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What Is Your Starting Credit Score and How Do You Build It Up?

If you’re building your credit history, it’s helpful to know your starting credit score so you can create a plan of action to increase it further.

December 3, 2021

There’s a lot of talk in personal finance about strategies to increase your credit score. After all, this can be the key to obtaining good rates on loans. But if you’re at the beginning of your journey and unsure if you even have a credit report, you’re probably wondering what your starting credit score is. Unfortunately, this topic is discussed far less frequently.

But you won’t have to be in the dark any longer. We’ll explore where the average person begins in the credit card world and then offer you some guidance about building your score quickly — no matter where you’re starting from.

How credit scores work

A credit score is a three-digit number that encapsulates your creditworthiness as a borrower. In other words: Does your history make you a safe bet for lenders or a potential liability?

Credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — record your credit history. Then, credit score providers use their credit scoring models to come up with a number. The two leading providers are VantageScore and FICO; we’ll focus on the latter for the sake of simplicity. 

FICO takes into account:

  • Length of credit history (how long you’ve had all your credit accounts)

  • Payment history (including late payments and bankruptcies)

  • Credit mix (the type and number of different accounts)

  • Amounts owed (outstanding credit balance)

  • New credit (any recently opened credit accounts)

The credit utilization ratio (how much of your available credit you use) may also be relevant for other providers.

Using these factors, providers then come up with a score. FICO defines credit score ranges as follows:

  • Exceptional credit score: 800 to 850

  • Very good credit score: 740 to 799

  • Good credit score: 670 to 739

  • Fair credit score: 580 to 669

  • Poor credit score: 300 to 579

If you’re curious, you can use — which is authorized by federal law and gives you one free credit score report a year — to find out your current or starting credit score. 

But where can you expect to start from? Poor, fair, good or even zero?

What starting credit score can you expect?

Think of it like this: Credit scoring scales have more in common with the Fahrenheit temperature scale, where water freezes at 32°F, than the Celsius temperature system (where water freezes at 0°C). 

For FICO, the lowest credit score possible is 300. Nobody starts from zero using the provider’s credit scoring methods. In most cases, you won’t even start from the lowest score of 300 unless you already have a poor history.

In fact, a FICO score below 300 is impossible, and a score is only going to go lower than between 500 and 600 if you actively do something wrong.

Although every “beginner” has the same length of credit history (zero), credit score providers take multiple other factors into consideration, like credit mix and amounts owed. Besides, the length of credit history only determines around 15% of a score.

A typical starting credit score range is between 400 and 600, partly because you need some kind of credit file to even have a credit score in the first place. So, as long as their (limited) history is decent, they’ll tend to fall within this range. 

Yes, that’s right: You need some credit history before you even have a starting credit score. This leads to our next point.

How to build your credit score

The higher your credit score is, the better terms you’ll be offered — meaning lower interest rates and access to credit cards with the best perks, like rewards points and low fees.

But how can you do it? Here’s a quick overview of the top strategies.

With a credit card

Using a credit card wisely can boost your credit. 

If you’re struggling to get accepted for a conventional card, consider a secured credit card (which requires you to put down money or another asset as collateral). 

Then, once you manage to get your hands on your first card, use it properly. Avoid taking out new credit for a while so you can keep your score healthy and avoid hard inquiries, stay within your credit limit and always make on-time payments.

Once you’ve had a credit card for a while, consider switching your secured card over to something more conventional, which will likely give you access to more credit at a lower interest rate.


Without a credit card

Whether you’re struggling to get approved for any card at all or you don’t feel ready to get a card, you’ll be relieved to learn that getting a credit card isn’t the only solution. There are also a few ways you can build your FICO score without a credit card — and not only is this more convenient, but it also helps you avoid any annual fees or high interest rates.

Even if you don’t have a credit card, you could be added as an authorized user to a family member’s credit card. However, keep in mind that not all credit card companies report their authorized users. Assuming they manage to make their payments promptly and follow the rules, your credit score will improve thanks to their hard work.

You could consider a credit-builder loan, a product some credit unions and banks offer to help those with limited credit history. Naturally, there’s a caveat: They often come with less favorable terms, such as high interest rates or small loan amounts.

And did you know that even paying rent helps you improve your credit history (as long as your landlord reports it)? Even if your landlord currently isn’t reporting, you could ask to bring in a third party that handles the reporting on their behalf, although you’ll still have to get your landlord to agree (and possibly pay fees too). 

How long does it take to get a 700 credit score?

A credit score of 700 is when we start to get firmly into “good” territory, so many people are eager to reach it as quickly as possible. You may achieve a FICO score of 700 in as little as six months if you follow the best practices outlined above and start with a credit history absent of major mistakes. 

However, if you begin with many hard inquiries on your file or miss a lot of payments, it could take far longer. Let this be a motivator to you — follow the advice outlined above and you could have that close-to-perfect score.

From credit score zero to hero

No matter what your starting credit score is today, you can work your way up to the “exceptional” category by following a few careful practices. It can seem overwhelming or even unfair to learn about how credit scoring works for the first time, but the good news is that there are always strategies you can use to make things work in your favor. 

Still, it’s clear that building credit isn’t easy, so you need all the help you can get to reach the point you want to be. Sign up for Tally's† newsletter to receive additional financial resources and tips that will help you set yourself up for success with credit scores and beyond.

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