Your credit scores are simple numbers that can have a big effect. Everything from the credit card offers you receive in the mail to how much you pay on a new loan may be impacted by your credit scores. If your scores aren’t as strong as you think they are, buying your next car, home or other financed purchase could be more difficult or expensive than you expect.
Don’t let your credit scores remain a mystery until you need them. Here’s how to check and understand them yourself for free.
Understanding credit score systems
Your credit scores are numbers that are designed to indicate your creditworthiness to lenders. Confusingly enough, you have a different credit score for each of the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), and those scores can be calculated using different credit score models. The two main families of credit score models are FICO Score and VantageScore. Both systems use the same 300 to 850 scale to rate creditworthiness from low to high. Since FICO Score is widely used in the finance industry, it may more accurately reflect how creditors and lenders will evaluate you.
Checking your scores for free via credit card or bank benefits
The ticket to your free credit score may already be in your wallet. Many credit card companies and banks offer free credit scores as a complimentary benefit to customers. To access this benefit, just log into your account online and look for a “credit score” or “FICO Score” option. Call your institution’s customer service line if you need assistance. Be aware that many credit card companies and banks only offer you one of your credit scores from a single credit bureau, however, most people’s scores vary only slightly between bureaus, so a single score should give you a good idea of your credit health.
Checking your scores for free via credit score services
In addition to credit card companies and banks, there are several online credit score services that provide access to your scores for free. These include Credit Karma, Credit Sesame and Mint. However, it’s worth noting that most free services provide VantageScore rather than FICO Score numbers, and like card companies and banks, they may not provide your scores from every credit bureau.
Be aware that these credit score services are businesses. Since they offer credit scores for free, they seek to make money by promoting other paid services. At the very least, this may mean you’ll receive marketing emails after you sign up. Don’t enter any payment information unless you want to purchase a service, and if you do decide to make a purchase, be sure you understand what you’re buying and whether you can obtain it for free elsewhere.
Understanding your credit scores
Once you know your scores, you need to understand them. Your scores will fall on a range from 300 to 850, with higher numbers representing stronger creditworthiness.
The higher your scores, the easier it should be for you to qualify for new financing and lower interest rates. For example, the minimum FICO Score required to obtain a mortgage typically ranges from 580 to 620 (although lower minimums may be available to you), and access to the best mortgage rates typically requires a score of at least 760. Many credit score providers will show you the factors that are impacting your scores, which can help you take action to boost your scores if necessary.
When you apply for a mortgage, your lender will typically qualify you using your middle FICO Score (if you’re the only borrower on the loan) or the lowest middle score (if you have a co-borrower). For example, if you have scores of 770, 760 and 750, you could expect your 760 score to be used, and if you have a co-borrower with scores of 740, 730 and 720, you could expect their 730 score to be used. Be aware that your lender may use a different FICO Score model than the one used by the service where you check your scores, so the scores they obtain for you may vary slightly.
Your credit scores are valuable information. If your scores are not as high as they should be, use that knowledge to make the necessary changes and plot a course to stronger credit. Remember, your scores are not a reflection of your value as a person nor are they a contest to win against others. Your scores are simply tools that you should use to maximize your financial health.
Even the best credit scores alone are not a guarantee that you can qualify for any specific loan or form of credit. If you are planning to purchase or refinance a home, get in touch for a free mortgage consultation to review your credit and your home financing options.