CHICAGO (MarketWatch) -- Consumers are more likely to talk about sex and the death of a loved one than they are to broach a conversation about their credit. But it might be because they just don't understand all of it -- the credit part, that is.
A pair of surveys in recent weeks found that 82% of people are reluctant to openly discuss their credit-card debts while 31% don't understand that credit scores are a critical measure creditors rely on to assess a borrower's ability to repay.
At the same time, consumers also are increasingly frustrated that they are finding it harder to get mortgages, home-equity lines of credit, personal loans and small-business financing.
"Most Americans know why credit scores rise and why they fall," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America. "Few understand that credit scores represent credit risk."
In a CFA credit-score survey jointly developed with Washington Mutual Bank, consumers said they believed their credit scores were based largely on income, age and martial status rather than how they use credit and payment history. Less than one-third of consumers know the lowest score that might qualify for a mortgage with a low interest rate. That score is 700.
A vast majority of Americans -- 78% -- understand that making a monthly payment more than 30 days late lowers scores but less than three-fifths know that maxing out a credit card by using the entire credit line also lowers scores.
"Lack of consumer knowledge about credit scores not only increases the costs of their credit and insurance but also reduces the availability of these and other services," Brobeck said.
By WaMu's estimates, consumers could reduce their credit-card finance charges by $105 annually if they raised their score by 30 points. If all consumers did that, WaMu said, annual consumer savings would reach an estimated $28 billion.
All of that could explain why consumers told CreditCards.com in a recent poll conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media that they were more likely to spill details of their personal relationships and the death of a loved one than their credit-card debts. They also were less reluctant to talk about their salary, monthly mortgage or rent payments and their weight than credit-card debt.
Ben Woolsey, director of marketing and consumer research at CreditCards.com sees this as a harbinger of credit-card trouble.
"Talking about credit-card debt is an overwhelming social taboo," he said. "There is a social paradox happening -- people who are faced with credit-card debt are unwilling to face their financial issues and therefore may be leaving it unresolved."
There are simple steps to shore up credit and to increase credit scores, according to WaMu:
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