How to check your credit score

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Finding out your credit score seems like it should be pretty easy, right? After all, there’s that website AnnualCreditReport.com where you can get your credit reports for free every year. But once you get there you will discover that free credit reports are not the same thing as free credit scores.

Unlike your credit report, you are not entitled by law to a free credit score. Fortunately, there are many ways to obtain your credit score, with or without paying for it.

Wait—aren’t your scores based on the information in your credit reports? Yes, they are. Let’s dive in and talk about how to get your credit scores.

Where can I check my credit score?

You can purchase your score from the major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—and even directly from FICO. If you buy it from the bureaus, it must be given at a “reasonable cost,” according to the law that established free annual credit reports.

Can I check my credit score for free?

Experian offers a free FICO 8 credit score with its free monitoring service. The price you’ll pay is getting offers for products. As long as you can say “no,” this is a good deal. The other credit bureaus also offer credit monitoring but for a monthly fee, which does include a “free” score.

You may have access to your credit score for free through other means. Several credit card companies offer credit reporting and scoring as a benefit to cardholders. This is usually a free opt-in service.

Card issuer offerings include American Express MyCredit Guide, Citi’s Card Benefits, Capital One’s CreditWise, Chase’s Credit Journey and Discover’s Credit Scorecard. If you don’t have a credit card from one of these issuers, check with the ones you have to see if they offer something similar at no cost to you.

The FICO Open Access Program is another resource for consumers to obtain their score for free. FICO has partnered with more than 200 banks, credit card issuers, auto lenders and mortgage services to offer those partner’s customers free access to their FICO scores. The key here is that you have to be a customer of one of the partners, but you can check with your bank or other lenders to see if this is an option for you.

Which credit score should I check?

This is a great question because when it comes to credit scores, there is a lot to unpack.

The most widely used of them all is the FICO score. This is the one most people think of when they think of their credit score, mainly because it invented credit scoring for lending decisions. But even within FICO, there are many iterations, the latest being FICO 10.

There is the fairly-new-to-game VantageScore, also with several versions (the latest is 4.0). VantageScore looks a little different from the FICO score and is calculated somewhat differently. But it uses the information in your credit report come up with your score.

Then there are the lesser-known scores that are generated by other financial sites using their own algorithms. All should be somewhat similar since they will be mostly based on the same information, but you should also know that there are likely to be some differences.

Any of the sites I’ve mentioned are probably fine for keeping up with your score. But if you’re applying for credit in the near future, find out what score the lender will look at so you can check that one out for yourself beforehand. Even though your score will probably not match your lender’s (because they may use a different or specialized version), it should be close enough to give you the confidence that you will be approved.

Does checking your credit hurt your score?

Checking your credit score yourself will never hurt your score. Doing so is considered a “soft” inquiry (as opposed to a “hard” one) because you are not trying to obtain new credit when you check for yourself.

Of course, you may be checking so you can do that, but the “hard” inquiry only comes when the lender pulls your credit in order to see if they are going to extend that new credit to you. Along the same lines, those offers you get online or in the mail for new credit cards or other financial offerings “based on your good credit” are soft inquiries and also do not hurt your score, unless and until you take advantage of one of those offers.

What is a good credit score?

This is a somewhat loaded question, but in general a FICO score below 670 is not where you want to be. This is considered sub-prime. Anything in the 670 to 739 range is considered a good credit score. Above that, your credit score is considered “excellent” and you are golden.

In the case of VantageScores, you want to be above 600. From 661 to 780 is considered a good VantageScore and likely to get you credit at competitive rates.

I always recommend that you shoot for a score that is “good enough” to get what you want at a price you want, as opposed to shooting for the elusive “perfect” credit score of 850. This will save you from chasing an ever-moving target to no avail.

How to improve your credit score

If your score is not where you want it to be, for whatever reason, there are concrete steps you can take to make it better. I have written extensively on this topic and am in the process of revising my book, “Credit Repair Kit For Dummies.” For those who can’t wait until December when the fifth edition comes out, you can get a copy of the fourth edition on Amazon for cheap!

Here are some tips on how to improve your credit score:

  • First and foremost, pay all of your bills on time, as agreed, each and every month. Good payment history is crucial to having a good score and accounts for 35 percent of your FICO score.
  • Watch how much of your credit you are using on your credit cards and try to keep it below 25 percent of your total credit available. Your credit utilization ratio reflects how much you owe and accounts for 30 percent of your FICO score.
  • Only apply for new credit when you need to and when you are fairly certain you will be accepted. New credit accounts for 10 percent of your FICO score.
  • If you only have a wallet full of credit cards (revolving debt) with no car loans or mortgages (installment debt) your score will suffer somewhat, so look into ways to obtain whichever kind of debt you don’t have in order to improve your credit mix. Credit mix is good for 10 percent of your FICO score.
  • To get the last big factor in your score in shape you need only sit back and wait (while doing all of the above). That factor is length of credit history, weighing in at 15 percent. The longer you show good credit habits, the more points you get.

Bottom line

It is relatively easy to get your credit score, so there is no excuse for not doing so. But when you do, don’t let your credit score dominate your life. If you follow my advice above, your score will reflect your good choices.

Just remember that it is far easier to bring a score down than to bring it up; what this means is that mistakes will lower your score more quickly than good actions. If you do the things I have suggested and give yourself time (and have some patience), you will be rewarded with a score you can be proud of. And then you can get on with the more important things in life!