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.
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.