Reputation is important, and that includes your credit reputation. Everything from the credit card offers you qualify for to the home financing rates you can obtain are strongly influenced by one number: your credit score. While maintaining a good credit score is more or less a matter of practicing responsible credit use, simple missteps or errors on your part or others’ can also damage your score without your knowledge. If you’re score isn’t as strong as you think it is when you go to apply for important financing, you could be in for a very rude surprise.
Thankfully, while checking your credit previously required you to pay a fee, there are several ways today for you to learn your score for free.
Your credit score defined
Before checking your score, you first need to understand what it is and what it isn’t. At its essence, your credit score is a single number that indicates your credit worthiness to lenders, but this seemingly simple number can be deceptively confusing.
For starters, you actually have not one but multiple credit scores. The best known score in use is the FICO score, but there are multiple FICO score formulas as well as alternate credit scoring models. Not all lenders refer to the same scores when deciding if and how to extend credit, and not all services that provide consumers with scores provide the same scores. Thankfully, the most popularly used and available scores function in similar manners. Most use a scale similar to FICO’s 300 to 850 rating to score credit worthiness from low to high. Learning one score will usually provide you with a good approximation of your credit worthiness.
Furthermore, your credit score should not be confused with your credit report. Whereas your credit score is a single number, your credit report is a complete record of your credit history, including current and past credit accounts and your payment record on them. The information contained on your credit report is what determines your credit score. Each of the three credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) maintains a similar credit report for you. US law mandates that you can review your reports for free once a year at www.annualcreditreport.com.
Unlike your credit report, there is no law requiring free access to your FICO Score. Consequently, the primary paid means of obtaining your score are through FICO itself or one of the three bureaus. But a wide variety of no-cost options have arisen in recent years.
Free score via credit score services
None of these companies require a credit card number for you to obtain your score, so there is no risk of being hit with sneaky charges. You will, however, have to provide them with your basic identifying info to confirm your financial identity so they can connect you with your score.
In addition to your score, these companies provide you with various credit-related tools. Perhaps the most helpful of these is the ability to view the factors that determine your score. This allows you to identify areas for improvement or potential errors that may be holding back your score.
These credit score services are, of course, businesses. That means they need to make money. They accomplish this by marketing paid add-on services or offers for credit products to their users. If you don’t want to open your wallet, you can simply ignore these offers. If you do decide to pursue any, be sure you fully understand what you’re purchasing and whether or not a better alternative exists elsewhere.
Free score via credit card perks
Several credit card companies have started offering free credit scores as an included benefit to cardholders. As of this writing, these include some or all cards offered by American Express, Bank of America, Barclaycard, Capital One, Chase, Citi, Discover, USAA Bank and US Bank. Lists of current providers and the details of their offerings can be found by searching online.
If you don’t already have a card that provides you with a free score, you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth it to you to sign up for one. The act itself of opening a credit card can temporarily ding your credit score, and only choosing a card with no annual fee will make this perk truly free. Be sure to research your specific card of choice first to ensure they offer the score features you’re expecting. Scores are typically provided on your monthly statement or accessible from the issuer’s website.
The varying cards may offer certain additional perks along with your score, such as the factors that impact your score or a credit alerts feature.
Whatever your credit score may be, use it to empower yourself. If your score happens to be less than ideal, utilize that knowledge to take corrective action and plot a course to the higher digits. Don’t forget that your score is not a reflection of you as a person nor a contest to be won against others. It’s simply a tool that you should learn to take advantage of to maximize your financial health.
Any single credit score alone is not a complete indication of your ability to obtain a given form of credit. If you are planning to purchase or refinance a home, speak with a mortgage lender for a complete assessment of your financial situation and to get pre-approved for financing.
Draper and Kramer Mortgage Corp. is not affiliated with any of the companies or services mentioned in this piece and does not endorse them or make any guarantees or assurances in regard to their services.