The credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s made waves last week when it announced that it had downgraded the outlook on U.S. debt from “stable” to “negative,” leaving many ordinary Americans wondering what the change means for the economy and how debt rating works in the first place.
Here’s a look at what our country’s debt rating might mean in future months and how that rating is like an individual credit score.
Rating the U.S. Debt
Currently, the United States has a credit rating of AAA, which is the highest rating possible. This rating indicates that the U.S. is a stable country and is likely to repay any loans it takes out. But there’s more to the story.
- Outlook on U.S. debt: While the other two major credit rating agencies (Moody’s and Fitch Ratings) have not announced any changes to their ratings on the outlook for U.S. debt, Standard & Poor’s downgraded that rating last week, citing as one reason the continued inability of Congress to make a decision regarding the long-term future of spending policies.
- A warning move: While the change in the outlook rating does not officially alter the country’s credit rating, it serves as a warning and reminder to legislators and others in positions of power that the country’s financial stability and credibility on the world stage are at stake.
- Potential for positive impact: Some commentators have mentioned that the changed credit rating could actually prove beneficial to the country, as it may push Congress to act swiftly (and without unnecessary political posturing) in taking steps toward changing financial policy.
The Parallel with Individual Credit Ratings
As anyone who has ever file for bankruptcy, applied for a mortgage or thought about borrowing money for a car knows, individuals have credit ratings too. And, as with the credit rating for the United States, credit ratings for individuals are used to help lenders and investors determine whether or not to lend money to a person and on what terms.
If Standard & Poor’s actually downgraded the country’s credit rating, it would have a similar effect on the nation as seeing a drop in a credit score would for an individual. In other words, the U.S. would have more difficulty borrowing money and could suffer a variety of financial consequences.
So how can a country (or an individual) keep its credit rating as strong as possible?
- Pay bills on time.
- Pay down as much debt as possible.
- Try to keep credit usage low (that is, stay well below the limit).
- Keep old accounts active (but not maxed out).
- Contact creditors before bill due dates if there is ever reason to expect inability to make timely payments.