Americans may finally be getting hip to their credit.
Nearly half of Americans — 46 percent — have checked their credit score within the past year, according to a new Bankrate Money Pulse survey. Another 14 percent have checked their score within the past three years.
That’s not to say all Americans are tuned in. Many have never pulled their credit scores.
The Money Pulse numbers contrast with other surveys from recent years indicating that most consumers were clueless when it came to their credit. Case in point: A 2013 study from the American Bankers Association found that 56 percent of U.S. consumers did not know their score.
Still, the latest survey results aren’t all that surprising when you consider industry trends.
From fee to free
Companies used to charge consumers to learn their credit standing. But over the past few years, “credit scores (have become) far more accessible than they ever have been,” says Bruce McClary, vice president of public relations and external affairs with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Free versions are coming directly from financial services providers, and there are also numerous websites that help people readily check their credit, he says.
Bankrate’s survey found that a majority of consumers are getting their credit score for free.
Forty-one percent of Americans say they received their most recent version for free on a bank or credit card statement, while 15 percent used a free credit score simulator online. Comparatively, 13 percent purchased their score from one of the major credit bureaus, and 6 percent received it through paid credit monitoring or identity theft services.
Credit these freebies, at least in part, to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In early 2014, the agency launched its free credit score initiative and encouraged financial institutions to provide the three-digit number to their customers. As a result, many big banks have since moved to do so.
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Push vs. pull
Most recently, credit scoring giant FICO announced it will provide free versions of its score to financially strapped consumers through qualified nonprofit credit counselors and participating government entities.
“If you push something out to somebody, certainly they’re more likely to get it,” says Mike Sullivan, director of education at nonprofit credit and debt counseling agency Take Charge America. “Now that the banks are giving (scores) out … (consumers) do pay attention and they do recall them.”
They also may be more familiar with their credit scores because of the recent slew of high-profile data breaches.
“Once there’s been a breach, consumers get very concerned,” says Madeline Aufseeser, senior analyst at Aite Group in Boston. They’re more apt to check their credit, and they’re also likely to have another company foot the bill for it, she says.
Home Depot, Kmart and Staples, for instance, all offered free credit monitoring to consumers affected by their data breaches over the past year.
Free scores not a fail-safe
Still, consumers need to understand that simply scanning a free score doesn’t necessarily help them understand their creditworthiness.
“If a person is just looking at a number, it doesn’t give them any information they can act on,” says Rod Griffin, director of public education at credit bureau Experian. “When you get a credit score, you should also get the risk factors that go along with the score.”
These could include late payments, public records or collection accounts, for instance, but you would need to review more comprehensive information about your credit score to be sure.
Plus, you have more than one credit score. Creditors purchase different, often proprietary, analytics from credit-scoring models, like FICO and VantageScore, to assess the risk associated with a prospective borrower. A mortgage lender may look at a different score than the one being furnished by your credit card issuer.
“Make sure that the score you’re looking at is one that lenders are looking at, as well,” McClary says. At the very least, “you want enough information about how that score is calculated to know how it would be similar to what lenders are looking at.”
Less love for the credit report
Many Americans, in fact, still ignore their credit completely.
More than one-quarter (26 percent) of consumers indicate they have never checked their credit score, and a whopping 35 percent have never reviewed their credit report for errors or signs of fraud.
The decision to forgo pulling a credit report is doubly problematic because “your credit score is not going to tell you if you have been a victim of identity theft,” Sullivan says. Early warnings signs, such as a change to your address or other personal information, have zero impact on your score.
Plus, “if you’re only looking at the number and you’re satisfied where the score is, you’re missing an opportunity to improve that score simply by correcting mistakes (on a report),” McClary says.
You’ll find evidence of fraud or detrimental errors only if you go through your credit report line by line, he says.
The age divide
Bankrate’s poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, which obtained the data via telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults living in the continental U.S. Telephone interviews were conducted by landline (500) and cellphone (500, including 284 without a landline phone) in English and Spanish from April 16 to 19, 2015.
It found that millennials were the most lackadaisical about checking their credit. Thirty-eight percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 said they have never checked their credit score. Comparatively, only 20 percent of those 30 to 49 and 18 percent of those 50 to 64 haven’t seen their digits.
Methodology: Bankrate’s poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, which obtained the data via telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults living in the continental U.S. Telephone interviews were conducted by landline (500) and cellphone (500, including 284 without a landline phone) in English and Spanish from April 16 to 19, 2015.
Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
“Some of it is life circumstances,” Griffin says. “You’ll see people who are planning to apply for credit and they have a motivation for checking a credit report.”
But while many millennials may yet to have reached the age where they’re shopping for a mortgage, they’re also more credit-averse than their predecessors. An earlier Bankrate survey found that a whopping 63 percent of millennials (ages 18 to 29) don’t have a credit card, due, at least in part, to growing up during the Great Recession and amassing record amounts of student loan debt.
Credit Check 101
Thanks to the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, or the Credit CARD Act, everyone is entitled to one free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus every year. That means, at the very least, you should be reviewing yours annually.
“If you are a responsible consumer, you are going to check it three times a year,” Sullivan says, by staggering requests across bureaus every four months.
Request a free credit report by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com. Once you have one in hand, review it closely for errors. If you discover suspect information, contact the bureau immediately to file a dispute.
Next, scan for “the problems that are affecting your credit,” Sullivan says.
If you’re getting ready to apply for a loan, check to see a version of your score, McClary says.
But, no matter when you review it, try not to get too hung up on those three digits.
“Instead of chasing the number, you should be putting into practice smart financial choices,” he says. “Focus primarily (on) how are you treating your lines of credit … decide to pay your account on time and that alone would make” a difference in your overall credit standing.
You can often improve your score by paying down any credit card balances, eliminating “nuisance” balances and always paying bills on time.