When personal finance expert Jean Chatzky was buying a house years ago with her husband, she received the shock of her life: His credit score was better.
"It was just really funny," said Chatzky, who is financial editor of NBC's Today Show, host of the "Her Money" podcast and author of the upcoming book "Women With Money." "I am supposed to be the big financial expert — and his score was 30 points better."
And so began a friendly marital competition that lasts to this day with her husband, career coach Eliot Kaplan. It has since toggled back and forth, but "his is usually better," Chatzky acknowledged.
Having such a competition is not just an academic exercise. It can have a very real effect on your financial lives if two partners nudge each other in a positive direction. Higher credit scores could save you a ton of money over the course of your lives.
"If you have a goal to buy a home together in a few years, then better credit scores will benefit both of you: You will see lower interest rates, more affordable monthly payments, and maybe even be able to buy a better house," said Bethy Hardeman, personal finance expert for the debt-management app Tally.
And how exactly do you boost that magic score? The strategies are extremely common-sense. Pay your bills — on time, every time. Do not use up too much of your existing credit; try for 30 percent or less of your ceiling. Have credit with multiple different lenders, all of which are reporting your trustworthiness to the credit agencies.
Love and money are notoriously combustible partners. Mixing them requires a delicate touch, as if you were handling explosive chemicals.
So how to have a healthy credit-score competition, without causing any marital upset? Some tips:
No judgment. Even if your score is an iffy 500 and hers is a robust 700, or vice versa — resist the temptation to make moral judgments, keep things positive and move forward together as a team.
Have patience. You are not going to see massive success right away, no matter how dedicated you are to boosting your score.
"The frustrating thing about credit is that it is like losing weight — you won't necessarily see pounds slipping away on the scale every day or week," said Chatzky. "So don't check in too frequently."
Use it as a conversation starter. If there is anything most couples really hate to talk about, it is money.
So a friendly credit competition is one way to crack that door open, and have an open and honest conversation about money issues beyond just credit scores.
"My partner and I do this as a fun discussion," said Ian Harvey, a financial planner in Chappaqua, N.Y.
Do not strive for perfection. In theory, the best possible FICO credit score is 850 (although different credit agencies have developed their own scoring models).
But do not drive yourselves crazy aiming for perfection. Instead, focus on getting to levels that will make your financial lives appreciably easier.
At 660, you should start being approved for most credit applications, Hardeman said. At 720, you should start seeing some of the best interest rate offers available.
And if you can make it to 760, you are attractive enough a credit risk that you will be getting unsolicited mailers from lenders all the time.
Chris Taylor writes for Reuters.