Your credit score is just a number, but it can have a big impact on your life. If it’s high enough, banks are going to compete to lend you money at temptingly low interest rates. But if it’s low, you may be stuck paying through the nose for everything from credit card interest to auto loans.
So how do you go about finding out what your score is? Is it really worth the trouble?
Understanding Your Credit Score
Your credit score is essentially a measure of your creditworthiness. In other words, it shows the chances that, if someone lent you money, you would pay it back in full and on time.
The actual number is calculated based on information in your credit report — or, to be more exact, your three credit reports. You have a separate report from each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
These three companies receive information from lenders about the people to whom they’ve given loans. That information centers around how much money you’ve borrowed over the years, and how reliably you’ve paid it back.
At this point, another company, called the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO) steps in. FICO has created a formula that uses the information from your credit reports to produce a number between 300 and 850. This number is your credit score.
If you’ve borrowed money from different sources and always paid it back promptly, you should have a high score, indicating that you’re a good credit risk. However, problems such as bankruptcy, bills sent to a collection agency, or even just a lot of late payments can add up to a low score.
When lenders want to decide whether to loan you money, they pull your credit. This means they pay one or more of the credit bureaus for a peek at your credit report, and they may review your FICO score at the same time. The higher your score, the better your chances of being approved for a loan on favorable terms.
When people talk about your credit score, they usually mean your FICO score. However, some lenders prefer to use the newer VantageScore, developed by the three credit bureaus working in cooperation. The current version of this credit scoring model is called VantageScore 3.0.
If you request your credit score from all three bureaus, their numbers may not be the same. That’s because they’re based on three different credit reports, and the information in those reports may not match exactly.
For example, one bureau could have your credit card bill from last month, when you racked up $2,000 in charges, while another has your bill from this month, when you charged only $500. But in general, both your FICO score and your VantageScore should be pretty similar at all three bureaus.
Why Your Credit Score Is Important
There’s a common misconception that credit scores don’t really matter unless you plan to borrow money. For instance, financial guru Dave Ramsey says your credit score is really an “I love debt” score. If you always pay for everything with cash, he argues, there’s no need to worry about your credit rating.
However, these days it’s not just lenders who want to know your credit score. Plenty of individuals and companies, from insurers to potential employers, pull your credit to get an idea of how trustworthy you are.
This means that if your credit is poor, you may not just have a hard time getting a car loan — you may also pay more to insure the car once you’ve bought it. Additionally, you may be turned down for an apartment rental or even a job.
Even if you have no plans to borrow money any time soon, it’s useful to know your score and, if it’s low, take steps to bump it up. Checking your credit regularly can also help you catch mistakes that may be damaging your score.
Pro tip: If you want help boosting your credit score, sign up for Experian Boost. This is a free service from one of the three credit reporting agencies that will use on-time payments from utility bills to improve your credit score. These payments are typically not considered when factoring credit.
A 2013 report by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that about one in four Americans have significant errors in their credit reports — that is, errors big enough to affect their credit scores. These errors vary in significance. For example, your report might show a missed payment that was actually just late.
More seriously, it might show accounts in your name that you never opened — a sign that you’ve been a victim of identity theft. Checking your credit lets you find and fix such errors promptly before they cause major harm to your credit score.
Paid Credit Subscription Services
It may seem that, if your credit score can have such a big impact on your life, you should have a right to know what it is. However, as of now, FICO and the credit bureaus have no legal obligation to tell you. In 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to change that, but it never made it through the Senate.
This fact has opened up a market for companies to offer you access to your own credit score — for a fee, that is. For instance, FICO offers a service called myFICO that gives you a one-time peek at your credit score from a single credit bureau for $16. To view all three credit scores would cost you $48 a pop.
In addition, FICO and several other companies offer paid credit monitoring services. These services provide you with regular updates on your credit report and score for a monthly fee. Most services charge somewhere between $10 and $30 per month.
You can test many of these services for a trial period at a reduced price. These trial offers can give you a quick peek at your credit score for free or for a modest fee. However, you have to make sure to cancel the service before your trial period expires. Miss that deadline by even one minute, and you’re charged automatically for the next month at full price.
A paid service might be useful for tracking your credit over time, but if all you want is a quick peek at your credit score, this is a pretty pricey way to get it. However, there are now several sites that give you access to your credit report — or even your credit score — for free.
Free Credit Monitoring Services
Before signing up for a paid credit-monitoring service, even on a trial basis, it’s worth looking at free alternatives. The majority of these services don’t give you access to your actual FICO score, but they can give you a pretty good idea of what it is, and you don’t have to open up your wallet to find out.
Annual Credit Report
Although you have no legal right to see your credit score for free, your credit report is a different story. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you can request a free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus once per year. To get your free annual credit report, just visit the website AnnualCreditReport.com.
This is the only website that gives you access to your official annual credit report. Other sites with similar names, such as FreeCreditReport.com, are actually sponsored by the credit bureaus and other for-profit companies. If you order your “free” credit report from one of these sites, you may find yourself signed up for a credit monitoring service that charges a monthly fee.
There are also impostor sites with URLs that are slightly misspelled versions of AnnualCreditReport.com. Some of these steer you to commercial sites, while others may try to steal your personal information. To make sure you get your actual credit report with no strings attached, be sure to type in the URL exactly.
At AnnualCreditReport.com, you can obtain copies of your credit reports from all three credit bureaus. However, you don’t need to request all three at once. If you space them out throughout the year, requesting one report every four months, you’ve got a better chance of catching errors promptly.
Your credit report sums up everything a credit bureau knows about you, including the following:
- Personal Information. This includes your name, address, date of birth, and Social Security number. This information is not used in calculating your credit score, but it keeps your credit report from getting mixed up with the millions of other reports the credit bureaus have on file.
- Your Accounts. A report shows all your credit accounts, how long you’ve had each account, how much money you currently owe, and whether you’ve always paid your bills on time. In general, the more accounts and types of credit you have, the longer you’ve had them, and the more consistent your payment history is, the higher your credit score.
- Credit Inquiries. Each time you apply for a new credit account, the lender checks, or “pulls,” your credit. Your credit report shows how many times this has happened in the past two years. Having a lot of inquiries may hurt your credit score, because it makes it look like you’re desperate to borrow more money.
- Overdue Debts. If one of your debts is sent to a collection agency, that shows up in your credit report. It also contains information about your debts that appears in the public records of state and county courts, such as foreclosure and bankruptcy. Negative events like these raise major red flags that cause serious damage to your credit score.
One piece of information you won’t find in your credit report is your actual credit score. However, since your credit score is based entirely on information in your report, viewing the report can give you a pretty good idea of whether your credit rating is good or bad. It also gives you a chance to spot errors and warning signs of fraud or identity theft.
FICO Credit Score Estimator
Although FICO does not let you view your actual credit score for free, it offers a free tool that can give you a rough estimate of it. The Credit Score Estimator, found on the myFICO website, asks 10 basic questions about your credit history, such as “How many credit cards do you have?” and “When did you last miss a loan or credit card payment?”
Based on this information, the site gives you a ballpark credit score range of about 50 points. This estimate isn’t the same as your exact FICO score, but it can provide a general idea of how easy or difficult it will be for you to get credit.
There are several sites on the Internet that let you track your credit for free. They provide a scaled-down version of your credit report, along with a free credit score from the VantageScore. These free sites pay for their services with a form of advertising: specially selected offers for financial products, such as credit cards or personal loans, that are likely to fit your needs.
A free subscription to Credit Karma gives you access to two different credit scores: one from TransUnion, and one from Equifax. Both are VantageScores, but they’re based on different credit reports so they may not match exactly. The site breaks down each score based on the various factors that affect it, such as:
- Payment history: How often you’ve paid your bills on time
- Credit utilization: The percentage of your available credit you’re using
- Length of credit history: How long your accounts have been open
- Credit mix: How many accounts you have and what types they are
- Hard inquiries: How many times a lender has pulled your credit recently
- Derogatory marks: Negative events like having a bill sent to collections
Along with your scores, the site provides simplified versions of your Equifax and TransUnion credit reports. You can check them at any time to make sure the basic facts about your accounts are accurate.
An extra feature of the site is free tax preparation software. It covers most types of tax situations, including itemized deductions, business income, self-employment tax, and capital gains and losses. Both federal and state tax returns are free.
Like Credit Karma, Credit Sesame provides your VantageScore and a detailed breakdown of the factors that affect it. However, Credit Sesame bases its information solely on your TransUnion credit report.
Credit Sesame also offers some additional features for dealing with identity theft. Its credit monitoring feature alerts you right away to any major change in your TransUnion credit report. It also provides $1 million in identity theft insurance.
If you upgrade to the Platinum version of the service, which costs $19.95 per month, you get some extra perks. Credit Sesame monitors your credit from all three bureaus and also scans the Web for signs someone else has gained access to your Social Security number. And it provides help replacing your credit cards and IDs if your wallet is lost or stolen.
With Credit.com you get a VantageScore and a detailed “report card” on your credit use, updated every 14 days. This information is based on your Experian credit report, which means that by signing up for both Credit Karma and Credit.com, you can see information from all three reports.
Along with your credit score, Credit.com provides a customized action plan for improving your credit rating. The site’s team of financial experts offers guidance on topics like debt, budgeting, insurance, and taxes. The site also includes tools for calculating the interest on your debt, how long it will take to pay off your credit cards, and how much house you can afford.
Offers From Credit Card Providers
The biggest disadvantage of free credit-tracking sites is that they provide your VantageScore, not the FICO score lenders generally rely on. However, an increasing number of businesses now offer free monthly FICO scores to their customers.
Most companies that provide free credit scores are credit card issuers. These include Chase, Bank of America, Barclaycard, and Wells Fargo. With some companies, you don’t even have to be a customer to get a free credit score. For instance, anyone can sign up for the free Credit Scorecard from Discover.
If you’re lucky enough to have an account with one of the companies that offer a free FICO score, then you don’t have to lift a finger to check it. The score simply shows up on your statement each month.
If you’re not, however, it probably isn’t worth signing up for an account just to get this perk. The VantageScores offered on free sites like Credit Karma and Credit Sesame are not identical to your FICO score, but they’re a good enough indicator to let you know what to expect when you apply for a loan.
With more and more financial institutions hopping on the free-FICO bandwagon, there’s a good chance everyone who has a FICO score may one day have the opportunity to check it on a regular basis. Until then, take advantage of free services and stay on top of your credit.
Checking both your credit report and your credit score regularly can help you avoid unpleasant surprises when you want to borrow money. And it can let you know what kind of shape your credit is in, so you can work on giving your credit rating a boost if it needs one.