Who would have imagined a day when a credit score could be as mystifying as an SAT or ACT score? But if you're looking for an elite credit card with amazing rewards or the best rate on a mortgage, you're hyper-focused on getting the best credit score. Sort of like trying to get into college.
But instead of improving over time, consumer knowledge about credit scores is at the lowest level in eight years, according to the ninth annual credit score survey by the Consumer Federation of America and VantageScore Solutions.
Only two-thirds of consumers surveyed knew, for example, that keeping a low credit card balance helps raise a low credit score or maintain a high one, according to the survey. That's down from 85% who scored correctly in 2012.
The credit score's main purpose: Give lenders a way to measure the risk that an individual consumer will not repay the loan.
One reader wrote me the other day perplexed by why his score fell more than 30 points to below 770 -- still an above-average credit score -- after he took on some "same as cash" offers that need to be paid in full during a certain time frame.
"For me, it's a matter of pride," said George Feld of Sterling Heights. "It bothers me that you don't get credit for managing your money well."
He used the financing deals to buy a refrigerator and a dishwasher. He also turned in a leased vehicle and leased a 2019 Lincoln.
He plans to pay the financing deals off, and has never missed paying off the balance before the promotion expires.
Even so, such plans can be tricky. Some consumers don't understand that they can be charged interest retroactively for the entire deferred interest period if they do not pay off the balance by the end of the period of a deferred interest credit card promotion.
Many consumers correctly know that overall missed payments on any credit card can hurt a score. But even then, only 86% of consumers knew that missed payments are used to calculate credit scores, compared with 94% in 2012, according to the latest survey. (You can take the quiz at creditscorequiz.org.)