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Credit score gains stagnate after pandemic aid disappears

The average credit score for Americans remained at record high this year, according to a new study, but showed no improvement from last year.

The annual FICO credit score held steady at 716 in April, the same score registered in both October and April of last year, according to the Fair Isaac Corporation, the data analytics company that developed the FICO credit scoring system. That marks the first time the average score remained at the same level for three straight readings since FICO started tracking in 2005. Over the last decade, the average score largely drifted higher.

With federal stimulus and private forbearance programs that helped Americans stay afloat during the pandemic now gone, folks that once saw their credit scores jump by 20 points are now seeing improvements in their scores slow down. Inflation could further add pressure.

“The fact that we’ve seen the average national score level off, in our opinion, is a very notable event,” Ethan Dornhelm, vice president of scores and predictive analytics at FICO, told Yahoo Money. “What we’re seeing now is kind of like coming from those really incredible highs that would tie in with low default rates and high record savings rates by consumers. We are starting to see this leveling off, which may just be a reflection of returning back to pre-pandemic normal.”

Credit score growth slows across

Credit scores made a significant leap during the first year of the pandemic, rising five points from 708 in April 2020 to 713 just six months later in October and then adding another three points to 716 in April 2021.

The improvement was largely due to government stimulus checks — which went out in April 2020, January 2021, and April 2021 — and COVID-related forbearance programs, which helped households pay off debt and build savings even if they experienced job loss or furloughs.

“In the first year of the pandemic, that increase really got supercharged by payment accommodations and stimulus checks,” Dornhelm said.

Folks with lowest credit scores — those between 550 and 599 — saw their average score increase 20 points from April 2020 to April 2021, the biggest improvement. However, as financial supports expired, those same consumers have seen smaller gains. Within the last year, their credit scores only increased by 7 points – on par with growth observed pre-pandemic.

“Before the pandemic, there were already signs of financial strain in their credit files, maybe they were missing payments, or they had credit cards that were close to maxed out or other sort of high debt levels,” Dornhelm said. “Those consumers stood to gain the most from some of the mitigation tactics that were implemented in the earliest days of the pandemic.”

They weren’t the only group that saw their credit score gains shrink. Americans with credit scores between 600-649 saw an average gain of 3 points within the last year, compared with 16 points during the first year of the pandemic. Those with scores of 650-699 saw their average score increase just 4 points in the last year, versus 13 points a year earlier.

“These programs had the effect of enabling consumers, particularly those who maybe were already in financial difficulties, to sort of be able to take a breath and increase their savings, increase their cash flow, and actually be in a position to pay down some of their debt and pay on time their debt,” Dornhelm said. “And, of course, those are factors that are rewarded by the FICO score.”

Inflation’s long-term impact on score

With inflation running near 40-year highs, many price-struck Americans who no longer have the financial support of COVID-related programs have taken on more debt to make ends meet.

Americans’ borrowing increased at an annual rate of 10.5% in June, the Federal Reserve reported, up from 6.3% in May. Meanwhile, revolving credit debt jumped 16% in June, following a 7.8% increase the month prior. According to the American Bankers Association, there are at least 15 million more credit cards being used today compared with a year earlier, and missed payments are on the rise.

These factors have fueled the leveling off of credit scores as inflation remains a concern for American households.

“There’s clearly been a pause in the trend upwards in score,” Dornhelm said. “The question now is: Is that just a temporary pause and then the trend will continue? Or is this some kind of inflection point driven by the combination of the pandemic era, mitigation factors sort of starting to ramp down coupled with some economic headwinds like inflation?”

Gabriella is a personal finance reporter at Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @__gabriellacruz.

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