What is bad credit?

Lenders may hesitate to extend credit to borrowers with credit scores below 600

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Having bad credit can cause a lot of headaches with your finances. You might be denied loans or credit cards. You might have to pay much higher interest rates. A bad credit score can even impact your job prospects.

But improving your score can improve your financial life, and doing so may not be as hard as you think. Let’s review what causes bad credit, how your credit score is measured and how you can improve your score.

Key insights

  • A bad credit score is the lowest score range rated by both VantageScore and FICO.
  • Bad credit scores cause lenders to see you as higher risk, resulting in higher interest rates and possible denial of credit accounts.
  • Some ways to improve a bad credit score include fixing errors on your credit report, getting a secured credit card and paying down debts.

What is a bad credit score?

Credit scores are set by FICO and VantageScore, the two main credit rating agencies. These scores are used by creditors and lenders to assess your creditworthiness and how risky you are as a borrower.

Credit scores are three-digit numbers divided into ranges from poor to excellent. Both VantageScore and FICO scores range from 300 to 850.

A bad credit score under the VantageScore rating system is known as “Subprime” and ranges from 300 to 600. For FICO, bad credit is known as “Poor” and ranges from 300 to 579.

Credit score ranges

VantageScore 3.0 and VantageScore 4.0 are the latest rating models available, with four different credit score ranges, from Subprime to Superprime. FICO has five credit score ranges, from Poor to Exceptional.

Here’s how the ranges break down for each:

VantageScore 3.0 and 4.0

  • 781 to 850: Superprime (excellent)
  • 661 to 780: Prime (good)
  • 601 to 660: Near prime (fair)
  • 300 to 600: Subprime (poor)

FICO score (base)

  • 800 to 850: Exceptional
  • 740 to 799: Very good
  • 670 to 739: Good
  • 580 to 669: Fair
  • 300 to 579: Poor

The bottom end of the credit score ranges are considered bad credit, and the ranges for both VantageScore and FICO are fairly large. To get out of the bad credit range, you need at least a 580 FICO score, or 601 VantageScore.

» MORE: How to check your credit score

What causes a bad credit score?

Credit scores are measured by specific criteria, with slight weighting variations between VantageScore and FICO. Here’s how each is measured:


Payment history 41%
Utilization 20%
Age and mix 20%
New credit 11%
Balances 6%
Available credit 2%

FICO score

Payment history 35%
Amounts owed 30%
Length of credit history 15%
New credit 10%
Credit mix 10%
Payment history is the most important factor in your credit score, making up 35% of the FICO score and 41% of the VantageScore. If you miss a payment and it becomes over 30 days late (or more), it will be reported to the credit bureaus and can have a massive impact on your score.
Credit utilization is how much credit you have used versus your total available credit. It is usually expressed as a percentage. For example, if you have a line of credit worth $50,000 and have used $20,000 of it, your credit utilization ratio is 40%. The lower your utilization ratio, the better.
Your credit history measures how long you have had credit accounts open and the average age of all credit accounts combined. Having a longer credit history shows lenders that you can be trusted when borrowing.
Your credit mix is the combination of the various types of credit accounts you have opened. This can include credit cards, personal loans, mortgages and even utility bills. Having a good mix of accounts can improve your score.
New credit tracks how many accounts you have opened and can hurt your score if you open too many accounts in a short amount of time.
Credit balances (or amounts owed) is a measure of your overall debt levels. Too much debt compared to your income can affect your score, and keeping balances on your revolving accounts increases overall utilization.

Consequences of bad credit

Ashley Morgan, a bankruptcy attorney and founder of Ashley F. Morgan Law, PC, is very familiar with the negative consequences of bad credit.

“On the most basic level credit is a standard way of helping creditors and businesses determine how likely someone is to meet their financial obligations,” said Morgan.

“Our society is based heavily on credit. Having bad credit or no credit can make things more expensive and more difficult. For example, without good credit, you often need higher deposits for things like apartment rentals and utilities. Also, it means that when you borrow money, it costs more. Bad credit usually results in higher interest rates for things like car loans.”

To get out of the bad credit range, you need at least a 580 FICO score, or 601 VantageScore.

Here are some more consequences of having bad credit:

  • Limited housing options. A landlord may not trust you to pay your rent, and mortgage lenders may not trust you to make your mortgage payments. You also may need to provide a higher down payment when buying a home, or a larger deposit when renting.
  • Limited job choices. Some jobs run a credit check on potential employees. If your credit score is low, employers may think of you as not responsible enough to handle the job duties.
  • Higher interest rates. If you have a bad credit score, you’ll most likely pay higher interest rates on loans and other debts. This means you’ll pay more over the life of the loan.
  • Denied for loans. With a low credit score you may not qualify for a loan at all. That means you might not be able to buy a car, or even a cellphone on a payment plan. Many lenders have a minimum credit score requirement to qualify for certain loans. For example, FHA mortgages require a minimum 580 credit score to qualify with a 3.5% down payment.
  • Higher insurance rates. Some insurance companies will check your credit score to qualify you for a policy. If you have a poor credit score, you might end up paying higher insurance rates because you are seen as a riskier person to insure.
  • Can’t access the best credit cards. Rewards credit cards offer welcome bonuses and travel perks, but they are reserved for applicants with high credit scores. With a low score, you might only be able to qualify for a secured credit card with a low borrowing limit.

» MORE: What is a negative credit history and how to fix it

How to improve bad credit

Having a bad credit score doesn’t have to be forever. Here are a few things you can do right away to start improving your score.

Check your credit report

The first step to improving your credit score is checking your credit report with the three major bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. All offer one free report each year.

The easiest way to pull all three reports at once is to use AnnualCreditReport.com, or you can use a credit reporting company to do it for you (these companies also often include services such as identity theft monitoring). Search for discrepancies on your profile and work with the bureau or creditor to get it resolved.

This is what ConsumerAffairs reviewer Shalonda in New Jersey did, with success: “When I signed up for Experian to see what was on my report, my credit score was at a 515 and I had quite a few negative items. After paying off some things and disputing items my score went up significantly. I was able to get approved for the suggested credit cards and within 60 days my score went up over 150 points and all negative items were successfully removed.”

Become an authorized user on a credit card

Most credit cards allow borrowers to add an authorized user. If you have a spouse, family member or trusted friend, you can get added to their card and start using it to build your own credit.

Just keep in mind that the primary holder remains responsible for the card, so only use what you can pay back — otherwise, their credit score will get dinged.

Use a secured credit card

A secured credit card is a type of credit card designed for individuals with bad credit or no credit history. Morgan recommends opening one, especially if you have no credit history.

“Even with little to no credit, nearly every bank will allow someone to open a secured credit card,” said Morgan. “Basically, you give the bank a deposit to serve as collateral and then they give you a credit card. There is little to no risk because the deposit protects the bank if you default. There are also now some debit cards that will report to credit bureaus.”

Getting a secured card is a tactic a reviewer in North Carolina used. Within eight months, they were able to upgrade to an unsecured card, explaining, “I paid the balance every month … I used less than 10% of the credit limit each month, too. Significantly increased my credit score.”

Pay your bills on time

Since payment history is the most important factor in your credit score, ensuring you pay all your bills on time can have a big impact. If you’ve been missing payments, try setting up your bills as autopay to make sure they are paid on time each month.

Our society is based heavily on credit. Having bad credit or no credit can make things more expensive and more difficult.”
— Ashley Morgan, Ashley F. Morgan Law, PC

Pay off your debts

If you have high-interest debt or are behind on any payments, putting together a plan to catch up and pay off those bad debts can drastically increase your credit score.

“A common misconception is that you have to have debt to have credit; this is incorrect,” said Morgan. “You need credit accounts, but you do not necessarily need to owe money.”

Work with a credit repair company

Credit repair companies help you remove inaccurate information from your credit report and put together a plan to improve your score. This may include debt negotiation, credit monitoring and debt consolidation.

A ConsumerAffairs reviewer in New Jersey used a credit repair company to remove inaccurate marks and found it helpful to have the company as an ally: “I have never had someone working in this field be so helpful and empathetic to my situation until her. I’m grateful to know there are still people who understand we are not machines, but rather humans experiencing life; and we all deserve second chances to rectify any wrongs.”

Check your ChexSystems record

Similar to the three credit reporting agencies, ChexSystems is a consumer reporting agency that reports your bank account activity. If you bounce a check, make a late payment to a bank, are hit with an NSF fee or even open too many accounts, it might end up in a ChexSystems report.

Banks use ChexSystems to approve or deny you for a new bank account. If you have a low credit score and trouble opening new bank accounts, you can pull your report on the ChexSystems website. You can then dispute any errors and work on improving your report.

» MORE: How to clean up your ChexSystems record

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    If you have no credit, what is your score?

    If you have no credit or credit history, it is possible to have no credit score at all. Some people refer to this as having a “zero” credit score. Once you establish a credit history, the lowest possible score is 300.

    Do businesses have credit scores?

    Yes, businesses can have credit scores. The two major business credit reporting agencies, Dun & Bradstreet PAYDEX Score and Experian Intelliscore Plus, offer scores from 0 to 100, with higher scores being better. The score is based on reports from supplies and vendors, including payment information.

    Does checking a credit score lower it?

    Checking your credit score will not lower it and is an important task you should perform regularly to stay on top of your current score. The only type of credit check that can impact your credit score is a hard inquiry, usually performed when applying for a new credit account.

    Why did my credit score drop?

    Your credit score can drop for many different reasons, typically when a negative report is sent to a credit bureau, such as a late payment. There are also many factors that make up your score, such as credit utilization, credit mix, age of accounts and debt balances. Reviewing your credit report can give you more insights into why your score dropped.

    Bottom line

    A bad credit score is a VantageScore below 601 or a FICO score below 580. And while having a poor credit score can hurt your finances, there are several ways to improve it quickly.

    If you have a poor credit score, make sure to download your credit report from the three credit bureaus to see how it happened. Once you have a plan in place, take consistent steps toward improving your credit score to open up better future financial opportunities.

    ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
    1. FICO, “FICO® Score.” Accessed Aug. 21, 2023.
    2. VantageScore, “VantageScore.” Accessed Aug. 21, 2023.
    3. MyFICO, “What's in my FICO® Scores?” Accessed Aug. 21, 2023.
    4. VantageScore, “VantageScore 4.0 User Guide.” Accessed Aug. 21, 2023.
    5. MyFICO, “What are the different categories of late payments and how does your FICO® Score consider late payments?” Accessed Aug. 21, 2023.
    6. Federal Housing Administration, “Credit Requirements for FHA Loans.” Accessed Aug. 21, 2023.
    7. Duns and Bradstreet, “Changes to a Business’s PAYDEX® Score.” Accessed Aug. 21, 2023.
    8. Experian, “Intelliscore Plus V3.” Accessed Aug. 21, 2023.
    9. FICO, “FICO® Score.” Accessed Aug. 21, 2023.
    10. MyFICO, “Credit Checks: What are credit inquiries and how do they affect your FICO® Score?” Accessed August 21, 2023.
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