Credit: What’s my score and what does it mean?

A Guide to Accessing Your Free Credit Score

By Amy Cao | Manager of Service Delivery | The Financial Clinic

 

If you’re a banked consumer who has at least one credit card or you’ve ever taken out a loan, you already have a credit score. However, what that score is, what it means, and how you got there, is not always clear.

Free credit scores are a fairly new phenomenon. Until recently, consumers only had ready access to annual credit reports, and fewer than one in five Americans actually accessed their free credit reports in any given year. To make credit information more commonly available, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) launched a credit score initiative in 2014, which urged banks and credit issuers to provide credit scores directly and freely to consumers.

“Credit reports and scores can determine the terms of people’s mortgages, whether they qualify for auto loans, or if they are eligible for different credit cards,” said Former Director of the CFPB, and current Democratic Nominee for Governor of Ohio, Richard Cordray. “Making consumers’ credit scores freely available on their monthly statement or online makes it easier for them to spot problems with their credit report.”

Today many major banks, financial institutions, and other personal finance companies provide access to free credit scores for consumers. Each of these offers a version of your credit score by one or more of the three major credit bureaus, and there are a few key questions to consider.

Are there hidden costs?

For the sites listed below and most others, your credit score is available for free. However, beware that sites also offer add-ons or other fee-based packages for services like more frequent reports or additional security monitoring. Whether the extras are worth it is up to you, but you may want to check out some other sites before committing to a monthly subscription. You could very well find it for free!

As with other free services, even if no money is exchanged, your personal information is. Free credit report platforms typically require that you create an account with demographic and contact information, which may be targeted for marketing. Some sites will ask for your full or partial SSN, and continued access to your credit history. If you’re able to, you may want to poke around first to see what is collected, how your personal information is being used, and who has access to it.

Rest assured that most credit score sites use your data in order to analyze it for you and provide suggestions on how to improve. They’ll also offer some useful educational tools. Most will use encryption to secure your data. But not all are necessarily the same.


What type of score is it?

FICO is the most popular scoring method used by lenders in the US. For over 25 years, FICO scores have been the industry standard for consumer risk assessment for the US lending industry. Generated by the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO), the scoring model has evolved with lending patterns and consumer trends. There are currently nine base FICO Scores, as well as industry-specific auto and bankcard versions.

The three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — generate their own proprietary scores based on the data they collect. Scores like the Experian National Equivalency Score or the TransUnion Interactive Score are not commonly used.

To offer more consistency between the bureaus, and for a more cost-effective alternative to the FICO algorithm, VantageScore was created. Jointly produced by Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion in 2006, the VantageScore model includes 24 months of past credit activity on utility bills or rent, which could bulk up someone’s credit file who would otherwise have “thin” files according to FICO. Currently, VantageScore has three scoring models.

The most recent version, VantageScore 3.0, is the credit score you’ll most often see offered for free.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of how the two scoring models are calculated:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which is the score that lenders use?

If you already use free credit scoring tools, you might have noticed different scores across different platforms. This is because there are different versions of each type of score used for different types of credit. For example, the FICO formula is largely the same but FICO Auto Scores focus slightly more on utilization and payment trends in your history. The consistency of your monthly payments and your current debt balances are more pertinent to auto lenders when assessing how you might handle monthly car payments.

Lenders generally favor the FICO, particularly FICO Score 8, which is available for free. Less common scores like the FICO 2 or FICO 5 come at a cost, so if you’re really curious, you can purchase it at myFICO for a fee.

Although VantageScore is FICO’s biggest credit score competitor, it is not widely used by creditors. However, the scoring models are largely based on the same information, so monitoring your credit via your free VantageScore 3.0 is perfectly acceptable. Some sites show your full report with the score, or come with other analysis tools, so that you can see what’s impacting your score and how to improve.

According to FICO, here are their score versions and how they are used:

Type of CreditType of Score
Credit CardsFICO Bankcard Scores, FICO Score 8, and FICO Score 3
Mortgage Loans & RefinancingFICO Scores 2, 4, and 5
Auto LoansFICO Auto Scores 2, 4, 5, 8 and 9
Personal Loans and Student LoansFICO Score 8
Retail CreditFICO Score 8
Credit Score MonitoringAll FICO and Vantage Scores


Where can I access my score?

No matter which free service you choose, the impact to your credit is the same — none! Credit “check-ups” that are not directly linked to an application for credit are considered soft inquiries (or “soft pulls”) so don’t fret!

Banks and Credit Cards that Offer Free Credit Scores

Financial InstitutionScore TypeData Source
1st United Credit UnionFICO Bankcard Score 2Experian
American ExpressFICO Score 8Experian
Bank of AmericaFICO Score 8TransUnion
BarclaycardFICO Score 8TransUnion
ChaseFICO Score 8TransUnion and

Experian

CitiFICO Bankcard Score 8Equifax
Commerce BankFICO Score 9

FICO Bankcard Score 8

TransUnion
Digital Credit Union (DCU)FICO Score 5Equifax
DiscoverFICO Score 8Experian
First CommonwealthFICO Score 9Experian
First National Bank of OmahaFICO Bankcard Score 8Experian
First Premier BankFICO Bankcard Score 4TransUnion
HSBCFICO NextGen ScoreEquifax
SynchronyFICO Score 8TransUnion
Walmart FICO Score 8TransUnion
Wells FargoFICO Bankcard Score 2

FICO Score 9

Experian
USAAVantageScore 3.0Experian

Other ways to see your credit score

WebsiteScore TypeData Source
CreditCards.com by BankrateVantageScore 3.0TransUnion
Credit.comVantageScore 3.0Experian
Credit Journey by ChaseVantageScore 3.0TransUnion
Credit KarmaVantageScore 3.0Equifax and TransUnion
Credit Scorecard  by DiscoverFICO 8Experian
Credit SesameVantageScore 3.0TransUnion
CreditWise by Capital OneVantageScore 3.0TransUnion
CreditWorks Basic by ExperianFICO 8Experian
FreeCreditScore
.com
FICO 8Experian
LendingTree VantageScore 3.0TransUnion
Mint by IntuitVantageScore 3.0Equifax
MoneyLionVantageScore 3.0TransUnion
myBankrateVantageScore 3.0TransUnion
NerdWalletVantageScore 3.0TransUnion
SavvyMoneyVantageScore 3.0TransUnion
QLCreditVantageScore 3.0TransUnion
Quizzle by BankrateVantageScore 3.0TransUnion
WalletHubVantageScore 3.0TransUnion

If you apply and are denied for credit, you should receive an adverse action notice that lists your credit score and one or two contributing factors. The credit score on your credit-based adverse action notice is free, and will also tell you how to get a free credit report within 60 days.

Additionally, you can always check with your financial coach or credit counselor!

What does my score indicate?

VantageScore 3.0 and FICO scores range from 300 to 850. Other industry-specific scores range from 250 to 900. Generally, the “Very Poor” to “Excellent” categories are good points of reference, but it’s best to think of credit on a spectrum.

That being said, take the following benchmarks lightly. Generally, scores above 650 are considered fair or good. Top notch credit cards and interest rates are typically unlocked at scores above 750. Focus more on what the score reveals rather than the number.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beware of targeted ads

Some sites rely on partner affiliates, which means biased or targeted advertisement. These are not always the best fit for you, but you may find the suggestions useful if you are looking for credit. Just remember to do your own research elsewhere and compare notes before signing onto anything.

When you find a free credit score platform that works for you, check out the reporting and analysis tools available. With so many sites to choose from, you have many opportunities to shop around and compare.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Additional Resources, provided by Change Machine: