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It's probably an out of sight, out of mind thought for most Americans, but credit scores can play an important role in numerous aspects of day-to-day life.

Your credit score, sometimes referred to as your FICO score, is normally associated with your ability to get a mortgage or be approved for a credit card. However, your credit report can also impact your ability to get a job or land the apartment or rental of your dreams. Landlords and prospective employers, with your permission, may request to see your credit report to determine just how responsible you are. If you demonstrate that you can handle your finances well and pay your bills in a timely fashion, it could go a long way to securing you the job or rental of your dreams.

What goes into a credit score?

Your FICO score is determined by five components, each with its own general importance. Though Fair Isaac Co., the company behind the FICO score formula, keeps the precise calculation a secret, CreditCards.com has a generalized layout of what matters most.

  • Payment history: Your ability to pay your bills on-time accounts for 35% of your FICO score, and is by far the most important component. A late payment once in a blue moon may not affect your ability to get a loan or an attractive interest rate, but collections and repossessions can inflict some serious damage on your credit score.
  • Credit utilization: How much of your available credit that you use matters, too. According to CreditCards.com, your credit utilization makes up about 30% of your credit score. Generally, credit reporting bureaus like to see consumers use 30% or less of their available credit, since any more could imply irresponsible spending habits or a higher risk of being unable to pay back your debt obligations. If you use more than 30% of your available aggregate credit, your FICO score can be adversely impacted.
  • Length of credit history: The average length of time you've had all of your credit accounts open accounts for about 15% of your FICO score. If you have accounts that have been open for a long period of time, and they're in good standing, it provides an extensive road map for lenders to see that you're responsible.
  • New credit accounts: Fourth, the number of new credit accounts that you open makes up about 10% of your FICO score. Opening new credit accounts can ding your credit score over the short-term since it represents a hard inquiry in your credit history.
  • Credit mix: Lastly, the type of credit accounts you have makes up 10% of your FICO score. Credit reporting bureaus like to see a nice mix of revolving and installment accounts when calculating your credit score. Installment accounts have fixed payments, such as a car loan or a mortgage, while revolving accounts have minimum payments that can change based on the debt you carry from month to month.

When all five of these factors are accounted for, a FICO score of between 300 and 850 is generated, where a higher number is more preferable.

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Average American credit limits, by credit score

Another factor your credit score has control over is the amount of credit you're able to get from a lender when opening a credit account. As you have probably surmised, the higher your credit score, the more willing lenders are to give you credit and an attractive interest rate. Likewise, the lower your credit score, the less likely lenders are to give you a high credit limit and/or an attractive interest rate.

According to Experian data from the first quarter of 2015, here are the average credit limits for Americans based on various tiers of credit scores (in parenthesis):

  • Super prime (781-850): $9,543
  • Prime (661-780): $5,209
  • Near prime (601-660): $2,277
  • Subprime (500-600): $966
  • Deep subprime (300-499): $509

One of the more interesting trends noted by Credit.com, which aggregated Experian's Q1 2015 average credit limit data, is that average credit limit amounts declined across all five categories on a year-over-year basis, although the steepest declines were expectedly seen in the near prime, subprime, and deep subprime categories, which were the groups most notably responsible for failing to pay their mortgage and leading to the housing bubble. This could signify that even with the U.S. economy modestly improving, lenders are still a bit gun-shy about handing out credit to consumers with subpar credit scores. 

Quick ways to improve your credit score and boost your credit limit

The easiest way to a higher credit limit is to quickly improve your credit score. While that can be tough to do when the FICO score formula remains a closely guarded secret, there are a few tools at your disposal.

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The first action to consider taking is to closely examine your credit report. All Americans are allowed to look at their credit report once annually, for free, from each of the three credit reporting agencies. What you'll be looking for is any credit inconsistencies and errors between the three bureaus. Errors on a credit report are unfortunately not uncommon. If you find an error and are able to resolve it with one or all credit bureaus, you may be able to quickly boost your credit score and possibly your credit limits.

Secondly, do your best to reduce your credit utilization, especially if it's over 30% of your cumulative available limit. To begin with, consider using cash for your purchases, at least temporarily, until you've made a significant dent in lowering your outstanding debt. Using credit is easy for consumers since it's convenient and there's no tangible feeling of handing over money. With cash, there's an immediate loss of value, which may make you think twice about discretionary purchases.

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The other component here is that you should be using a budget, which can help reduce discretionary spending and improve your ability to save and pay down debt.

Finally, for those of you with subpar credit scores who are looking for quick improvement, consider negotiating a potentially unpayable balance with your lenders. Though it may be tough to admit that you can't pay your bill, your lender would much rather work with you and formulate a payment plan than turn your account over to a collection agency and have to split a percentage of what's collected with them. Plus, it'll wind up being much better for your credit score in the long run.

Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.

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