Woman looking at bills and receipts on floor © David Sacks, Lifesize, Getty Images

Related topics: debt, credit cards, bad credit, credit score, Liz Weston

Clawing your way back from a credit disaster isn't easy. And the higher your credit scores were, the longer it will take to restore them.

Those facts are made abundantly clear in new charts released by Fair Isaac, the creators of the leading FICO credit score. The charts detail how many points people with mediocre, good and excellent scores lose when they suffer certain credit setbacks, and how long it takes their scores to recover.

Let's look at the first chart, which shows the variable damage inflicted by skipping mortgage payments, short sales, foreclosure and bankruptcy:

 Consumer AConsumer BConsumer C
Starting FICO680720780
FICO score after these events:
30 days late on mortgage600-620630-650670-690
90 days late on mortgage600-620610-630650-670
Short sale (no deficiency balance reported)610-630605-625655-675
Short sale (with deficiency balance reported)575-595570-590620-640

As you can see, the same events have different impacts. Consumer A, with a mediocre score of 680 on the 300-to-850 FICO scale, loses fewer points with each negative action than Consumer B, who has a good score of 720, or Consumer C, who has an excellent score of 780.

That may seem unfair, but it's how credit scores work. A lower starting score reflects the fact that the person has had some credit troubles in the relatively recent past, indicating a greater likelihood of defaulting again. People with higher scores are seen as less risky, so their scores react more dramatically when negative events occur.

Another fact to note: A short sale on a home (selling it for less than what you owe) results in slightly less damage than a foreclosure only when no deficiency balance is reported to the credit bureaus. Because a short sale by definition creates a deficiency balance, pretty much the only way you'll escape the full damage is if you can persuade your lender not to report the deficiency to the credit bureaus.

Image: Liz Weston

Liz Weston

Otherwise, a short sale has exactly the same impact as a foreclosure on your credit scores.

Also, if you enter a loan modification program with your lender, you may well hurt your credit scores. Many lenders report borrowers as "late" when they're in the modification's initial trial period, because the borrowers aren't paying as originally agreed. As you can see, reports of late payments can really trash your scores.

Now let's move on to the second chart. Here's how long you'll need to recover:

 Consumer AConsumer BConsumer C
Starting FICO680720780
Time for FICO to recover after these events:
30 days late on mortgage~ 9 months~ 2.5 years~ 3 years
90 days late on mortgage~ 9 months~ 3 years~ 7 years
Short sale (no deficiency balance reported)~ 3 years~ 7 years~ 7 years
Short sale (with deficiency balance reported)~ 3 years~ 7 years~ 7 years
Foreclosure~ 3 years~ 7 years~ 7 years
Bankruptcy~ 5 years~ 7-10 years~ 7-10 years

Once again, people with better scores suffer more: It takes them much longer to regain lost ground.

A person with a mediocre score can return to 680 in about nine months after a skipped mortgage payment, while the person with the 780 score may need three years to return her score to its once lofty peak. (The person with the lower score has fewer points to recoup, and adding points is typically much more difficult than losing them.)