Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
Credit Score Guide: Take Control of Your Finances in 2023
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Credit scores can be intimidating. They’re like grades on a report card that reflect how well you manage credit. And credit scores aren’t always easy to comprehend, especially if you’re struggling to build or rebuild your credit.
But understanding your credit score and what goes into it can be empowering. If you need to work on your credit to get the best credit cards or score the lowest rate on a mortgage, it pays to know what’s in your score — and how to improve it.
Let’s get into the details of your credit score and what you can do to maintain and build great credit.
What a Credit Score Is and Why It Is Important
Credit scores put a number on your creditworthiness ranging from 300 to 850. The higher your credit score, the more creditworthy you are. Your credit score uses information from your credit report. It offers a reference point for potential creditors that indicates how likely you are to pay back your debts on time.
Credit scores are important because your score influences your ability to obtain credit products such as credit cards and loans. Your credit score also influences the credit terms you can access — the higher your credit score, the better your terms, such as interest rate. A good or excellent credit score can offer significant savings on interest rates.
Employers, landlords, and insurance companies may also use your credit score to evaluate your reliability and trustworthiness.
Why Your Credit Score Is Important
Your credit score can have a big impact on many key aspects of your life. Multiple credit scoring models exist, including FICO, VantageScore, and models built by lending or insurance companies. Still, it’s estimated that the FICO credit score developed by the Fair Isaac Corporation is used in more than 90% of lending decisions by top lenders in the U.S.¹ FICO uses the information provided by the 3 major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, to calculate your credit score.
When you apply for credit products such as loans or credit cards, lenders check your credit to determine approval and your terms. Your credit score is a key determinant of whether you’ll get a high or low interest rate for credit cards and loans or even if you qualify for credit at all.
Your credit score may be used for:
- Borrowing money
- Insurance coverage
In addition to lenders, other entities that may want to check out your credit history include landlords before you rent an apartment, cell phone companies before they issue you a voice and data plan, and potential employers before they’ll offer you a job. These entities can use a hard or soft inquiry to check your creditworthiness.
How Your Credit Score Differs From Your Credit Report
Your credit score depends on your credit report, but they aren’t the same thing. Your credit report is a detailed report of your overall credit history that contains information about your financial life, while your credit score is a numerical representation of your creditworthiness. A credit report can give lenders and other potential creditors a snapshot of how you’ve handled your debts and payments over time.
Hot Tip: For more detailed information, check out our in-depth piece on the difference between your credit score and credit report.
There is a myriad of information that may be included in your credit report, such as:
- Personal identifying information, including your name, address, and Social Security number
- Credit accounts, including credit cards, loans, and mortgages, with your account information, such as your balance, payment history, and credit limit
- Collection accounts and public records, such as bankruptcies, foreclosures, and liens
- Inquiries, including requests by lenders or other authorized parties to view an individual’s credit report
- Other pertinent information to your credit, such as any judgments, tax liens, and/or bankruptcies you’ve filed
There is also information about you that is not included in your credit report, such as your:
- Arrest record
- Marital status
- Political affiliation
- Religious beliefs
- Savings and checking account information
What the Purpose of a Credit Report Is
A credit report offers a detailed summary of your credit history and obligations. Your credit reports are compiled by the 3 major credit bureaus using the information provided to the bureaus by lenders and creditors.
Lenders, employers, landlords, and other authorized parties use your credit report to evaluate your creditworthiness and reliability.
Lenders primarily use credit reports to make credit decisions, such as whether to approve your loan or credit card application and what interest rates and terms to offer.
Employers and landlords may use your credit report to evaluate your responsibility and financial stability.
How Credit Scores Are Calculated
Your credit scores are calculated using proprietary algorithms developed by FICO and VantageScore. Credit score algorithms use information from your credit reports from the 3 major credit bureaus.
Here’s the basic process used to calculate your credit score:
- Information Collection: Credit bureaus compile information from various sources, including lenders and creditors, to create your credit report.
- Credit Score Factors: Credit scoring algorithms use information from relevant factors that indicate creditworthiness, such as payment history, credit utilization, and length of credit history. Each factor has a weight. For example, payment history accounts for 35% of your credit score.
- Calculation: Your credit score is calculated using the information provided by credit bureaus relative to the weighted factors used by the algorithm.
FICO and VantageScore regularly update credit scoring algorithms to predict your creditworthiness accurately.
Hot Tip: Get the facts about credit scores in our 2023 credit score statistics guide.
Credit Score Ranges
Credit score ranges are the high and low end of credit scores. The ranges of credit score ratings depend on the credit scoring model but are between 300 to 850 for both FICO and VantageScore.
Each lender can decide which scores it considers good or excellent. Still, these are the ranges set by credit scoring companies FICO and VantageScore:
|FICO Credit Score Range||Rating|
|580 to 669||Fair|
|670 to 739||Good|
|740 to 799||Very Good|
VantageScore ratings are slightly different from FICO’s:
|300 to 600||Subprime|
|601 to 660||Near Prime|
|661 to 780||Prime|
|781 to 850||Superprime|
Your FICO score and VantageScore are likely similar but not necessarily the same. You should expect both scores to be in the same rating range or close to it, though. For example, if you have a 700 FICO score, considered good credit, your VantageScore probably hovers around 700 in prime credit, too.
Here’s what you can expect for credit approvals and terms with each credit rating:
- Poor or Subprime Credit: You may have difficulty getting approved for credit. If approved, expect to pay extremely high interest rates and fees for credit products.
- Fair or Near-prime Credit: It’s easier to get approved for credit with fair or near-prime credit, but you should still expect to pay higher interest rates and fees for credit products than consumers with good credit.
- Good or Prime Credit: With good or prime credit, expect fairly easy credit approvals and good interest rates and terms, but not the best.
- Very Good, Exceptional, or Superprime Credit: At the highest end of credit ratings, you should have an easy time qualifying for credit products at the best interest rates and loan terms.
What Is a Good Credit Score?
A good credit score is generally 670 or higher on the FICO scale. A good or “prime” VantageScore is 661 or higher.
Credit Score Ranges for Mortgages
Generally, you’ll need a credit score of at least 620 FICO to get a conventional mortgage with most lenders. That falls in the fair rating.
If you have a higher credit score than 620, you may qualify for better mortgage terms and interest rate offers. With a credit score lower than 620, you may have difficulty getting approved for a mortgage. However, there are programs such as first-time homebuyer and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans that may enable you to get approved for a mortgage with a credit score under 620.
Credit Score Ranges for Credit Cards
Credit card products are available to consumers with any credit rating. If you have poor or no credit, you may be limited to secured credit cards, which require a security deposit typically equal to your credit line. With good or excellent credit, you may be approved for the best credit cards, which offer excellent rewards and benefits.
Credit Bureau Scores vs. FICO
There are several credit scoring models that lenders and credit bureaus may use to calculate credit scores. The most widely used credit scoring model is the FICO score.
VantageScore is known as the credit bureau score because it uses a single tri-bureau credit scoring model that uses credit reports from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. FICO creates specific scoring models for each credit bureau, so you have a slightly different FICO score for each bureau.
While the FICO score and the VantageScore models use similar factors to calculate credit scores, such as payment history, credit utilization, and length of credit history, some differences exist in how they weigh these factors and calculate credit scores.
For example, the VantageScore emphasizes your most recent 24 months of credit history, while the FICO score looks at your entire credit history. VantageScore also considers rent and utility payments, which the FICO score does not.
While lenders widely use both FICO and VantageScore, you should expect some differences between your scores and check both your FICO and VantageScore to understand your creditworthiness.
What Affects Your Credit Score?
Your credit score is influenced by several key factors, including your payment history, how much of your available credit you use, how long your credit history is, new accounts you’ve opened, and the types of credit accounts you have.
Payment history is the most important factor for your FICO credit score and VantageScore. A history of on-time payments increases your credit score, while late or missed payments can negatively impact your credit score.
How you use your credit is another major factor for both FICO and VantageScore. Credit utilization is how much of your credit you use compared to the total amount available. Using a high percentage of your available credit can indicate a higher risk of default and bring down your credit score.
Compare the major scoring factors for credit scoring companies FICO and VantageScore:
|FICO Credit Scoring Factor||Percent of Your FICO Score||Why It Matters|
|Payment History||35%||Lenders want to know whether you’ve paid your bills on time.|
|Amounts Owed||30%||Using a lot of available credit can flag you as a high-risk borrower.|
|Length of Credit History||15%||A long track record of responsible credit use is reassuring to lenders.|
|Credit Mix||10%||It’s good to demonstrate responsible use of various credit types, including credit cards and installment loans.|
|New Credit||10%||Opening multiple new accounts quickly could flag you as a risky borrower.|
VantageScore’s scoring factors are similar but slightly different. However, payment history is still the leading factor — it counts for more than 40% of your score.
|VantageScore Factor||Percent of Your VantageScore||Why It Matters|
You must pay your bills on time to show lenders you can manage credit responsibly.
|Depth of Credit||20%||
Long-term credit accounts can give lenders a better view of how you manage your money over time
Your revolving credit indicates how much of your available credit you use.
Recent inquiries and new accounts may indicate an increased reliance on credit, a red flag for lenders.
High balances can hurt your score because existing large debt payments can strain your ability to pay for new accounts.
Having a large amount of available credit on your revolving accounts can help raise your score.
What Affects Your Credit Score Negatively?
Late payments and high balances relative to your credit limit can negatively affect your credit score. Derogatory accounts, such as collections and charge-offs, can hurt your credit score.
What Affects Your Credit Score the Most?
Payment history is the most important factor in your FICO and VantageScore credit scores. Payment history covers your percentage of on-time payments for your loans or other credit obligations. It also considers how late your payments are, such as 30, 60, 90 days, or more, how many late payments you’ve had, and how recently the late payments occurred.
Making all your payments on time can be one of the best ways to raise your credit score. On the other hand, continuously paying late (or not making payments at all) can be the primary driver of a low credit score.
Credit Score Myths
Don’t believe these common misconceptions about credit scores:
- A higher income means a higher score.
- While more money can make it easier to pay your bills on time, getting a raise doesn’t show up on your credit report and won’t automatically increase your credit score.
- You’ll hurt your credit if you check your credit score.
- Hard inquiries made by creditors can ding your credit, but you can check your own score as many times as you want with no impact on your credit rating.
- You have to carry a balance for good credit.
- Revolving a balance on your credit cards won’t help your credit – it will just cost you in interest and put you at a higher risk for credit card debt as your balance grows. It’s always better to pay your credit card bills in full each month.
What Credit Score Do You Start With?
You don’t have a credit score until you establish a credit history. For example, if you’re a student just starting to use credit and taking out your first credit card or loan, you won’t have a credit score until you open an account.
FICO scores need at least 6 months of data on at least 1 credit account to generate a score, while VantageScore just needs 1 account with a month of data to start your score.
Once you establish credit accounts and generate credit scores, your score will range from 300 to 850. Even if you have a perfect payment history, expect your credit score to start on the lower end until you have a longer, more proven track record of responsible credit management.
If you don’t yet have a credit history, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be turned down for credit or a loan. There are other criteria a lender may look at to determine whether you could be a good credit risk. These include:
- Employment: Your employment history can be a big factor, especially if you have a stable track record — this shows consistency and responsibility.
- Residence History: Lenders and creditors may also consider how long you generally reside in 1 place. A history of moving around often can sometimes be a negative sign, while a solid residence history is a positive factor.
- Banking Information: Creditors will also look at your banking information. Consumers who have checking and savings accounts will typically be seen in a more favorable light.
Even with minimal credit history, you can begin building up your credit going forward. You can do this in several ways, such as applying for a secured credit card or getting a card with a cosigner.
Why It Is Important To Check Your Credit Score
You should check your credit score regularly to stay on top of your credit health and see what potential lenders see before you apply for credit.
Checking your credit score and credit report can help you:
- Identify Errors: A low credit score may be your first sign of something wrong with your credit report. Your credit report may contain mistakes, such as inaccurate accounts or late payments that you know you made on time. Quickly correcting mistakes on your credit report can prevent these mistakes from damaging your credit rating.
- Detect Fraud: Some errors on your credit report are genuine mistakes, but others may be fraud or identity theft that can drag your credit score down. Looking at the accounts and balances on your credit report can help you spot any that don’t belong to you. If you catch fraud early, you can minimize the damage.
- Understand Your Creditworthiness: Checking your credit score can give you an idea of where you stand on creditworthiness. If it’s lower than you need it to be, you can check your credit report for areas of improvement and build better credit.
- Prepare for Major Financial Moves: If you plan to apply for a loan or credit card soon, checking your credit score allows you to see what potential lenders see. If your score isn’t high enough to get approval for the loan or card at the terms you want, look to your credit report for areas you can improve.
How To Check Your Credit Score
There are many ways to check your credit score, ranging from credit monitoring services to apps and services from financial institutions. These are some of your options for checking your credit score:
- Credit Score Apps: Many online or mobile apps, such as Mint, allow you to check your credit score for free.
- Credit Monitoring Services: Some companies offer credit monitoring services that allow you to check your credit score and credit report regularly. Some of these services are free, while others require a monthly fee. For example, the credit bureau Experian offers free credit monitoring along with your credit score and report.
- Financial Institutions: Banks or credit unions you have an account with may offer free access to your credit score. Some don’t require you to be a customer, such as Capital One’s CreditWise credit access and monitoring tool.
How Often To Check Your Credit Score
It’s a good idea to check your credit score regularly. With most online credit score services, such as those provided by your credit card, bank, or financial apps, you can check your credit score as often as you’d like — though you don’t need to obsess over daily ups and downs in your credit score.
At the very least, you should check your credit score once a year, but a quarterly or monthly check-in is better so you can identify any issues early on.
Hot Tip: When you check your own credit score, it doesn’t affect your credit, unlike hard credit inquiries from creditors that do have a small effect on your credit score.
Why Keeping a Good Credit Score Is Important
Keeping a good credit score can open financial doors, offering access to credit products such as loans and credit cards at the best rates and terms. That can save you money over the long term and give you financial flexibility to reach your goals, such as owning a home or starting a business.
These are just some of the reasons it pays to maintain a good credit score:
- You can qualify for loans and credit. A good credit score is one of the most important factors lenders consider when deciding whether to approve you for a loan or credit. A higher credit score can increase your chances of being approved at the best terms.
- You’ll save on interest. A higher credit score can lead to lower interest rates on loans and credit cards, saving you thousands of dollars over time. It can also make qualifying for apartments or cell phone plans easier without paying security deposits or higher fees.
- Good credit offers financial flexibility. A good credit score can open up more financial options, including access to credit cards with great rewards programs or loans with favorable terms. This can help you achieve your financial goals more quickly and easily.
- Good credit demonstrates financial responsibility. A good credit score can indicate you are financially responsible and manage your debts well. This can be important when applying for jobs or rental housing, as it can demonstrate your reliability and trustworthiness.
How To Maintain and Improve Your Credit Score
Maintaining and improving your credit score takes time and effort, but there are several steps you can take to achieve and maintain a good credit score:
- Pay your bills on time. Payment history is the most important factor affecting your credit score. Paying your bills on time, including credit cards, loans, and utility bills, can help you maintain a good credit score. Set reminders and automatic payments to help you stay on top of payment due dates.
- Keep your revolving balances low. Your credit utilization ratio, which is the amount of credit you use compared to your credit limit, is another important factor affecting your credit score. Keeping your credit card balances low, ideally below 30% of your credit limit, can help you maintain a good credit score.
- Avoid applying for too much credit at once. Each time you apply for credit, it can result in a hard inquiry on your credit report, which can lower your credit score. Avoid applying for too much credit at once, and only apply for the credit you need.
- Monitor your credit report. Review your credit report regularly to ensure that it is accurate, and detect any errors or fraudulent activity. If you find any errors, dispute them with the credit bureau to have them corrected.
- Maintain a mix of credit. A mix of credit types, such as credit cards, loans, and a mortgage, can help you maintain a good credit score. However, it’s important to only take on credit that you can afford to pay back.
- Keep old credit accounts open. The length of your credit history is another factor that affects your credit score. Keeping old credit accounts open can help you maintain a longer credit history even if you’re not using them.
The best thing you can do to maintain and improve your credit score is to pay your bills on time. The next best thing you can do is keep your credit card balances low.
3 Things That Build Your Credit Score
The 3 main factors that build your credit score are:
- Payment History: This is the most important factor that affects your credit score, accounting for about 35% of your score. Your payment history shows whether you have paid your bills on time, including credit card payments, loan payments, and utility bills.
- Credit Utilization: This is the second most important factor that affects your credit score, accounting for about 30% of your score. Credit utilization is the percentage of your available credit that you are using. For example, if you have a credit card with a $10,000 limit and a balance of $5,000, your credit utilization is 50%. Keeping your credit utilization low can help you build your credit score.
- Length of Credit History: The length of your credit history accounts for 15% of your FICO credit score. This factor considers how long you have had credit accounts open and how often you use them. Having a longer credit history can help you build your credit score.
In addition to these 3 factors, other factors that affect your credit score include the types of credit you have, new credit accounts you have opened recently, and any negative marks on your credit report, such as missed payments or bankruptcy.
How Long It Takes To Improve Your Credit Score
You can see some credit score improvements as soon as 1 billing cycle on your credit card, but you should expect it to take at least a few months for a more noticeable improvement in your credit score. Significant improvements can take several months or years, depending on how long it takes you to improve the factors that make up your credit score.
Some factors that can affect how long it takes to improve your credit score include:
- What’s Dragging Down Your Credit Score: If your credit score is low because of missed payments or high credit utilization, you can improve your score relatively quickly once you start making on-time payments and paying down your debt. However, it can take longer to recover if your score is low because of a major negative event like bankruptcy, foreclosure, or a large debt collection.
- How Long Negative Items Remain on Your Credit Report: Late payments, collections, bankruptcies, and foreclosures can remain on your credit report for several years, even after you’ve resolved the issue. This means that even after you’ve taken steps to improve your credit, it can take time for your score to reflect those improvements as those negative items drop off.
If high credit utilization from credit card balances is dragging down your credit score, you could see improvement as soon as you pay down your credit card bills. Once your credit card company reports a lower balance at the end of your billing cycle — when your statement closes — you may see improvement in your credit score.
Other factors take longer to improve. If you have a history of late payments, you’ll need to put in months, ideally years, of on-time payments to improve your credit score. Late payments have a lower effect as time passes, provided you don’t make more late payments.
You could improve your credit mix factor fairly quickly by opening a new account, but this is a small part of your credit score, and you shouldn’t necessarily open a new credit account just to improve this measure.
The age of your credit history is another factor that just takes time. You can support this factor by keeping old accounts open, such as your first credit card.
Hot Tip: If you have an old credit card with an annual fee that isn’t bringing you any value but want to keep the account open, call your credit card issuer and ask them to downgrade your card to one that doesn’t have an annual fee. You can keep the account but skip the annual fee. Use the card occasionally — about every 6 months or so — to keep the issuer from flagging your account for closure due to inactivity.
Be patient and consistent when working to improve your credit score. Make on-time payments, keep your credit utilization low, and regularly check your credit report for errors or inaccuracies. Over time, these actions can help improve your credit score and lead you toward better financial health.
How Credit Bureaus Work
Credit bureaus are private companies collecting, storing, and maintaining credit information about individuals and businesses. The 3 major credit bureaus in the U.S. are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
These bureaus collect information on consumers’ credit histories, including their credit accounts, payment history, and outstanding debts. They also collect public records such as bankruptcies, foreclosures, and tax liens.
The credit bureaus gather this information from various sources, including lenders, creditors, and public records, and use it to create credit reports. Credit scoring companies use information from your credit report to generate credit scores.
You have the right to request a free credit report from each major credit bureau once per year.
How Often Your FICO Credit Score Is Updated
Generally, FICO scores are updated when new information is added to your credit reports, such as a new credit account or a payment update. For example, if you make a payment on a credit account, it may take until the billing cycle closes and a statement is issued for the payment to be reported to the credit bureaus. Once the credit bureaus receive the updated information, they typically update your credit report and FICO score within a few days to a few weeks.
Overall, the frequency of updates to your FICO score can depend on how often lenders and creditors report information to the credit bureaus and how quickly the credit bureaus can process and update that information.
Having a good credit score can open up a world of possibilities. It’s beneficial to ensure you have a good credit score and that all the information on your credit report is true and up-to-date.
At Upgraded Points, we offer information on building credit and other financial tips and guides. We also provide in-depth credit card reviews, so you know what you can expect if you apply for one or more of these cards.
Featured Image Credit: pichetw via Adobe Stock
Frequently Asked Questions
Your credit score is made up of 5 factors: payment history, credit utilization, the average age of accounts, credit mix, and new credit inquiries.
Each factor is weighted according to different models and is used to develop your credit score.
You’ll benefit from having a good credit score by:
- Having a better chance of getting approved for loans and other forms of credit (such as obtaining credit cards)
- Qualifying for lower interest rates on loans and credit cards (and, in turn, lower payments on those obligations)
- Having an easier time obtaining items and services, such as cell phones and utilities (often with a lower or nonexistent security deposit)
- Qualifying for lower premium rates on insurance coverage
- Being able to obtain higher limits on credit cards
The exact ranges will depend on the credit scoring model. Still, for the FICO scoring model, credit scores under 580 are considered poor, from 580 to 669 are considered fair, 670 to 739 are considered good, 740 to 799 are considered very good, and 800 and up are considered excellent.
Potential lenders, landlords, and even employers will use your credit score to help decide whether to give you credit, sign a lease, or offer you employment.
In addition, your credit score will help determine the terms, including what interest rate you’ll pay, if a security deposit is required, and what credit limits are offered.
The five levels of credit scores typically referred to are the ranges determined by the FICO scoring model, which lenders widely use. These ranges are:
- Poor: 300 to 579
- Fair: 580 to 669
- Good: 670 to 739
- Very good: 740 to 799
- Exceptional: 800 to 850
Credit score ranges may vary depending on the credit scoring model used by lenders, and different lenders may have their own criteria for what they consider a good credit score.
There is no specific credit score that is considered “good” for a particular age group. Credit scores are based on credit history, not age. They can vary widely based on payment history, credit utilization, length of credit history, and types of credit used.
However, generally speaking, a good credit score is typically considered 670 or above on the FICO scoring model. This score indicates that you are a relatively low credit risk and may qualify for better lending terms and interest rates.
Credit Karma provides credit scores and credit reports based on data from 2 of the 3 major credit bureaus, TransUnion and Equifax. While Credit Karma’s scores are calculated using VantageScore, which is a different credit scoring model than FICO, it can still provide a useful estimate of your creditworthiness.
Credit Karma’s scores and reports are generally considered reliable, but they may not be identical to the scores and reports provided by lenders, as different lenders may use different credit scoring models and criteria to evaluate creditworthiness.
Additionally, Credit Karma may not have access to all the information lenders use to make lending decisions, such as income and employment history. It’s always a good idea to regularly check your credit report and score from multiple sources to get a complete picture of your creditworthiness.
The FICO credit scoring model, widely used by lenders, considers 5 main factors that affect your credit score. These factors and their relative importance are:
- Payment history (35%)
- Credit utilization (30%)
- Length of credit history (15%)
- Credit mix (10%)
- New credit (10%)
Yes, paying off your credit card can improve your credit score with lower credit utilization, a positive payment history, and reduced interest and fees.
The amount of time it takes for your credit score to improve after paying off debt can vary depending on several factors, such as the amount of debt you paid off, your overall credit history, and the specific credit scoring model lenders use.
In general, paying off debt can have a positive impact on your credit score, particularly if the debt you paid off was a large balance or an account in collections. However, it may take some time for your credit score to reflect this improvement.
Yes, secured credit cards can help improve credit scores as long as they are used responsibly.
Secured credit cards require a security deposit to be made, which acts as collateral for the credit limit that is extended to the cardholder. Because of this, secured credit cards are often easier to obtain than unsecured ones, even if you have a limited credit history or poor credit.
Using a secured credit card responsibly can help you establish a positive credit history and improve your credit score. By making timely payments and keeping your credit utilization low, you demonstrate to lenders that you are a responsible borrower. This can help improve your credit score and make it easier to obtain other types of credit.
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