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By Martha C. White
April 7, 2015

According to a recent survey from the New York Fed, Americans today feel pretty good about their ability to get credit. The percentage of people applying for credit cards ticked up over the last quarter, and it’s up about three percentage points since October 2013, while the percentages of rejected credit card applications and involuntary account closures have fallen. The percentage of people rejected when they ask for a credit limit increase has fallen even more sharply; as of last quarter, more than 75% of people who asked for increases got them.

And we think the good times are going to keep rolling. The same Fed survey found that more people expect to ask for credit limit increases — and get them — over the next 12 months. Abut 12% of survey respondents expect to apply for credit cards in the next year, a jump of about four percentage points over the previous quarter.

This would be all well and good, except for one tiny detail: We really have no idea what we’re doing when it comes to credit, and being clueless can cost us big bucks.

The 2015 Chase Slate Credit Survey finds that about 40% of us have never checked our credit scores, and people in this camp have a fuzzy grasp of what a “good” credit score entails. People who have never checked their credit think, on average, a score of 668 is good (it’s really not terrific).

Even among the people who have checked, they think a score of 719 is good — which is better, but still not where you need to be if you want to get the best rates. With a score like that, you’ll probably be able to get credit, but you might pay more, and these survey results indicate that many of us might not even realize we could be doing better and saving money in the process.

Chase also shows that we’re overconfident about our credit smarts in other ways. While almost 90% of people who say they’re in a “poor financial situation” have a good handle on what constitutes a good credit score, only about 80% of those who think they’re in good shape, credit-wise, know what that really means.

A survey by credit bureau TransUnion finds a similar knowledge gap: More than two in five of the people in its survey who checked their credit in the last month think your income is included in a credit report, and almost half of those who have checked their score in the last year think getting a raise automatically boosts your score. (Neither is true.)

And while we’ve got great intentions, we don’t always follow through: Although two-thirds of respondents to the Chase survey say they want to improve their credit over the next year, only about a third of respondents say they have a plan to do so, and more than one in five say they’ve never lifted a finger to improve their credit. More worrisome: A majority of people surveyed don’t even know paying bills on time is the top factor that contributes to your credit score.

Sometimes, this lack of knowledge can prevent us from educating ourselves further: 20% of respondents in TransUnion’s survey who checked their score in the last year think doing so lowered their score, which could keep them from checking it more frequently. In reality, checking your own score doesn’t hurt it; it’s only when a lender makes an inquiry that your score takes a small hit.

So, while lenders are happy to keep giving America credit and borrowers are eager to take it, many of us are doing so without even a basic grasp of how the system works. This isn’t blissful ignorance; this is potentially expensive ignorance, and the worst part is many people don’t know how or why to improve their credit.

 

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