How I got the highest credit score — and will it work for you?

Young man smiling because he has the highest credit score, and can teach you how to get your fico score and other credit scores.Image: Young man smiling because he has the highest credit score, and can teach you how to get your fico score and other credit scores.

In a Nutshell

A perfect credit score isn’t necessary to get the best possible lending terms but it's an impressive benchmark that few people meet. Two wizards of credit give tips on how they got the highest possible credit score.
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What do people with perfect credit scores and the Loch Ness monster have in common? Most people can’t decide if they actually exist.

While we don’t know about the elusive aquatic creature in Scotland, we do know there are humans out there who have reached credit-score nirvana.

For most credit-scoring models, including VantageScore 3.0 and FICO, the highest credit score possible is 850.

We were able to speak to two Americans who belong to the exclusive FICO 850 Club: Brad Stevens of Austin, Texas, and John Ulzheimer of Atlanta. Both proudly showed off computer screenshots proving they’ve reached the pinnacle of credit scoring.

“Many people are skeptical that 850 is attainable. But it certainly is,” says Ulzheimer, who is president of The Ulzheimer Group and a nationally recognized credit expert.

Tips to get a high credit score

For years, it’s been widely reported that fewer than one percent of American adults have a FICO credit score of 850.

So, how did Stevens and Ulzheimer climb to the top of the credit-score mountain? Both of them say it was a slow trek that was aided by responsible handling of debt.

Ulzheimer says some of the control over your credit rests with you, while some of the control is out of your hands.

Just like a professor who grades your college coursework, credit-scoring models grade you on your credit activity. So while you might think you deserve a perfect score, the professor — or in this case, the credit-scoring model — has the final say over your grade.

How do you improve your credit?

There’s no quick fix. Improving your credit health takes time, but the most important behaviors can be summed up as this: Pay your bills on time (and if possible, in full) and reduce the amount you owe. It also helps to check your credit reports regularly and dispute any errors you see, such as a collections account that hasn’t been removed from your reports after seven years from the original delinquency date.

Based on the experiences of Stevens and Ulzheimer, what follows are some things you can do to aim for the FICO 850 mark (or at least improve your credit).

Keep in mind, though, that their circumstances are unique, and what they’ve done to achieve a FICO 850 score might not work for you.

Here’s the advice they gave:

Nothing negative can show up on your credit reports. One example: You can’t have a single late payment on a credit card account. Payment history accounts for 35 percent of a FICO credit score.

• Almost none of your accounts can be carrying a balance. In other words, credit card debt must be near zero. The amount of debt you owe makes up 30 percent of a FICO credit score.

• Your credit history must stretch over many years. A 2011 study by SubscriberWise, a credit reporting agency for the communications industry, found the average length of a credit history for someone with an 850 FICO score was 30 years. Ulzheimer says some people simply can’t ascend to 850 yet because their credit history isn’t old enough, “even if they do everything else right.” Length of credit history accounts for 15 percent of a FICO credit score.

You’ll need to “max out” each of those components to pull off a perfect 850, thus making the task difficult, Ulzheimer says.

It’s not necessary to have a perfect score

Ulzheimer says his FICO credit score has hit 850 off and on for the past five to seven years. That achievement became easier once his credit history passed the 20-year milestone, he says. Yet Ulzheimer notes he hasn’t been striving for perfection with his credit score – he just knows the right behaviors for managing his credit well.

Unlike Ulzheimer, Stevens says racking up a perfect FICO credit score of 850 has been his goal for a few decades.

“As many do in their 20s, I experienced financial instability and suffered some setbacks that greatly impacted my credit scores. That credit also limited my economic flexibility,” says Stevens, managing partner of a private car service in Austin.

He adds: “As I grew older, I became more aware of how good credit opened opportunities for advancing and enhancing my life. So I continued to work on getting an ever-better score. After a while, it not only became a goal but … a total obsession.”

But Ulzheimer says obsessing over how close your FICO credit score is to 850 doesn’t necessarily pay off. Why?

Ulzheimer says an 850 FICO score isn’t needed to gain the best interest rates or APRs on credit cards and loans. In fact, he adds, there’s not much difference in that regard between, say, 800 and 850. More than anything else, arriving at 850 merely gives you “bragging rights,” Ulzheimer says.

“As long as your scores are above 760, you are likely going to get the best deals,” Ulzheimer says.

Bottom line

Achieving a perfect credit score isn’t necessary, but checking your credit scores and reports is. If you’re not tracking your credit on a regular basis, then you don’t know whether your scores are heading in the right — or wrong — direction.

Want to see your VantageScore 3.0 credit scores for free? At no cost, you can see them from two major credit bureaus, Equifax and TransUnion, on Credit Karma.

About the author: John Egan is a blogger, content marketer and freelance writer in Austin, Texas. He is former editor in chief at Austin-based startup LawnStarter, and he previously worked at the Austin Business Journal, Bankrate and S… Read more.