The Complete Guide to Filing for Bankruptcy

Imagine waking up one morning and not worrying about debt collectors banging down your door or final notices arriving in the post. Or being able to go to work or the shops without debt casting a shadow over your life. For people burdened with debt, bankruptcy can make this dream a reality.

But bankruptcy should never be a spur-of-the-moment decision or viewed as an easy way out. It is a long, complicated process that can have consequences that extend well beyond your finances. Deciding on bankruptcy can be tough, but this guide is here to help.

Continue reading to discover how types of bankruptcy differ, how filing for bankruptcy works and whether bankruptcy is right for you.

An introduction to bankruptcy

Bankruptcy is a legal process that declares your inability to pay outstanding debts and helps you to settle them. It also gives you immediate relief from creditors and debt collectors.

There are three common forms of bankruptcy in the U.S—Chapter 7, Chapter 13, and Chapter 11. Each is different but all of them can give individuals a second chance.

Chapter 7 bankruptcy

Chapter 7 bankruptcy is the quickest and cheapest form of bankruptcy and the only way to discharge all debt. But it can only be used by individuals who pass a means test and who earn less than or equal to their state’s median income. Most of your assets will be seized and sold to cover outstanding balances at the start of the process, but you can file for exemptions on major items such as your home or your car. Exemptions vary between states but most set an upper limit on an item’s value over which the asset must be sold.

Chapter 7 exemptions can be a grey area, and it would be sensible to hire a bankruptcy lawyer to ensure you keep as many assets as possible. Most states will allow you to subtract outstanding loan amounts from the value of your asset, for example. So if you have a $400,000 house but still owe $200,000, it will fall under a $250,000 asset limit.

Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Chapter 13 is the most common alternative for individuals who don’t pass the Chapter 7 means test. Unlike Chapter 7, you get to keep all of your assets, and you can stop your home from getting repossessed, but you must establish a payment plan to pay off the outstanding debt over a three to five year period. There are still qualifying criteria for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, however, which include having unsecured debt under $1,149,525 and secured debt under $383,175.

Strict rules govern what you must pay back and for what period. Secured debts (your mortgage), priority debts (child support, alimony, and taxes), and administrative fees must be paid in full. And unless you earn less than your state’s median income, you’ll be repaying debt for the full five years. Finally, total repayments over the grace period must total the value of your assets at a minimum. The good news is that any debts that remain after the grace period are discharged in full. Failure to adhere to these rules, however, can result in the loss of assets.

Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

Chapter 11 bankruptcy is typically used by small businesses, but it can also be used by individuals with debts exceeding Chapter 13’s limits. Both Chapter 11 and Chapter 13 see debtors pay back priority debts and a certain amount of unsecured debt over a five-year repayment plan. But with Chapter 11, there is no way to shorten the repayment period, regardless of how much you earn. Unfortunately, due to the complex nature of Chapter 11, it is the slowest and most expensive form of bankruptcy.

How does Filing for Bankruptcy Impact your Life?

Bankruptcy isn’t a silver bullet, and the process can have a significant impact on your life that goes far beyond financial implications. You can expect the following scenarios to happen if you file for bankruptcy:

Your credit score to plummet

Bankruptcy can stay on your credit report for ten years, and it will cause your score to drop by around 200 points. A lot of credit will be off limit as a result, and interest rates are likely to be extremely high when you eventually do get approved.

You won’t be able to buy a house in the near future

The impact on your credit score will make it impossible to get approved for a mortgage for at least five years.

You may struggle to find employment

Employers can perform credit checks, and they will see your bankruptcy. Private and public organizations aren’t allowed to discriminate against bankrupts, but many still do.

It can impact your relationships

Bankruptcy carries a certain stigma, and it can create friction between friends and loved ones. Financial stress is a major cause of divorce in particular.

If you aren’t ready to face these issues, bankruptcy may not be the right decision for you.

Is Bankruptcy right for you?

We hope this guide has helped you decide if bankruptcy is right for you. But if you still need advice, your first move should be to talk to a licensed credit counselor. This is a requirement under Chapter 7 bankruptcy, so you have nothing to lose, and they may even help you develop a repayment plan of your own.

If you are committed to moving forward, the next step is to contact a bankruptcy attorney. It is possible to represent yourself but the process is complicated, and you will save time, money and stress by hiring a lawyer.

How to Raise Your Credit Scores

Are you looking to raise your credit scores to get approved for a loan or credit card? Or maybe you just want a peace of mind knowing that your credit score is in good shape.

Depending on where you currently stand and what items are your credit report, it could take a little or a lot of time. By contrast, a few strategic moves could do the trick if you’re a credit newbie with limited credit history.

Either way, there are several simple ways to raise your credit scores. But understanding how your score is calculated and rectifying any errors in your report is the first step to boosting your scores.

Read on to learn more.

What’s In Your Credit Score?

Why does this matter? Simply put, it’s the easiest way to figure out which actions will have the greatest impact when working to improve your credit score.

So, what’s in your credit score?

Payment history

If you’ve ever received any form of credit advice, chances are making your payments on time was at the top of the list. And for a good reason.

Payment history accounts for 35 percent of your FICO score, which is the largest component of your credit score. So, not making timely payments can have serious consequences for your credit score.

In fact, all it takes is one late payment to tank your score by up to 110 points if the account is more than 30 days delinquent, notes Equifax. Plus, you’ll run the risk or incurring late fees and be assessed a penalty APR (for credit cards). And oddly, the higher your credit score is before the delinquency appears on your report, the greater the impact.

Amounts owed

Next in line for impact is the amount owed on all debt accounts, which accounts for 30 percent of your credit score. Lenders and creditors pay close attention to the percentage of credit in use compared to your total credit limit. This is referred to as your credit utilization ratio. (Installment loans aren’t really factored into this equation, so if you have a new car loan, your credit score won’t tank because your credit utilization is at 100 percent).

To illustrate:

If you owe $15,000 on all your credit cards and the total credit limit across the board is $30,000, your credit utilization ratio will be right at 50 percent. But if your credit limit is $45,000, your credit utilization ratio will drop down to 33 percent.

Creditors like to see this number at 30 percent or lower. Anything higher could make you appear riskier and negatively impact your credit score.

Length of credit history

The FICO scoring model also takes the amount of time you’ve been in the credit game into consideration, to the tune of 15 percent of your score. It’s not unusual for someone who’s managed their credit responsibly for several years to have a credit score of 800 or higher.

But being a credit newbie doesn’t automatically mean you have to accept a poor score. If you take the right first steps out the gate, you can land a high FICO score in record time/sooner than later.

Credit mix

There are two types of accounts on your credit report; revolving (i.e. credit cards and installment (i.e. student, mortgage, and auto) loans. Even if you have a high credit score, having all of one and none of the other could hurt your chances of being approved.

But having a combination of both revolving and installment credit demonstrates to creditors and lenders that you can responsibly handle both types of debt. You should also know that credit mix accounts for 10 percent of your score.

New credit

That last component of your FICO score is new credit, which accounts for 10 percent of your credit score. Each time you apply for credit, a hard inquiry appears on your report. They impact your score between three to five points, and sit on your report for up to 24 months.

Fortunately, there’s an exception to the rule when shopping around for loan products. The FICO scoring model allows you to shop around for the best financing terms within a certain window without incurring multiple hits to your credit score. This is known as rate shopping.

Multiple hits will only count as a single inquiry if you select a loan product by the time the window ends, notes myFICO.

You may also notice inquiries on your report that you did not initiate. These result from prescreened credit offers and do not impact your credit score.

Types of Credit Scores

FICO vs FAKO Scores

Not all credit scores are created equal. There are FICO scores from each of the three credit reporting agencies, and then there are FAKO scores generated by alternative scoring models.

According to myFICO, the FICO score is used by 90 percent of creditors to reach a lending decision. This means FAKO scores aren’t nearly as prevalent, so don’t get discouraged if the score you’re seeing from an alternative model, like Vantage, isn’t quite where you want it to be.

Also, be mindful that each lender or creditor uses their own variation of FICO scores. Your scores could also vary across the board as each credit bureau has a unique algorithm and not all creditors report account information to the three credit bureaus.

The Benefits of Having a Good Credit Score

So why all the fuss about credit scores? Well, good credit scores usually mean you’ll have the best shot at securing the most competitive terms on debt and credit products. Some additional benefits of having a good credit score:

  • Increased approval odds for debt products
  • Lower interest rates, which could save you hundreds or thousands over the life of loan products
  • Better housing opportunities (without spending a fortune).
  • Employment opportunities
  • Lower car insurance rates
  • Higher credit limits
  • Minimal (or no) deposit required for utilities and services
  • Peace of mind

How to Raise Your Credit Scores

Now that you understand what components go into your credit score and why you should be concerned with having a good score in the first place, it’s time to work on improving that three-digit number. Some suggestions to get you started:

Make timely payments

One of the easiest ways to improve your credit is by paying your bills on time. And if you have any delinquent accounts on your credit report, it’s important to get current and stay current to prevent further damage to your credit score.

If you’re having a hard time meeting the minimum payment each month or bringing the account current, reach out to the creditor promptly. They may be able to make payment arrangements or enroll you in a program to make the payments more comfortable without additional credit reporting until you get back on your feet.

Minimize outstanding balances

Since the amounts owed on revolving debt account for 30 percent of your FICO score, you want to accelerate debt-repayment efforts to get those balances down. The easiest way to do so is by getting your spending under control with a realistic budget and using the extra funds to tackle debt. (It’s a good idea to have money saved before you get aggressive with debt repayment so you won’t have to run the credit cards back up or resort to loan products if you encounter a financial emergency).

It’s also a good idea to allocate any financial windfalls, like work bonuses or tax refund checks, to your debt to reach the finish line faster. And if time permits, consider picking up overtime at work or finding a side hustle/part-time job to earn funds that can be used to eradicate the balances.

Keep balances low

It’s not enough to pay down outstanding debt. To continue raising your credit card debt, you’ll have to keep your balances low, and that involves being disciplined. A practical, but effective budget is a great way to make this happen.

Automate payments

Having trouble making timely payments because there are too many to keep track of. As mentioned earlier, one overlooked payment could drop your score by up to 100 points if an account reaches 30 days or more past due. But by automating payments, you avoid this issue altogether since you can schedule payments on or well before the due date.

Don’t close credit cards

You may be tempted to close old accounts to clean up what’s showing on your credit report or eliminate the desire to use them. But don’t because you’ll automatically lower your credit utilization ratio. In other words, it benefits you to have as much available credit on your existing credit cards as possible. (And closing cards that have a current balance won’t help you out, either).

Only apply for credit as needed

In an effort to boost their available credit and lower debt utilization ratios, some will apply for new credit. The only problem is each time you apply, the hard inquiry generated (even if you’re approved) hits your score by two to five points, as mentioned earlier. While your score could benefit from the lower debt utilization ratio sooner than later, it’s smarter to request credit limit increases on your existing credit cards.

But before you do so, confirm with the creditor that they’ll only have to initiate a soft pull to review your credit when determining if you’re eligible for a limit increase.

Become an authorized user

When you become an authorized user on someone else’s credit card, your credit profile will reflect their payment history. In order for this tactic to work, you want to deal with someone who’s responsibly managed their credit card over time and kept the balances low.

Another major benefit of becoming an authorized user is that despite having purchasing power (if granted by the cardholder), you’re not on the hook for the outstanding balance. And you can be removed from the account at any time.

Open a secured credit card or loan

If you’ve struggled with making timely payments in the past or are a credit newbie, secured credit cards or loans are a great way to start rebuilding your credit rating. They also demonstrate to lenders that you can responsibly manage credit.

Most consumers with less than perfect credit also find that they’re much easier to qualify for than traditional credit products. This is attributed to the security deposit, usually equivalent to the amount of the credit limit, that’s required to activate the card or loan product.

Quick note: credit builder loans through Self-Lender are the way to go if you don’t have the funds for a security deposit.

Review your credit report regularly

Because the information in your report is input by humans, your credit report is prone to errors. So, it’s best to review it regularly to ensure the contents are accurately and timely. You can also sign up for a free credit monitoring service to stay on top of activity that’s occurring in your credit file.

Monitor account activity

Pay attention to what’s going on in your accounts as it could be the first sign of identity theft should strange transactions start appearing. Also, review statements in the mail for odd transactions, and if you receive documentation from creditors or lenders that you don’t recognize, inquire immediately.

Dealing With Errors and Negative Items

There’s a possibility your score could be in the trenches as a result of errors or untimely information that has surpassed the reporting timeline. Either way, you’ll need to file disputes with the credit bureaus to have this information removed.

Filing Disputes

The process of filing formal disputes with the credit bureaus isn’t necessarily a difficult one, but you’ll need time and patience to see it through from start to finish. To get started:

  • Get a free copy of your credit report from each of the bureaus at If you’ve retrieved a free copy within the past 12 months, you will have to pay a nominal fee to access another copy. But if you meet certain criteria, you may be entitled to a free report.
  • Draft up dispute letters. The letters will be based on the inaccuracies found in the report. You also have the option to initiate disputes online, but if your grievance is denied, you forfeit your right to re-dispute the item(s) in question. Here are some handy templates to assist you when writing letters.
  • Mail your letter and supporting documentation to the credit bureaus. Be sure to send copies and keep the originals just in case your package gets lost in the shuffle. Also, mail the contents with tracking and signature confirmation so you’ll know when it arrives.

Upon receipt, the credit bureau will launch an investigation into your claim by furnishing the information provider with any documentation related to the dispute. They must respond to your dispute within 30 days or the item must automatically be removed from your credit report. But if it’s truly an error or untimely information, you could see it rectified or removed in a much shorter time span.

Worried the credit bureaus won’t respond? You also have a right to follow-up if you haven’t heard back within 30 days.

It may also worth a shot to contact the creditor before filing formal disputes. You may find that they’re willing to rectify the issue without asking you to initiate a formal dispute, and it generally takes far less time to receive a response.

Goodwill Adjustments

What if there are late payments on your credit reports that are accurate and timely? Call up the creditor, plead your case while being apologetic and promising to not let it happen again. In return, they may offer to remove the late payments out of goodwill. If you don’t have success the first time around, keep trying as it’s not uncommon for creditors and lenders to give consumers a second chance.

But if you’re a repeat offender, you may face more difficulty when requesting goodwill adjustments. So it’s best to have a strong reason for the untimely payments and prepare to speak to several representatives before you get the results you’re looking for.

Pay for Deletion Letters

What about accounts that have gone to collection or charged-off? If it’s been less than seven years from the date the incident occurred, you’re still technically on the hook for what’s owed. But don’t be tricked by a collection agency into paying the balance in full to raise your credit score. Paid and unpaid collections have the same impact, so paying off the balance won’t do much for you.

Instead, negotiate a settlement and offer to pay the agreed upon amount in exchange for a pay-for-deletion. This gives you the best of both worlds; settling the balance and removing the negative mark from your report, which could skyrocket your credit score.

When negotiating with creditors and credit agencies, be sure to do so in writing. This gives you supporting evidence in case you need it as proof later on down the line.

More Complex Negative Items

Is your score being drug down by bankruptcy, evictions, judgments, liens or repossessions? You may have spotted ads promising to have these items removed in exchange for a fee, but it may in your best interest to seek legal counsel for guidance. Or if funds are low, focusing on other areas of your credit profile to raise your credit score could prove to be a much more feasible option.

Should You Hire a Credit Repair Company?

Depending on the state of your credit score and what’s in your credit report, you may deem it necessary to hire a credit repair company to do the clean-up work for you. But is it a good idea or is it possible to handle the credit repair process on your own?

It depends. But according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), “anything a credit repair company can do legally, you can do for yourself at little or no cost.” So it ultimately boils down to whether or not you’re comfortable with tackling those negative items on your report or if you’d prefer to leave it to the professionals because you have no idea what you’re doing or are strapped for time.

If you decide to do the latter, do your homework to find reputable options. Pay attention to their fees and billing policies.

Under the Credit Repair Organizations Act (CROA), they cannot charge you for services until they are executed. You also want to make sure that their pricing is comparable to others in the industry. Once you’ve narrowed down your options, review each company’s status with the Better Business Bureau and read customer reviews from independent sources (outside of the company’s website) to get a better feel of what to expect.

What is a Good Credit Score?

If you’ve been in the credit world for some time, chances are you understand the many benefits you’ll derive from having a good credit score. For starters, good credit means you will qualify for the most competitive offers on financing. It could also equate to lower insurance premiums and competitive employment opportunities, just to name a few.

So, whether you’re a credit newbie or someone who’s looking to boost their score, here’s how to know if your credit score is up to par or needs more work.

What is a credit score?

Simply put, a credit score is a three-digit number used to gauge the riskiness of a borrower. The most prevalent model is FICO, which is used by 90 percent of lenders. It ranges from 300 to 850 with higher scores being perceived as more favorable.

There are also alternative credit scores that are referred to as FAKO scores, like Vantage 3.0. You may have noticed them when checking your credit score through free credit monitoring services. And while they’re worth a look as they can provide insight into how things are going, the FICO is what matters most since it’s the most widely used credit score.

Your FICO score is generated using the information in your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. For this reason, the numbers may not be the same as not all reports contain identical information and each credit reporting agency uses unique algorithms.

What’s in my credit score?

Wondering what framework credit reporting companies use to calculate your FICO score? There are five distinct components:

  • Payment history (35% of your FICO score): Do you pay your bills on time? This is a very big deal to lenders and creditors as it demonstrates your ability to handle credit responsibly. And just one late payment of 30 days or more could have serious implications for your credit score.
  • Amounts Owed (30% of your FICO score): What is your debt usage in proportion to how much credit you have available (with regards to revolving credit, or credit cards). The lower, the better for your credit score. Creditors like to see this percentage at 30 percent or lower.
  • Length of Credit History (15% of your FICO score): How long have you had credit? The FICO scoring model also takes credit history into consideration.
  • Credit Mix (10% of your FICO score): Do you have both revolving (i.e. credit cards) and installment credit (i.e. auto, mortgage, personal and student loans)? Lenders and creditors like to see a healthy mix of both.
  • New Credit (10% of your FICO score): How often do you apply for credit? Too many credit applications in a short window of time could be a turn off for creditors.

What’s considered a good credit score?

There are varying opinions on what’s considered a good credit score. Some may say anything over 740, but you could very well qualify for the best financing terms with a score of 680 or higher. It really depends on the lender and how much risk they’re willing to take on from consumers.

As a general rule of thumb, here’s how Experian classifies credit scores:

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

So if your score is 670 or higher, it’s safe to say you have a good credit score. And anything above 740 is stellar credit.

Why Having Good Credit Matters

Historically, those who are proponents of a debt-free lifestyle may argue that credit scores don’t matter. And while there’s nothing wrong with keeping outstanding debt at a minimum, it takes credit to build credit. Furthermore, you may find that shying away from any credit will result in poor credit scores, making it much harder to qualify for credit with favorable terms, if any at all.

A better solution: use credit responsibly to boost your scores so you’ll give yourself the best chance at competitive financing offers should the need arise. It’s all a matter of risk and the better your manage your score, the less risky you’ll be perceived by creditors and lenders. In other words, lenders will be less reluctant to lend you money if you’ve demonstrated responsible credit management in the past.

You should also know that there are several other benefits to having good credit that span beyond paying less in interest on debt and credit products. Credit scores can also have implications for:

  • Employment opportunities. Some employers review credit profiles of prospective employees during the hiring process. While they can’t view your credit score, negative information in your credit report could disqualify you from landing your dream job.
  • Insurance premiums. Select insurance providers consider credit history when calculating premiums. Those with good credit could qualify for substantially lower rates than those who’ve experienced credit challenges in the past.
  • Housing. If you’re planning to purchase a home, your credit score plays a huge role in the interest rate you’ll receive if approved. It can also determine how much you have to put down or what your mortgage insurance rates will be. Landlords also consider credit history when determining how much of a deposit is needed.
  • Security deposits. Whether you’re connecting utilities in your home or apartment for the first time or securing cell phone service, the provider may conduct a soft credit pull to assess the likelihood of default and assess a security deposit (if any at all) accordingly.

If your credit score isn’t where you want it to be, don’t get discouraged. It’s possible to make a complete turnaround in a brief period of time. More on that shortly.

What can I qualify for with a good credit score?

The higher your credit score, the greater your approval odds as long as you have the income to back it up. To illustrate:

  • Credit Cards: While a credit score of 670 may not be enough to qualify you for the best credit cards on the market, you shouldn’t have a hard time finding a product that suits your needs. But a score of 720 is the sweet spot.
  • Personal Loans: The odds of qualifying for an unsecured loan with a good credit score are definitely in your favor.
  • Auto Loans: Those with good credit scores shouldn’t have any issues securing an affordable auto loan.
  • Mortgages: Consumers with credit scores of 680 or higher generally qualify for the best rates. Just a single percentage point can result in cost-savings of thousands of dollars.
  • Apartments: With a credit score of 670 or higher, you shouldn’t have a hard time qualifying for an apartment. (Most landlords are willing to go as low as 620 as long as recent serious issues, like bankruptcy and repossession, are not present on your credit report.

What can I qualify for with a bad credit score?

Having less than perfect credit doesn’t mean you won’t qualify for any debt or credit products. It just means you’ll be classified as a subprime borrower and more than likely pay more in interest, and the other terms may not be that appealing. But if you’re in a crunch and have no other choice but to move forward with that credit card, loan, or housing application, here are some credit score minimums for you to keep in mind:

  • Credit Cards: When you fall below the threshold of having “good” credit, you run the risk of only qualifying for secured cards or those that cater to risky customers. The latter is usually accompanied by exorbitant interest rates and maintenance fees.
  • Personal Loans: Similar to credit cards, you may only be offered secured personal loan products or no credit check loans with no cap on interest rates.
  • Auto Loans: Lenders, like Capital One, will take a risk on consumers with less than perfect credit. But don’t expect the interest rates to be pretty.
  • Mortgages: To qualify for conventional financing, you’ll need a credit score of at least 620. But that won’t get you the best rates, and you may be hit with hefty mortgage insurance (assuming you don’t put 20 percent down) or asked to make a higher down payment.
  • Apartments: As mentioned earlier, a 620 should be enough to get you in the door if there’s not much competition. But if there is, you may be ousted for a prospective renter with a better credit profile.

In the meantime, work towards improving your credit rating so you can qualify for better terms going forward and possibly refinance loans to get lower rates.

Where can I get my credit score?

Although you can get your free credit report from, it doesn’t quite work that way with credit scores. Instead, you’ll have to pay a small fee to see your FICO score. You also have the option to visit each of the credit reporting agency’s sites and order your scores from there.

The good news is some financial institutions and credit card companies offer free credit score updates on their statements and online portal. (Discover also gives free access to FICO scores through their CreditScorecard to non-customers.

But don’t get too wrapped up in your credit score. What matters most is what’s in your report, so your mental energy should be focused on rectifying errors, untimely information, and avoiding financial missteps that could do further damage to your credit score.

How can I improve my credit score?

There are many actions you can take to improve your credit score from not so good to great. But the easiest way to approach this is by retrieving a free copy of your credit report and reviewing the contents to find problem areas.

From there, you’ll know what’s dragging down your score, and those are the issues you should tackle first.

Some helpful suggestions:

  • Get current and stay current on all your outstanding debt balances
  • Keep credit utilization low on credit cards (preferably 30 percent or lower)
  • Don’t close idle credit cards
  • Refrain from applying for new credit you don’t need
  • Dispute any errors or untimely information on your credit report
  • Become an authorized user
  • Enroll in autopay to avoid missing payments
  • Obtain a credit builder loan
  • Apply for a secured credit card
  • Stay on top of your credit profile

What if I don’t have a credit score?

If you don’t have any credit history, you’ll receive an error message when attempting to retrieve your credit report or score. This is referred to as a blank or thin file and can be frustrating if you’re seeking a loan or credit card product and are having a hard time getting approved.

Some of the tactics mentioned above won’t work for you since you don’t have any credit to manage. However, you could open a credit builder loan or apply for a credit card to get the ball rolling.

For the latter, you may have to go with a secured card if you don’t have luck with an unsecured one. Either way, be sure to make timely payments and keep the credit utilization ratio below 30 percent. Doing so gives you the best chance of boosting your credit score in the shortest period of time possible.

Everything You Need to Know About Your FICO Credit Score

The last time you applied for credit, did the lender mention anything about your FICO credit score? Whether you were attempting to get approved for a car loan, mortgage, or credit card, chances are your FICO credit score was a major determining factor for approval. And the lender or creditor may have asked if you knew your score to gauge what you would possibly qualify for before applying.

If you had no idea what your FICO credit score was or how it’s calculated, this guide will provide the clarity you need so you’ll be well informed the next time around. This information is also useful if you’ve never applied for credit but plan to do so in the future.

What is a FICO credit score?

In a nutshell, the FICO credit score is a three-digit number, ranging from 300 to 850, that reflects your creditworthiness based on how you’ve managed credit over time. According to myFICO, it “predicts how likely you are to pay back a loan or other credit obligations in a timely fashion.”

It’s used by 90 percent of the top U.S. lenders to make credit decisions. Why so? Well, it helps them understand your credit risk or the likelihood that you’ll pay your bills on time.

Your FICO credit score is calculated using information from your credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies; Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Even better, it changes anytime the information in your credit report changes and is essentially a snapshot of your credit profile at any point in time.

Why do FICO credit scores matter?

For starters, your level of credit risk determines whether you’ll qualify for credit, and at what rate. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis per lender guidelines, but the most competitive credit and loan products go to those with the higher credit scores.

If you have a lower FICO credit score, you won’t necessarily be banned from credit and loan products. However, you may spend hundreds, if not thousands more in interest due to higher interest rates.

Beyond credit and loan products, FICO credit scores can impact other areas of your life, including:

  • Career advancement: When you find that dream job, you go the extra mile to impress interviewers. But if a credit check is a prerequisite to getting hired and your credit history isn’t up to par, you could be removed from the pool of top applicants. (By federal law, your credit score is not accessible, but your credit report is if you grant permission).
  • Car insurance rates: If your auto insurance provider analyzes credit history when calculating premiums, a low score means yours could be a bit steeper.
  • Deposit requirements for services: Planning on switching cell phone providers or connecting utilities in your name? A lower credit score could trigger higher deposit requirements. Landlords may also require higher security deposits for prospective tenants that pose a high credit risk.

So, while you can’t control your credit score, you have full responsibility for how you manage credit. You should also monitor what’s in your report to ensure it’s accurate and timely. Otherwise, you’ll need to file disputes so your credit score won’t suffer as a result of incorrect information.

What’s in your FICO credit score

Wondering what data from your credit report is used to calculate your FICO credit score. There are five categories:

Payment History (35 percent of FICO credit score )

Since FICO credit scores are an indicator of credit risk in the eyes of lenders, payment history plays an important role in the equation used to calculate your score. In fact, it’s the most important factor of your FICO credit score, and for a valid reason.

If you struggle to make timely payments on your current credit obligations, the likelihood of default on future debts is high. So if you fall into this category, try to prove prospective creditors otherwise by getting caught up on past due obligations and maintaining a positive payment history. This will demonstrate to lenders that you’ve turned a new leaf, and they may be willing to extend credit with more favorable terms to you off the strength of this, alone.

With regards to payment history, you should also know that accounts usually aren’t reflected as delinquent until they’ve reached the 30-day mark. And if the delinquency continues, they will be marked at 60, 90 and 120 days, and most likely written off as a bad debt by the creditor. Both late payments and charge-offs or collection accounts remain on your credit report for seven years, but the later have more serious consequences for your FICO credit score.

Amounts Owed (30 percent of FICO credit score )

This section pays close attention to your credit utilization ratio, or how much of your available credit you are using at a particular point in time. The higher the utilization ratio, the lower your score as it indicates to creditors that you may be overextended.

While installment loans are factored into this category, how you use and manage credit cards will carry more weight. Paying down installment loans according to the amortization schedule is enough to show that you can handle this type of obligation, but credit cards are another story.

You have control over how much credit you’re using each month, and lenders like to see this percentage at 30 percent or lower. If it gets any higher, your score may start to suffer. To illustrate, if you have $5,000 in credit limits, any usage at or below $1,500 is ideal. Otherwise, you run the risk of your FICO credit score dropping.

Length of Credit History (15 percent of FICO credit score )

The longer you’ve been in the credit game, the better your FICO credit score will be. Well, that’s if you’ve responsibly managed your credit over time. And keep in mind that closing an account won’t cause it to be deleted from your credit report and not factored into your credit history.

But this doesn’t mean that you’re doomed for a poor FICO credit score if you’re a credit newbie. By taking the right actions, you’ll be on your way to building a strong score sooner than later. More on that shortly.

Credit Mix (10 percent of FICO credit score )

There are two types of credit accounts: installment (i.e. auto loans, student loans, personal loans, mortgages) and revolving credit (i.e. credit cards). Having one type but not the other may not tank your score as it only accounts for 10 percent unless you don’t have much else going on in your credit report.

So, it’s not a bad idea to have both, but refrain from opening installment or revolving credit accounts you don’t need.

New Credit (10 percent of FICO credit score )

Tempted to apply for several credit accounts in a short span to boost up your available credit? Proceed with caution as each application for credit generates a hard or voluntary credit inquiry, which can drop your credit score by two to five points on each occurrence.

Furthermore, applying for too much credit in a short window of time makes you look riskier to creditors, particularly if you’re a credit newbie. Fortunately, hard credit inquiries only impact your FICO credit score for 12 months, and multiple inquiries are only counted as one when rate shopping. for the best deal on a loan.

What’s not in your FICO credit score

Several components of your credit report are not used to calculate your FICO credit score. These include:

  • Personal/ Identifying information, like your race, religion, marital status, address, and age
  • Employment history
  • Family and child support obligations, including child support and salary
  • Involuntary credit inquiries, including those that are not issued by you, but are used by creditors to determine if you qualify for pre-screened credit offers

Are there different types of FICO credit scores?

To date, FICO credit score 8 is the primary figure used by creditors. However, there are several variations to this model including:

  • FICO Auto Scores 2, 4, 5 and 8, which is used by auto lenders
  • FICO credit score 3, along with FICO Bankcard Scores 2, 4, 5, 8, which is used by credit card providers
  • FICO credit scores 2, 4, and 5, which is used by mortgage lenders

Quick note: the most recent versions are FICO credit score 9, FICO Auto Score 9, and FICO Bankcard Score 9.

What are FAKO scores?

Also known as equivalency scores, FAKO Scores are variations to your FICO credit scores that are calculated using alternative scoring models. They are commonly seen on monitoring sites that can be accessed free of charge, but most lenders won’t use these figures when making credit decisions. Instead, they are used to give you an idea of where you stand and could differ drastically from your real FICO credit score.

Popular FAKO scores include the VantageScore 3.0 and the Experian National Equivalency Score.

Where can I find my FICO credit score?

Your credit report is available free of charge on Unfortunately, you’ll have to pay for your score. You can visit any of the three credit bureau’s websites to purchase your score.

But if you’re planning to apply for credit in the near future, it may be worth speaking to the lender to see which version and credit bureau they use to get the most accurate picture of where you stand.

You may also be able to access your credit score for free via your online credit card statement or through your financial institution’s portal. It’s not uncommon for them to provide updated FICO credit scores on a monthly basis.

Why are my FICO credit scores different?

When viewing your FICO credit scores from the three credit bureaus, you may find that they are different. This can be attributed to the fact that not all three lenders and creditors send account information to the three credit reporting agencies.

In addition, there could be a lag in the time the information is being reported. So one credit bureau may have current information while the other one doesn’t. In turn, the credit scores could be different across the board.

What if I don’t have a FICO credit score?

In order to have a FICO credit score, you must have a credit history. Otherwise, you’ll receive an error when attempting to obtain your score. This is referred to as a blank or thin file.

So, what constitutes credit history. According to myFICO, you must have one of the following to obtain your FICO credit score :

  • A credit account that’s been open for at least six months
  • A credit account that the lender has reported to the bureaus at least once in the past six months

Quick note: if the account listed is shared with someone who is deceased, you may not be able to retrieve a FICO credit score.

How can I increase my FICO credit score?

Depending on what’s in your credit report, increasing your FICO credit score could be quite the marathon. Here are some tips to help you boost your FICO credit score.

  • Dispute inaccurate or untimely information
  • Make timely payments
  • Reduce outstanding credit balances
  • Refrain from applying for new credit
  • Apply for a secured credit card or personal loan
  • Apply for a credit builder loan

By taking these actions, you’ll quickly start to see your score climb. It’s also recommended that you analyze your free credit report to confirm your score isn’t in the trenches as a result of untimely or incorrect information.

Credit Bureau Contact Information

When disputing negative items on your credit report, you may need to contact the credit bureaus for assistance. But that’s not the only reason why it may be necessary to contact the credit bureaus. They also have customer service representatives on hand to handle credit reporting requests related to fraud alerts, security freezes, membership support, cybersecurity, and so much more.

Keep reading to learn more about contacting credit bureaus:

How to Get a Free Copy of Your Credit Report

Before contacting any of the credit bureaus, it’s probably a good idea to review your credit report and pinpoint key issues. Doing so will make it a lot easier to figure out which department you should reach out to find a resolution to your problem.

Even if there haven’t been major issues with your credit report in the past, you want to get into the habit of reviewing the contents on a routine basis. This minimizes the chances of sustaining major damage to your finances and score as a result of fraud or identity theft. You’ll also be able to detect errors or untimely information that could otherwise drag your score down and force you to pay more for credit.

The good news is you can access your report for free annually from the three major credit reporting agencies. To get started, visit or call 1-877-322-8228 to order your free report. You can also submit a written request using this form and mail it to:

Annual Credit Report Request Service

P.O. Box 105281

Atlanta, GA 30348-5281

You can also access a free copy of your credit report if a creditor has taken adverse action against you within 60 days or if you meet the following criteria:

  • Receive welfare benefits
  • Are a victim of identity theft
  • Are unemployed and plan to look for work in the next two months

But if it’s been less than a year and you don’t meet any of the criteria listed above, expect to pay a fee to access your report.

An Important Note About Contacting Credit Bureaus

Submitting your written request to a random PO box found on the web won’t cut it when dealing with credit bureaus. Why so? Well, they have several departments to handle requests, so you want to make sure you pinpoint the correct phone number or mailing address to ensure you reach out to the correct point of contact or send your documentation to the right place.

Keep in mind that credit reporting agencies deal with millions of customers on a consistent basis, so it’s easy for things to slip through the cracks. Also, contact information changes frequently, so the information listed below should be confirmed before moving forward.

How to Contact the Credit Bureaus

You can contact the credit bureaus by phone or mail using the information below. (Most credit bureaus also offer many of their services online for added convenience and to streamline processing).

Word of caution about online disputes: if your dispute is denied, you waive the right to resubmit, which is why disputing items via mail is the better option).

One method isn’t necessarily more ideal than the other, but you may find it more convenient to handle credit report related business by mail (or online if available) to maintain a paper trail.


Phone Numbers

  • Cybersecurity Issues: 1-888-548-7878
  • TrustedID Premier and Lock & Alert Customers: 1-888-548-7878
  • Support for Other Equifax Products: 1-866-640-2273
  • Security Freezes: 1-888-298-0045 (Automated Service: 1-800-685-1111 (1-800-349-9960 for NY customers))
  • Fraud Alerts: 1-866-349-5191
  • Credit Report Requests for Adverse Action: 1-866-349-5191
  • Credit Report Disputes: 1-866-349-5191
  • Mailing List Opt-Out Requests: 1-888-567-8688

Mailing Addresses

Security Freezes:

Equifax Information Services LLC

P.O. Box 105788

Atlanta, GA 30348-5788

Fraud Alerts:

Equifax Information Services LLC

P.O. Box 105069

Atlanta, GA 30348-5069

Credit Report Requests for Adverse Action:

Equifax Information Services LLC

P.O. Box 740241

Atlanta, GA 30374-0241

Credit Report Disputes:

Equifax Information Services LLC

P.O. Box 740256

Atlanta, GA 30374-0256

Customer Care Chat

Equifax also has a chat function, which is available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to midnight (ET). You can also browse their comprehensive library of Frequently Asked Questions as it may have the answers you’re searching for.


Phone Numbers

  • Membership Inquiries or Support: 1-479-343-6239
  • Credit Report disputes: Call the number listed on your report if you need help filing a dispute.
  • General Inquiries: 1-888-397-3742

*Quick note: Requests or support involving disputes, security freezes, credit report requests for adverse action, identity theft, and fraud alerts must be initiated online. You can also use the q&a search function to find the answers to your most pressing questions.

Mailing Address

Credit Report Disputes:


P.O. Box 4500

Allen, TX 75013

General Inquiries:


P.O. Box 9701

Allen, TX 75013


Phone Numbers

  • Credit Report Disputes: 1-800-916-8800
  • Subscription Services: 1-855-681-3196
  • Security Freezes: 1-888-909-8872
  • Fraud Alerts: 1-800-680-7289
  • Credit Report Purchases: 1-800-888-4213

Mailing Addresses

Security Freezes and Fraud Alerts:

TransUnion LLC

P.O. Box 2000

Chester, PA 19016

Credit Report Purchases:

TransUnion LLC

P.O. Box 1000

Chester, PA 19016

Alternative Credit Bureaus

Beyond Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, there are credit reporting entities that use alternative data from information furnishers, like cell phone, cable, insurance and utility providers, to generate credit reports.

These alternative credit bureaus enable consumers to build a positive credit history and can be contacted using the information listed below:

The Bottom Line

If you’re looking for credit bureau contact information and are having a hard time finding what you need, you can always contact the general information hotline as a last resort. The customer service representative should be able to transfer your call or point you in the right direction.

How to Get Your Free Credit Report

When was the last time you reviewed your free credit report? If it’s been awhile, it may be in your best interest to do so as credit reports sometimes contain errors or fraudulent information. In fact, “Of all the complaints posted to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s website in 2016, the highest percentage were complaints about credit reporting,” notes MarketWatch.

Furthermore, the information contained in your file determines your credit score, which is used by lenders and creditors to gauge your creditworthiness. And you don’t want to be perceived as a high credit risk due to errors as it will result in you paying more for credit.

The good news is you can get your credit report in a jiffy without spending a dime. Keep reading to learn more:

How do I order my free credit report?

You can order a free copy of your credit report by:

If you order your report online, it will be accessible immediately, assuming your identity can be confirmed. Otherwise, you should receive a copy within 15 days of initiating the request via phone or within the same timeframe once receives the completed form.

What information will I need to provide?

When ordering your credit report, you’ll need to provide your:

  • Name, date of birth, and Social Security number
  • Current address, and possibly your prior address if you have relocated in the past two years

You may also be prompted to answer other personal questions related to your identity or financial information. Don’t be alarmed as this information will be used to confirm your identity.

Should I order all three reports at once?

In a perfect world, all three reports from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion would contain identical information. But since they are separate entities or reporting agencies, the information that appears may vary.

For this reason, some financial experts recommend that you retrieve all three reports at once, review them, and compare for accuracy. Others recommend that you request one report every four months so you’re staying on top of your credit file throughout the year.

How often can I get a free copy of my credit report?

Per the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), you’re entitled to one free copy of your credit report from each of the credit bureaus on an annual basis. However, certain circumstances may allow you to retrieve your report more frequently. These include:

  • Being denied for credit, insurance, or employment because of your credit report
  • Receiving welfare benefits
  • Being victimized by identity theft
  • Being unemployed and planning to seek employment in the next 60 days

In order to obtain your free report, you must submit a written request within 60 days.

Are free copies of my credit report available through each of the credit bureau’s websites?

Unfortunately, free reports are only available through with the exception of the exceptional circumstances listed above.

Otherwise, you have the option to visit each of the credit bureau’s websites or call their customer service hotline and request your report, but a fee will apply.

What’s in my credit report?

At this point, you may be wondering exactly what’s in your credit report. While the information appearing in reports from the three bureaus may vary, each report will contain the following components:

  • Personal information
  • Credit accounts
  • Credit inquiries
  • Public records
  • Collection accounts
  • Personal Statements

Check out this comprehensive guide to learn more about how to read your credit report.

Can I get a free credit score, too?

Unfortunately, your FICO score cannot be accessed free of charge through However, you can visit each of the credit bureau’s websites to request your credit score for a fee. Applicable fees are listed below:

Select financial institutions also offer free credit scores to consumers via their online portal or account statements.

You can also view your FAKO score, a variation of the FICO model, through credit-monitoring websites, like Credit Karma, Credit Sesame, and

What if the information in my report is inaccurate or untimely?

Per the FCRA, you have a right to request a formal investigation of inaccurate or untimely information in your credit report. And for many in this boat, hiring a credit repair company to handle the disputes may seem like the best option. But as the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) website notes, “anything a credit repair company can do legally, you can do for yourself at little or no cost.“

To initiate a dispute, you’ll need to draft up a dispute letter and gather any supporting documentation for submission to the credit bureaus. You’ll also need to notify the information furnisher about your dispute by submitting the same documentation you sent to the credit bureaus.

Expect to hear back within 30 days regarding the status of your dispute. Otherwise, the information in question must be deleted. (Inaccurate or untimely information can’t be substantiated by the information furnisher is usually removed relatively quickly).

You can get started by following the guidance found here. (note in Google Docs about this one)

However, you may want to solicit the services of a reputable credit repair company if you feel overwhelmed at the thought of filing a dispute or are pressed for time.

Can anyone access my credit report for free?

Absolutely not! According to the FCRA, “a consumer reporting agency may provide information about you only to people with a valid need — usually to consider an application with a creditor, insurer, employer, landlord, or other business.”

However, creditors and insurance providers may review your report to determine if you qualify for “prescreened” offers unless you opt-out. (You can be removed by calling 1-888-567-8688 or 1-888-5-OPTOUT). You should also know that employers cannot access your credit file unless you grant them permission to do so.

The bottom line

There are several ways to access your credit report without spending a dime. And by reviewing what’s inside on a consistent basis, you’ll be able to protect the solid credit history you’ve worked so hard to establish.

How to Read and Understand Your Credit Report

Credit reports are detailed documents that show how you’ve managed credit over time.

Both lenders and creditors provide information about accounts to the three credit bureaus. The data is then input into their system and compiled to create credit reports.

It’s important to understand your credit report for a few key reasons:

  • Lenders use credit scores to gauge creditworthiness. This determines if they will loan money to you and at what rate.
  • Your credit score is calculated from the information in your report.
  • Inaccuracies from reporting errors or outdated information can hurt your credit score.

How to Retrieve Your Credit Report

The easiest way to access your credit report is by visiting You can get one free report annually from each of the credit bureaus; Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

You can also receive a free copy of your credit report if:

  • You were recently denied for credit, insurance or employment. (Note that you must request a copy within 60 days of receiving the denial notice).
  • You’re unemployed and plan to look for work within 60 days, receiving welfare benefits, or are a victim of identity theft.

What’s On Your Credit Report

Identifying Information

This includes your name, address, social security number, date of birth, and employer. Although these items aren’t factored into your credit score, they are updated on your report when new information is provided to lenders and creditors.

Credit Accounts

In this section, you will find detailed information about each of your credit accounts or tradelines, including:

  • The creditor’s name.
  • The type of account (i.e credit card, auto loan, student loan, personal loan, mortgage).
  • The opening and closing date (if applicable) of the account.
  • The amount of the monthly payment.
  • The credit line or loan limit.
  • Payment history by month. Accounts with past or current delinquencies will be classified as negative.
  • Balance updates provided by creditors. It’s important to note that this figure may not accurately reflect what you actually owe since most creditors only send monthly updates to the credit bureaus. (Rapid rescoring is an option if you need balance information updated to qualify for a loan).

Credit Inquiries

You will find two types of inquiries listed:

  • Voluntary (or hard inquiries): these are requests for your credit report that are generated when you apply for credit. By submitting an application, you’re authorizing the creditor to obtain your credit report from one of the three credit bureaus. You could also receive a voluntary inquiry if you request a credit line increase and the creditor needs to review your credit profile to determine your eligibility.
  • Involuntary (or soft inquiries): these are requests for your credit report that are not initiated by you, and commonly occur as a result of pre-approval screenings from lenders. Involuntary inquires do not affect our credit score.

Credit inquiries, both voluntary and involuntary, remain on your credit report for two years. However, only voluntary inquiries impact your credit score by less than five points in most instances, notes myFICO. But if you submit several applications for credit in a short span of time, the impact could be much greater.

You should also know that voluntary inquiries resulting from rate-shopping in a 30-day period are only counted against you once. So, if you’re searching for the best deal on an auto loan and you submit several applications within this window, the inquiries will appear on your credit report but your score won’t take a huge hit.

Public Records

These include bankruptcies, foreclosures, civil suits, wage attachments, liens, and judgments. Most public records stay on your credit report for seven years, with the exception of tax liens that can stay indefinitely if they remain unpaid. Bankruptcies can also remain on your report for up to 10 years.

Collection Accounts

Accounts that are written off as bad debts by the creditor and turned over to collection agencies appear here. You may also notice old medical bills and delinquent accounts from service providers, like phone, utility, and cable companies, that have been placed with collection agencies.

If you’ve already paid the balance in full or settled the account, a status update will also appear on your credit report. You should also know that collection accounts, whether paid or unpaid, remain on your credit report for seven years.

Personal Statements

Did you file a dispute in the past, but the credit bureaus didn’t rule in your favor? You have the option to reply with a statement (100 words or less) that tells your side of the story. The statement will also be included on your credit report.

How to Handle Errors On Your Credit Report

Some common errors to be on the lookout for include:

  • Inaccurate identifying information
  • Transposed account numbers
  • Incorrect account balances
  • Payment history discrepancies

You may also notice accounts that you have no prior knowledge of if you’re a victim of identity theft.

Either way, filing a dispute is the first step in getting the issues rectified.

The Dispute Process

Step 1: Draft up a dispute letter to the credit bureaus.

Your letter should include the following:

  • Your name and address
  • The item in dispute
  • Why you dispute the item
  • A statement asking for the removal of the item

The Federal Trade Commission has a handy template right over here to help you get started.

Step 2: Send the letter to the credit bureaus.

Also, include a copy of your credit report with the item in question highlighted along with any supporting documentation in the package. Be sure to send via certified mail with signature confirmation so you’ll know when the package arrives.

Step 3: Notify the creditor or lender of your dispute.

You should also send copies of the dispute letter and any supporting documentation to the information provider. It’s a good idea to call ahead of time and request their address to make sure your documents land in the correct hands.

What Happens Next?

Upon receipt, the credit bureau has 30 days to investigate and respond to your dispute. Otherwise, they have to remove the item in question from your credit report, unless the information provider requests additional information to research your claim. In this case, it may take up to 90 days to hear back regarding the dispute.

When they respond to your dispute, the credit bureau will also include a copy of your updated credit report.

Quick note: Experian only accepts online disputes, but you also have the option to do the same with Equifax and TransUnion. However, filing online waives your right to re-dispute the item in question if the credit bureau does not rule in your favor.

When Are Credit Reports Updated?

Credit bureaus generate reports on demand. But if you subscribe to a credit monitoring service, you may receive updated copies on a monthly basis.

Where Can I Find My Credit Score?

According to myFICO, 90 percent of lenders use the FICO score to make credit decisions. Your credit report from won’t include your FICO score, but you can pay a nominal fee to view it.

Another option is to view variations of your FICO score, like the Vantage 3.0 score, from free credit monitoring sites. (Note: I didn’t include examples here because I wasn’t sure if you had brand partnerships. Let me know how to proceed).

Help! My Credit Reports Aren’t Identical

When reviewing your reports from the three bureaus, you may have noticed that the information present wasn’t the same across the board. As long as the data being reported is accurate, this shouldn’t necessarily be a cause for alarm because some lenders only report to one or two of the bureaus, notes Equifax.

Furthermore, the three credit reporting agencies are separate private entities. So, they don’t communicate with one another, which could result in isolated errors.

Can Anyone Access My Credit Report?

Absolutely not. In fact, the Fair Credit Report Act (FCRA) restricts access to credit reports. It also details situations where accessing credit reports is permissible. Only the following entities can view your credit report:

  • Creditors and lenders if you’re applying for credit or requesting a credit limit increase. They may occasionally review your credit report to help manage risk, notes Experian.
  • Employers if you’re seeking a position with their company and grant permission in writing
  • Insurance companies to aid in managing risk.
  • Government entities

Also, keep in mind that your reports may be accessible without express consent if there’s a court order or subpoena by a federal grand jury.

How Often Should You Check Your Credit Report?

While there’s no concrete rule that dictates how often you should check your credit report, it’s best to review it often to ensure the contents are accurate. Checking your report regularly also minimizes the risk of suffering from financial ruin as a result of identity theft as you’ll be able to detect fraudulent activity sooner than later.

Reviewing your credit report doesn’t have to be difficult. Once you gain an understanding of what the contents mean, you’ll be able to take control of your credit health and ultimately boost your credit score.