Your financial health can be measured in lots of ways. Having money in the bank for emergencies? That’s good. Carrying a ton of credit card debt? That’s usually bad.
One of the easiest ways to gauge how you’re doing financially is to check your credit score. Your credit score is a three-digit number that’s basically a snapshot of how well you manage your money.
If you’ve never checked your credit score, it can be an eye-opening experience.
There are several ways you can get your credit score, and several scores to choose from. See why your credit score is important and how to check your credit without paying a dime.
What is a Credit Score and Why Does It Matter?
As mentioned earlier, a credit score is a three-digit number that tells lenders how responsible you are with money.
These scores are based on the information in your credit report. Your credit report has all the details of your different credit accounts.
Credit scores operate on a range and the higher your score is, the better your credit rating.
Credit scores are flexible and they can change over time.
Practicing good financial habits, like paying your bills on time, can raise your score. Running up big credit card bills or skipping out on paying your debts can hurt it.
So why should you care about your credit score? That’s simple. Credit scores may look like just a number but they can have a powerful impact on your financial life.
A low credit score could keep you from getting approved for credit. That’s a big deal if you want to buy a car or get a mortgage.
Lenders use your credit score to measure how much of a credit risk you are.
If your score makes you look too risky, they’re less likely to want to lend you money. When you have a high score, it’s generally easier to borrow.
Besides that, you’ve got a better shot at getting lower interest rates on loans or lines of credit.
Is There Just One Type of Credit Score?
The short answer is no. There are actually several different scoring models that lenders can use for approval decisions. Here’s a brief overview of how they compare:
FICO vs. VantageScore
The FICO score is the most popular scoring model. This score, developed by the Fair Isaac Corporation, is used by 90% of major U.S. lenders.
VantageScores are another scoring model, developed by the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Twenty of the top 25 largest U.S. financial institutions also use VantageScores.
Some lenders may use just the FICO score or the VantageScore. Others may use both, depending on the kind of credit you’re applying for.
Both these scoring models have different variations. For example, FICO has specific scoring models that are used for mortgage loans and auto loans.
Each of the three credit bureaus issues FICO scores individually. VantageScore 3.0 is the most recent version of the VantageScore but some lenders may still use the 2.0 score.
Both FICO scores and VantageScore 3.0 range from 300 to 850. A 300 score is the lowest you can get; an 850 score, on the other hand, is considered to be “perfect” credit.
In terms of how these scores are calculated, they each focus on similar factors, including:
- Payment history
- The amount of debt you owe
- Your total credit limit
- Your total available credit
- The age of your credit accounts
- The types of credit you’re using
- How often you apply for new credit
They differ, however, in the formula they use to determine your scores.
Neither FICO nor VantageScore discloses the exact algorithm they use but generally, your payment history carries the most weight with either score. These are the factors that affect the popular FICO credit score:
FICO Credit Score Factors and Their Percentages
|FICO credit score factors||Percentage weight on credit score:||What it means:|
|Payment history||35%||Your track record when it comes to making (at least) the minimum payment by the due date.|
|Amounts owed||30%||How much of your borrowing potential is actually being used. Determined by dividing total debt by total credit limits.|
|Length of credit history||15%||The average age of your active credit lines. Longer histories tend to show responsibility with credit.|
|Credit mix||10%||The different types of active credit lines that you handle (e.g., mortgage, credit cards, students loans, etc.)|
|New credit||10%||The new lines of credit that you've requested. New credit applications tend to hurt you score temporarily. Learn more about FICO credit score|
Other credit scoring models
FICO and VantageScore are the most visible scoring models but they’re not alone. Alternate scoring models have been developed by several companies. They include:
- The CE credit score, published by CE Analytics. This score ranges from 350 to 850.
- Experian PLUS scores, which range from 330 to 830.
- The Equifax Credit Score, which ranges from 280 to 850.
- TransUnion’s New Account Score, which ranges from 300 to 850.
- Experian’s National Equivalency Score, which ranges from 360 to 840.
- The PRBC Alternate Credit Score, which ranges from 100 to 850.
These types of scores are sometimes referred to as “FAKO” scores because they’re designed to mimic FICO scores. That doesn’t necessarily make these scores bad, however.
These models use their own metrics to determine what constitutes a good or bad credit score.
The main thing to keep in mind is that lenders may not use these scores as part of lending decisions.
So if you’ve got a great TransUnion New Account Score, for example, that may not matter much if the lender’s looking at your FICO score or VantageScore.
Adding Up the Cost of Getting a Credit Score
Normally, you have to pay to get an official FICO or VantageScore. Some of the alternate scores mentioned earlier also involve a fee. The cost depends on which score you’re getting and where you’re purchasing it from.
This table highlights how the cost can vary, based on which score you want to buy.
Costs of Credit Scores
|FICO (3-bureau credit report & scores)||MyFICO.com||$59.85 one-time fee|
|FICO (3-bureau credit report & scores updated monthly)||MyFICO.com||$29.95/month|
|FICO (3-bureau credit report & scores)||Experian||$39.95 one-time fee|
|Equifax FICO Score||Equifax||$21.95/month|
|VantageScore 3.0||Experian||$7.95 for single score; $14.95 for monthly score and monitoring|
|Equifax Credit Score||Equifax||$15.95 one-time fee|
Buying an official score may be a smart move if you’re planning to apply for something big, like a mortgage.
That way, you can get an idea of how likely you are to be approved for a loan.
If you’re considering buying a score, be sure you understand which score you’re getting.
You also need to be clear about whether you’re buying your score once or signing up for a monthly subscription service.
How to Check Your Credit Score for Free
If you don’t want to shell out big bucks for your credit score, there are other ways to get your score for free. Here are four options for getting your score without paying anything out of pocket.
1. Start with your credit card company
A number of credit card companies now offer free credit scores to customers. All you need is an eligible credit card to access your score.
American Express, Bank of America, Barclaycard, Chase, Citi and Discover are just some of the companies that offer free credit scores to cardmembers.
Some card issuers also extend the benefit of free scores to non-cardmembers.
Discover, for example, offers a free credit scorecard that includes your Experian FICO 8 credit score. Capital One offers free TransUnion VantageScores to everyone, regardless of whether you have a Capital One credit card.
2. Try a credit monitoring service
Credit monitoring services help you keep an eye on your credit by sending out alerts any time your credit history changes.
As part of your monthly membership, many of these services offer a free credit score. That’s great if you want to be able to track your score over time but there’s a catch.
These services usually offer a VantageScore, not a FICO score. Because these two models are calculated differently, your VantageScore alone might not give you a completely accurate picture of your credit.
The other potential downside is you may only get your VantageScore from one of the three credit bureaus for free, not all three.
3. Look for free score promotions
If you don’t want to sign up for a monthly monitoring service, you may be able to get your score for free through a promotional offer.
Equifax, for example, lets you see your credit scores from all three bureaus for free during a seven-day trial period. After that, you’ll need to pay a monthly fee to keep getting score updates.
Other companies offer similar deals. The key is to remember to cancel your membership or subscription before the trial period ends. Otherwise, you could end up paying a pretty penny for your free score.
4. Get your credit report and score for free if you’ve been denied credit
Getting turned down for a credit card or loan is no picnic but there is a bright side.
If you’ve been denied credit, you can request a free copy of your credit report from the credit bureau that provided the lender with your financial information.
The lender also has to give you the numerical credit score they used when reviewing your application. You can use that information to figure out what you need to work on to raise your score.
Keep Your Credit Score On Track
If you’ve peeked at your credit score and it’s good, you want to keep it that way. If it’s lower than you expected, you need a plan for bringing it up. Making some simple changes can put you on the path to better credit.
Start with making sure you’re paying your bills on time each month. Payment history can have a big impact on your score.
Then, work on paying down your debt balances. Freeing up available credit on your credit cards can help move your score up.
Finally, hold off on applying for new credit unless you actually need it. New inquiries for credit can cost you points that you can’t afford to lose.