Your credit score is used for everything from determining your creditworthiness to your car insurance rates and can even be used by employers as part of the hiring process.
Knowing what your credit score can help you make financial decisions -- but you have more than one credit score.
Why credit scores matter
Credit scores are calculated with the various amounts of data that appear on your credit reports. The most widely used credit score comes from the Fair Isaac Company (FICO).
Credit scores are metrics to help lenders determine your ability to handle credit and whether or not you'd be able to repay a loan -- a higher credit score means you appear more financially responsible.
This number is also used by many car insurance companies when coming up with your insurance score, and by employers evaluating potential new hires.
Landlords may even use your credit score to decide whether or not to rent an apartment to you.
If you are considering moving or applying for credit, knowing what your credit score is can help you decide if you will be approved for a loan or apartment.
Not just one credit score
The most commonly used score is the one created by FICO, but the three credit-reporting bureaus -- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion -- also have their own credit scores that were developed by their own formulas.
It’s important that you get the right credit score so you have an accurate number when it comes to assessing your ability to qualify for loans.
Currently, you can order your FICO score from Equifax and myFICO.com. FICO uses the credit report data from the three credit bureaus to determine your FICO score.
Because credit report data may vary from one reporting bureau to another, you have more than one FICO credit score and they may not be the same.
If the information in your Equifax credit report is different from the information found in your TransUnion report, you can have two different FICO scores.
This is why it’s recommended that everyone order a free copy of their credit report each year to check for errors, which may be contributing to a less attractive FICO score.
TransUnion and Experian do not offer a FICO score to consumers.
Wannabe credit scores
FICO credit scores, with a range of 300 to 850, have been an industry standard for lenders but other credit scores have entered the scene.
The credit bureaus themselves have created proprietary risk models that generate their own credit scores -- often called fake credit scores.
Equifax has its aptly-named Equifax Credit Score, which ranges from 280 to 850.
Experian has the PLUS score, ranging from 330 to 830.
TransUnion has its TransRisk score, ranging from 150 to 950. All three credit bureaus collaborated on the VantageScore, which ranges from 501 to 990.
While these alternative credit scores can still be used to measure your creditworthiness, they may not be the ones used by lenders during the loan approval process.
You don't want to apply for a mortgage with the idea that you have an 840 credit score but it was actually using the VantageScore model, not the FICO model.
Fake credit scores still helpful
Fake credit scores are sometimes available for a fee or are viewable free of charge.
If you can view the “fake” credit scores for free, it can at least provide you with a good idea whether you are making good financial decisions or if your score has room for improvement.
If you’re going to pay for a credit score, however, you’re much better off ordering the FICO score so you can see the same score that potential lenders, employers, landlords, and insurance companies are looking at when pulling your credit reports.
You can keep an eye on your overall credit situation by joining free credit-monitoring programs offered by companies such as CreditSesame or CreditKarma.
They provide you with free, non-FICO credit scores and some background information about your credit history and even offer advice for what you can do to improve your credit.
The free, fake credit scores are a good place to start, but if you are getting ready to apply for a mortgage or car loan and want to see whether your credit score is high enough -- that is when you want to get the actual FICO score.