What’s Your (FICO) Number? 4 People Divulge Their Scores—and Private Credit Habits

This post originally appeared on LearnVest

When it comes to your age, sometimes it’s all relative. Hey, you’re only as old as you feel, right? ThinkstockPhotos-476466429-190x130

But when it comes to your credit, numbers are everything.

In addition to helping you secure more favorable home and auto loans, a healthy FICO® score can make everything from renting an apartment to opening a credit card all that much easier.

For many, however, the road to a rock-solid credit score can be a windy one fraught with forgetfulness, less-than-stellar spending habits, and a lack of proper knowledge about interest rates.

Fortunately, it’s never too late to adopt the kind of habits that can put you back on the straight and narrow.

Just look at these four credit-healthy consumers, who agreed to share their scores with us—and then let NFCC-certified credit counselor Jerry Cruthis of ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions offer advice on how to make even greater credit strides.

RELATED: My Money Aha! Moment: 3 People on the Credit Wake-Up Call That Changed Their Lives

The Hopeful Homeowners

Lauren Carelli, 27, an assistant director of marketing and business development, and Orazio Tartaglia, 28, a customer success manager, in Orlando, Fla. Lauren-Orazio-325x200

How They Score Today Lauren: 746; Orazio: 732

Why They Want to Climb Even Higher “My boyfriend and I know we have good credit scores, but we want excellent ones—and suspect our debt is holding us back.

After college, I racked up more than $10,000 of credit card debt in just three years as a result of poor budgeting habits, and still have $9,500 left to pay. I also lease my car for $157 a month.

Orazio also has a car lease that rings in at $290 a month, about $7,000 worth of credit card debt, and a $450 monthly student loan payment.

We’re preoccupied with debt repayment and credit right now because we have a long-term goal of becoming homeowners. In about five years we’d like to move back to the Boston area and settle into a two- or three-bedroom Colonial-style house.

When the time comes, we don’t want our sub-750 credit scores to create problems with approvals or scoring the best interest rates. Ideally, I’d like mine to be 780–800, and Orazio would like his to be at least 760.

How They’re Taking Action Our plan is twofold: While we want to eliminate our debt, we also want to beef up our savings accounts.

We’re working on the former by transferring outstanding balances to credit cards that offer 0% APR for the first 18 months. We think it’s a great way to save money on interest, and it’s also lit a fire under us to pay off our debt as quickly as possible. If we carry a balance beyond 18 months, we’ll be right back where we started—paying 23% interest.

We’ve also made lifestyle adjustments to reach our goals faster. We recently moved from Arlington, Mass., to Orlando for my job, where we’re enjoying cheaper rent and utilities. And we’ve cut back on takeout, which saves us about $100 a week.

Together, we have $5,500 saved up. It’s comforting to have that cash to rely on, so we don’t use our cards in an emergency.”

RELATED: How My Credit Score Almost Cost Me My Dream House

What the Credit Counselor Thinks “Lauren and Orazio are in a great position credit-wise, since they’re both already in what I’d consider the ‘very good’ range.

In terms of buying a home, the benefits of ‘excellent’ versus ‘very good’ credit are fairly inconsequential—maybe just one eighth of an interest percentage point. On a $150,000 home, that might work out to an $11 monthly difference over 30 years.

That said, it’s still a great goal to adopt positive habits. They’re on the right track when it comes to eliminating debt—a critical part of repayment success is committing to not using your cards until they’re paid off. And I’m happy to see they’re prioritizing saving, as well.

Utilizing 0% APR card promotions is a great way to skirt interest, but they should keep in mind that one missed or late payment can potentially result in the loss of the interest-free period. To ensure that doesn’t happen, they should consider setting up automatic bill pay.

In the meantime, continuing to make on-time payments on their car leases should help Lauren and Orazio bolster their scores. If they decide to buy cars one day, I’d recommend shopping for a model they need—not necessarily a fancy one they want.

I always tell clients, ‘Live like a college student today so you can live like a king tomorrow!’ ”

RELATED: More Money, More Problems? The Dangers of Lifestyle Inflation—and How to Avoid It

The Credit Perfectionist

Charlie Riley, 36, a marketing and communications director in Buffalo, N.Y. Charlie-222x222

How He Scores Today 765

Why He Wants to Climb Even Higher “I’m the type of guy who always finds room for improvement. I know a score of 765 is healthy, but I’d love to hit 800.

My wife and I already own a home, and we don’t plan to finance any other big-ticket expenses anytime soon. But I want to ramp up my score so that I have a solid protection buffer.

I’ve been the victim of identity theft twice—where someone stole my credit card number and charged thousands—and while I’ve managed to rectify those situations, I know it can take time to recover from malicious activity. I don’t want to be sidelined if something like that ever happens again.

I try to—and most often do—pay off my credit cards every month, and I only have $2,000 left on my student loans. So I’m not entirely sure what additional habits I could adopt that would make a big difference in my score.

RELATED: My Quest for the Perfect Credit Score

How He’s Taking Action I’m keeping the status quo when it comes to good credit habits. I’ve set up online reminders and automatic payments to avoid late fees from missed payments.

And I eyeball often both my credit report and my wife’s to ensure there are no errors or hints of identity theft. I view it like hopping on a scale—it’s tough to lose weight weight loss easy if you don’t know how much you weigh. Benchmarking our scores and reports is key to accomplishing our goals.”

What the Credit Counselor Thinks “Charlie’s goal seems to be primarily motivated by the desire for an insurance policy against security breaches. Considering his score is already excellent, I’d suggest zeroing in on ways he can actively protect himself.

One way to do that is to sign up for a free credit-monitoring service that can detect compromised Social Security and credit card numbers, as well as PINs and account log-ins, based on information from credit bureaus, retailers and government agencies. Even though Charlie is checking his credit reports regularly, this provides an extra layer of protection.

He can also consider implementing a credit freeze, which restricts access to your credit report—thus making it difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. It’s free for New York residents, and easy to execute—he can either call the credit bureaus or visit their websites to set that up.

Lastly, to further protect their existing accounts, Charlie and his wife can sign up for text alerts that go directly to his phone whenever a card is swiped. These are helpful for monitoring your card usage and keeping tabs on your spending.”

RELATED: I Was Bank Hacked! An Honest Look at U.S. Banking Security

The Forward-Thinking Planner

Emily Pires, 33, a senior financial planning associate in Boston Emily-149x222

How She Scores Today 789

Why She Wants to Climb Even Higher “I’m proud of my credit score, but I can’t help but wonder if it could be higher if I resolved some key issues.

For starters, I have about $16,000 of student loans, plus some lingering credit card debt that I racked up in my 20s.

My credit report shows that my utilization ratio is 32%. From what I know, this is acceptable but not great. I’m hoping that continuing to decrease my debt will positively impact my score.

I think a few other things might be holding my score down. In the past I’ve closed credit cards after paying them off, which I’ve since learned can lower your score. And, recently, I spotted a delinquency on my report that didn’t seem right—but I haven’t investigated it yet.

I’d love to see my score reach 820—that’s how I’ll know I’m financially prepared for the future.

In the next 10 years, I see myself getting married, buying a home and a new car, and being in a position to start saving for a family. I want to be in the best shape possible before embarking on those milestones.

How She’s Taking Action I’ve made it my mission to rein in my budget as much as possible to pay down debt.

In April, I moved in with my boyfriend, which will save me a couple hundred dollars in rent each month. And I’ve started asking myself a series of questions before buying any non-necessities: Do I need this? Can I still save money this month if I buy it? Could my money be better used elsewhere?

To ensure nothing jeopardizes my progress, I also use a bevy of online credit services, like daily monitoring alerts and credit planning tools. The latter shows me how potential credit behavior—like paying off debt or disputing the delinquency—could affect my score.

I also have a credit card that shows how your monthly minimum payment will change as you decrease your debt, which is pretty helpful. I project that I’ll be debt-free in three to five years.”

RELATED: I Want to Dispute an Error on My Credit Report

What the Credit Counselor Thinks “Emily’s top-tier credit score is impressive, but I agree she could inch it up by looking into the curious delinquency on her credit report, as well as continuing to lower her debt.

If she determines the delinquency is a mistake, she needs to dispute it through each credit bureau’s online portal. It’s important she take care of this, or else it could stay on her report for seven years. If she successfully disputes it, however, she’s likely to see a small bump in her score.

Given that she just has $16,000 left to pay off, I doubt Emily’s student loans are significantly impacting her score. In fact, maintaining a positive history of on-time payments on an installment loan can positively affect your credit score.

As far as the credit cards are concerned, she should indeed refrain from closing accounts after she’s done paying them off. Doing so can cause her utilization ratio—already at the higher end of 32%—to skyrocket, which could damage her score.

Lastly, I’m pleased she makes good use of credit products. These kinds of services are exactly the type of tools that help consumers achieve their financial goals. I often tell my clients they’d be surprised at what their creditors offer in the way of support—it’s smart to take advantage of these options to maintain great credit health.”

RELATED: Ask a CFP: ‘Should You Ever Close a Credit Card?’

Author Bio: Linsday Lambert Day, contributing writer for LearnVest

LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc., that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. Unless specifically identified as such, the individuals interviewed or quoted in this piece are neither clients, employees nor affiliates of LearnVest Planning Services, and the views expressed are their own. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed, linked to or otherwise appearing in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies.