Not-so-obvious causes for a dropping FICO score
I've noticed that my FICO score has been steadily dropping over the last few months. In January my score was in the mid 700s and now it's in the low 700s. I don't have any late payments or any other negative marks on my credit report, so why is this happening to my score?
While you haven't spotted any obvious reasons to explain why your FICO® score has been dropping over the last few months, there may be less-than-obvious changes to your credit profile which may have caused this drop. Keep in mind that your FICO score is essentially a predictive tool that evaluates your risk to a lender at a given time. So there may be reasons why your score has been dropping that may not be apparent, but still are considered from a risk perspective. The first step is to look at the negative factors returned with your current FICO score. Factors like "seeking credit" or "high credit usage" can be puzzling since they aren't obvious, so let's take a closer look at both of these in a bit more detail.
A very common, yet not entirely obvious cause, for a score to drop is an increased utilization ratio. An increased what ratio? Yes, this is credit scoring lingo, but it basically measures how much of your credit are you using in relation to your total available credit. For example, if you had 2 credit cards each with a $1,000 credit limit ($2,000 available credit) and you charged $500 on each ($1,000 balance), you'd have a 50% credit utilization ratio ($1,000 / $2,000 = 50%). In general, the lower this ratio, the better for your score. Therefore, if you've been using more of your available credit lately, that could account for a drop in your FICO score. For a more detailed description of the credit utilization ratio, read this article.
Applying for new credit accounts, such as department store cards or lines of credit can also account for a small FICO score drop. Each time you apply for new credit, an "inquiry" is added to your credit report. Each of these inquiries can have a small impact on your FICO score, and several inquiries in a short time frame will have a greater impact on your score than a single inquiry. So, if you've recently been seeking new credit, this also may have caused your FICO score to drop. Inquiries only account for up to 10% of your FICO score and there are some exceptions so read this article to get the whole story on inquiries and their relationship to your FICO score.
Now that you know what a utilization ratio is and that seeking new credit can hurt your score, the next obvious question is why does your FICO score care about these factors? The short answer is that research has shown that people who are using more of their available credit are more likely to miss future payments than those people using very little of their available credit. In addition, research also indicates that a person who is actively seeking credit is more likely to miss future payments than a person with the same credit profile who is NOT seeking credit.
These two reasons may explain why your FICO score has been dropping. Since you've noticed a steady decline over the last few months, it may be the case that you've been gradually using more and more of your available credit in addition to applying for new credit accounts. This does not necessarily mean that you've become a credit risk - but these could be signs that credit trouble may be looming. If possible, pay down the balances on your credit cards and hold off from opening any new credit accounts. By doing this, you should see your FICO score bounce back fairly quickly - as long as the rest of your credit profile remains unchanged.
However, if you cannot pay down your balances or if you find that you cannot make ends meet without finding additional credit, then you should take an honest look at your financial situation and determine if trouble might be on the horizon. You might benefit from speaking to a certified credit counselor who can help you figure out your available options - here is a list of US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) certified credit agencies. From the myFICO team, we hope that this article has helped you identify potential credit concerns before they develop into serious problems.