It took Stan Kelman three years of monitoring and tinkering to muscle his wife’s credit score to a perfect 850. “It’s a personal achievement,” says the 44-year-old business analyst and data scientist. “I’m very proud of it.”

Anna, his wife, let him direct the strategy for managing her accounts—whether to apply for new credit, when to ask for higher limits, how much of those limits to draw on. Her husband, a self-described credit card-obsessive, was also working on his own record. Six months ago, when some big credit blemishes finally dropped off his report, his score reached as high as 842. Within a year, Kelman thinks he can reach 850, too.

Some 200 million U.S. consumers have FICO credit scores, while just under 3 million, or about 1.4 percent, have perfect 850s. That’s according to Fair Isaac Corp., the company behind the 28-year-old scoring model used by lenders to predict whether you will pay back a loan. But over the years the number has become much more than that—it’s now an American totem of success or failure, hope or despair, security or risk. While there are competing models, almost anyone with a credit card knows that a number typically ranging between 300 and 850 holds huge sway over their financial life.

Or does it? America may finally be approaching what could arguably be called peak credit score. This year, the average national FICO number is 700, just above where it stood in October 2006, before the run-up to our most recent financial collapse. The ranks of “super-prime” consumers—those with scores of 800 and up—have steadily increased since 2010, and now number over 41 million, more than consumers with scores of 600 or below.

A big reason for this is that American consumer finances are generally in good shape. While the overall level of household debt has returned to its pre-recession peak, it remains low when compared with income, says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. Debt service—principal and interest payments as a percent of income—is at an all-time low, helped by mortgage refinancing over the past decade.

It used to be that your credit score was a big mystery, or you had to pay to see it. Now credit card companies can’t wait to show you your score, for free. But those three-digit numbers you get every month aren’t necessarily the ones lenders use. In reality, you have dozens of scores, some based on previous versions of FICO scoring models and others developed by the three big credit bureaus. And your score will vary by the lender’s industry—mortgage, auto loan, credit card, and telecom services.

It’s possible all this transparency has fueled our pursuit of creditworthiness. What has definitely helped is a steady decline in payment delinquencies of more than 90 days, especially in real estate loans. All those negative credit entries earned in the recession have also started to disappear from reports thanks to the seven-year rule that helped Kelman. Meanwhile, automated bill payments are removing human error from the equation. A lull in the growth of new subprime accounts from early 2012 to early 2014, and a lingering reluctance on the part of consumers to seek new credit hasn’t hurt, either. (Applying for more credit temporarily dings your score.)

To be fair, some experts see U.S. credit consciousness as being at a post-recession inflection point. Rather than dodgy mortgage loans, however, these days the risk factor is subprime auto loans, where delinquencies have been rising for four years.

While late credit card and mortgage payments are also starting to tick up, Zandi believes those measures “are simply returning to historical norms.” Looser underwriting and hard-hit consumers in energy patches like Texas and the Dakotas are driving some of that. But there’s a third possible explanation: The weakening predictive power of credit scores as consumers learn how to game the system.

“The scoring models may not be telling us the same thing that they have historically, because people are so focused on their scores and working hard to get them up,” Zandi says. Those score-fluffing strategies are “mucking with their relationship to the underlying credit risk.”

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