate. It worked.

donnie mattox
donnie mattox
5 months ago

Thanks Andrew I did the same thing for my son. Very hesitant at first but he’s very responsible

AmeliaRose
AmeliaRose
5 months ago

I like seeing how high I can get my score, but because I’ve never had a mortgage nor a car loan, my score will never rise above the mid-820s.

I have never missed a payment; my flawless credit record goes back 30 years; I pay off the cards in full each month before the statements come out so that my statements are almost always $0.00; and have not applied for credit in more than two years, so I have no hard credit pulls on my record.

Sometimes I think of getting a mortgage just to increase my credit score! (Not really; I hate the thought of being in debt.)

donnie mattox
donnie mattox
5 months ago
Reply to  AmeliaRose

I understand I have a rental that I use as a HELC when I need too

Jack Hannam
Jack Hannam
5 months ago

If I could give my grandkids, or any other group a single piece of advice about personal finance, it would be “Pay yourself first”. It quickly becomes a habit and especially if you automate, rarely even think about. As for FICO, I can’t seem to break 838, probably due to the lack of sufficient payment history apart from a single credit card, which I typically pay off twice a month to avoid too high of a debt to credit limit ratio.

William Perry
William Perry
5 months ago

Thanks Donnie. It seems to me that the percentage of utilization of a credit card limit is measured on the outstanding balance of the account at the end of the billing cycle. I also pay the credit cards in full monthly but in a month where I will have or expect a large balance I try to pay in advance an additional amount with the previous month payment to keep the end of cycle balance below the 30% of account credit limit. I have had all of my credit cards over 25 years and do not remember the last time I opened a new credit card account. Saving a few bucks on a promotional credit card offer is a non-starter for me. My FICO score is in the very high range but has never a been perfect 850. I have not had an installment loan in a long time and prefer not having a perfect FICO score over ever having another monthly installment payment. I use autopay for those accounts I expect are less subject to hackers like utilities and health insurance, but for general credit cards I want to see the charges prior to payment.

DrLefty
DrLefty
5 months ago

The installment loan thing is complicated. In 2020, I bought a new car, which we initially financed at a nice low rate but paid off in less than a year. At the time, my credit score was in the 840s. Later in 2020, we refinanced our mortgage, again to take advantage of the very low rates. The new mortgage was a hit to my credit rating because it was brand new so I had hardly paid off any of it yet. Credit rating now hovering around 815, even though nothing else has changed. But I’m making advanced principal payments on the mortgage, so that will shift soon. As you said, anything over 800 is considered excellent.

R Quinn
R Quinn
5 months ago

You seem to have solved a mystery for me. I have two cards, an Amx for 50 years, never carry a balance, never near the maximum, never late with a payment, no debt of any kind and yet I can’t seem to get above 825 or so.

David Powell
David Powell
5 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

Same here. Donnie’s spot on: no mortgage, no car loans, no max FICO score. We’re just not FICO’s “target demographic”

M Plate
M Plate
5 months ago

I use autopay, no worries about a late payment

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