When you're talking credit scores, the Twin Cities area is back on top.

The metro area retook the No. 1 spot nationwide in a study by the credit bureau Experian after losing that ranking in 2011 for the first time in four years. Last year's champion, Wausau, Wis., fell to third.

The scores, released Tuesday, matter because they reflect the financial health of people in a community and their ability to get loans. Also, the business-credit risk ranking for a city closely tracks consumer-credit scores.

Twin Cities residents have an average credit score of 787 out of 990, according to Experian's State of Credit report. The score used is the VantageScore, not the more commonly known 850 FICO Score range.

An economy that's strong relative to the rest of the United States and a conservative Midwestern approach to debt help explain the area's consistently high rankings for credit scores, said Jason Plank, a certified financial planner in Edina and president-elect of the Financial Planning Association of Minnesota.

The Upper Midwest is well-represented in the rankings, with eight of the Top 10 cities. Six of them are in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Only No. 6 San Francisco and No. 9 Boston represent the coasts in the Top 10.

Midwesterners "use debt and leverage in a much more conservative manner," Plank said.

According to the report, Twin Cities residents average $24,890 in debt, slightly more than the national average. But median family income in the Twin Cities is $83,900, compared with $65,000 for the national average.

The large number of publicly traded companies in the Twin Cities, high per-capita income, and a high percentage of manufacturing, health and education jobs all contribute to better average financial health for residents, Plank said.

"Our unemployment rate has consistently been below the national average for the past 10 years," he said. "That's a key contributor."

People are still making more late payments than they were before the recession, however. Residents of the Twin Cities average a late payment for every four people, which is down 3.6 percent from 2011 but up 8.1 percent from 2007.

The average credit score for Americans in 2012 is 750, an improvement of one point over 2011.

The rankings are cruel to the Deep South, with Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia figuring prominently among lower credit score areas. The worst average credit score in the nation is in the Gulf Coast city of Harlingen, Texas, followed closely by Jackson, Miss., and Corpus Christi, Texas.

A key finding in the report is that several cities hard hit by the recession improved their performance. Among the 10 most-improved cities are Bakersfield, Calif.; Fort Myers, Fla.; Las Vegas and Reno, Nev.; and Phoenix -- all deeply affected by the housing crisis.

Adam Belz • 612-673-4405