In search of the perfect score

Giving yourself a credit check

TEXT OF STORY

TESS VIGELAND: So we've spoken a lot about low FICO scores -- what having one can cost you, how to fix it. But we haven't said much about high scores. Specifically, the highest one. This week Marketplace's Rico Gagliano found himself obsessed with exactly that.


Rico Gagliano: The other day on my lunch break, I went online to check my FICO score. I do it twice yearly. Of course because it's a good thing to keep an eye on. But also because, I kind of like it. Because I've got a nice high score.

Ah, 795 out of 850. Now I have a confession to make: I'm a competitive person. And when I hear the word "score," here's what comes to mind:

SPORTSCASTER: He's in, he shoots -- he scores!

SPORTSCASTER: Kehoe's shot -- he scores!

SPORTSCASTER: He has scored!

You know? Winning! The guy with the higher score wins. And what is a FICO score if not your score in the game called credit? So I challenged my colleagues to a FICO match.

Gagliano: Paddy Hirsch, senior editor at Marketplace. What is your credit score?

Paddy Hirsch: What's a credit score?

Gagliano: No, I'm serious, what is your credit score?

Hirsch: I believe it's 792.

Gagliano: 792? I beat you!!! HAHAHAHA!

Hirsch: That's because you're ten years younger than me and you haven't had the chance to make any mistakes.

Gagliano: Stacey Vanek-Smith, senior reporter for Marketplace and Marketplace Money, what is your credit score?

Vanek-Smith: It's pretty good. I think it's like in the 700s.

Gagliano: But is it in the upper 700s?

Vanek-Smith: I don't think it is, no.

Gagliano: So it wouldn't be, like, say, above 795?

Vanek-Smith: Rico, no one's score is in the upper 700s--

Gagliano: Mine is. I win. Goodbye!

Gagliano: George Judson, Managing Editor at Marketplace. What is your credit score?

GEORGE Judson: 820.

Gagliano: What?

Judson: 820.

Gagliano: How do you do that?

Judson: I've had and paid off six mortgages, I pay off my credit cards, I have many, many years of paying bills, I guess.

Gagliano: I have many years of paying bills--

Judson: I have more years.

It was a brutal defeat. But here's the thing: George has all that going for him, right? Perfect payment record, long credit history. And he still scored an 820. FICO's top score is 850.

So is it even possible to get that score? Is Fico's 850 the fiscal version of that A+ my college logic professor said he was never going to give out? Because I hated that guy!

JORDAN GOODMAN: I think 850s do exist.

That's not my college logic professor, that's credit expert Jordan Goodman.

GOODMAN: They're very rare, becoming more and more rare as the economy slides down.

Gagliano: Are you sure that they exist or is this just, like, your hunch?

GOODMAN: I have met people who say they've got 850, but I've never actually confirmed it -- it's not the kind of thing you normally show somebody.

Gagliano: For a second opinion, I asked Greg McBride of Bankrate.com.

Greg McBride: Now if your credit score is above 760, you're already qualifying for the very best rate, so obsessing about pushing it even higher is largely a waste of time.

Gagliano: But that's not my questions, Greg! Is that 850 out there? Can I win the FICO game?

MCBRIDE: I don't think attaining the perfect credit score is possible.

Gagliano: Really? You don't think anybody has an 850.

MCBRIDE: FICO is the party to ask.

So I did. I went to Oz and I spoke to the wizard. Or at least the wizard's spokesman: FICO's PR director Craig Watts.

Craig Watts: In rare circumstances it is possible to get a FICO score of 850.

That's the good news. Here's the bad:

Watts: For a broad section of the population, it probably isn't possible, even if they do everything right.

That's because there's not one formula for calculating your FICO score. There are ten. Each is a "scorecard," that gives different items in your credit history slightly different weight. Your scorecard depends on where you are in your economic life.

Watts: For example, if you are college student, you're brand new to credit. The FICO formula is only comparing you to other people who also have very short credit histories.

There's a scorecard for people who've been through, say, bankruptcy -- they may be printing extras of those these days. But here's the point: every scorecard has its own score range. If your scorecard's top range isn't 850? You can't get an 850, period. Now, what scorecard applies to you, or when you'll move out of one and into another? That's a secret. All Watts would tell me is how to get the best score possible.

Watts: Pay everybody on time, keep your account balances low on credit cards, take on new credit obligations sparingly, and then continue managing credit for a long time. Typically people who score in the mid-800s have been managing credit for at least a couple of decades.

Gagliano: So, be a financial rock star, and become old.

Watts: Yeah, be the Mick Jagger of the credit world!

You hear that, George Judson? Yeah, you with your 820 FICO score? Rematch in ten years, buddy. Bring your game face.

In Los Angeles, I'm Rico Gagliano for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Rico Gagliano is the host of Dinner Party Download.

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