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What is a credit score?

We explain what a credit score is and why it matters

04 February 2017Hannah Patnick 3 min read
Blyde River Canyon South Africa

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A credit score is a three-digit number calculated using your credit report, which helps lenders decide whether to give you credit. One way of thinking about it is to see it as a measure of risk to the lender. The higher the score, the better you managed your debt in the past, which makes it more likely that you will be considered low risk and therefore given a form of credit.

ClearScore shows you your Experian credit score which is out of 705. A higher score means that your application for credit is more likely to be accepted. However, it also means that you are likely to be eligible for better interest rates and better deals when borrowing money or taking out a mortgage.

The score is useful because it gives you an idea of how the lenders view you. Most importantly, it allows you to keep an eye on changes to your score, which reflect the changes in your report. For example, missing a payment will lower your score but paying off a loan might improve it.

Your score today is a snapshot reflecting how you have handled debt and credit accounts in the past. For example if you handled your debt well, never defaulting or missing payments, your score will be good. However, if you’ve had trouble paying off your debts, your score will be lower.

Though it might seem counter-intuitive, having no previous credit history will affect your score unfavourably. Credit scoring is about predicting your future behaviour based on how you have managed your debt in the past. So, no history, or a ‘thin file’, containing very little financial history, will make it more difficult to judge whether you will be a good customer.

If you're planning on borrowing in one way or another, for example by getting a home loan, you'll want to prove to the lender that you're a risk worth taking.

Even if you’re not planning on borrowing money right now, you might want to or need to in the future. Your credit history is something that you build over time so thinking about it now will make it much easier for you in the future. Making changes now will get you much further than a big push right before you need to borrow money.

When thinking about how lenders view your report, remember that they're looking for someone who will be able to meet the repayments: they want someone who is low risk.

  • A large amount of credit available (e.g. having lots of credit cards)
  • A large number of applications for credit in a short period of time
  • Frequent change of address
  • Late/missed payments, defaults
  • Court Judgements
  • Bankruptcy

A large amount of credit available tells the lenders that if you get into financial trouble, you may be less likely to pay them back. Your repayments will be spread over a larger number of lenders. It also means that you have the potential to run up very high debts.

Each time you apply for credit the lender carries out a check on your report. Most lenders conduct an ‘enquiry’, which means that it shows up on your report, regardless of whether you were accepted or rejected. If you accumulate a lot of these searches in a short period of time, it may make you seem desperate for credit to other lenders. They might assume you’re going through financial difficulties and therefore you may appear high risk. These enquiries stay on your report for 12 months.

Frequent changes of address simply take away from your image of stability and therefore make you appear more high risk.

The factors that have the biggest negative impact on your score are:

  • Late or missed payments
  • Defaults on debt
  • Court Judgments
  • Bankruptcy

These show serious financial difficulty and suggest you cannot or could not afford the debt you have taken on. Though you might be in the clear now, the items on your report stay there for 5 years and during that time lenders will be less willing to grant you credit.

None of us have just one credit score. This is in part because there are four different credit reference agencies and each one of them might have slightly different information about you. Each lender puts different value to the various aspects of your credit report, which also alters the score.

Check your credit score for free on ClearScore.

Key highlights

  1. A credit score is a three-digit number calculated based on your credit report
  2. A higher score means you’re more likely to be accepted for credit
  3. ClearScore shows you your Experian credit score
  4. Having no credit history can affect your score negatively, as you don’t have any evidence that you’re a reliable borrower
  5. The factors that have the biggest negative impact on your score are late or missed payments, defaults, Court Judgments and bankruptcy
  6. Everyone has at least four different credit scores, from the four main credit reference agencies in South Africa.

Hannah Patnick Image

Written by Hannah Patnick

ClearScore Communications Lead

In her previous life Hannah was a consumer journalist making primetime television shows. Now she's ClearScore's Content Producer. Amongst her many talents, Hannah is famed for her excellent tea-making skills.