Your credit scores are little 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 what 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 catch you by surprise. Here’s how to check them yourself for free.

Understanding credit score systems

Your credit scores are designed to be numbers that 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 perks

The ticket to your free credit score may already be in your wallet. Many card companies offer free credit scores as an included benefit to cardholders. To access this benefit, just log into your account and look for a “credit score” or “FICO Score” option. Call your card’s customer service line if you need assistance. Be aware that most cards only offer you one of your credit scores from one credit bureau (e.g. your TransUnion FICO Score).

Checking your scores for free via credit score services

In addition to credit card companies, there are several online credit score services that provide access to your scores for free. These include Credit KarmaCredit Sesame, and Mint. However, it’s worth noting that many free services provide VantageScore rather than FICO Score numbers, and like credit cards, 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 my offering other paid services. At the very least, this may mean sending you marketing emails after you sign up. Don’t enter your credit card number unless you want to pay for something, and if you do decide to make a purchase, be sure you understand what you’re buying and whether or not you can obtain the same service 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 higher creditworthiness. The higher your scores, the easier it should be for you to qualify for new financing and lower interest rates. For example, access to the lowest mortgage rates typically requires FICO Scores of 760 or higher. (Note: the exact credit scores your lender uses may differ from your free credit scores.) If your scores are less than stellar, many credit score providers will also show you the factors that are impacting it, which can help you take action to boost your credit score.

Conclusion

Your credit scores are valuable information. If your scores are less than ideal, use that knowledge to make the necessary changes and plot a course to higher numbers. Remember, your scores are not a reflection of your value as a person nor is it a contest to be won against others. Your scores are simply tools that you should take advantage of to maximize your financial health.

Even the best credit scores are not a guarantee that you can qualify for any loan or form of credit. If you are planning to purchase or refinance a home, contact us for a free mortgage preapproval to find out what home financing you qualify for.

Draper and Kramer Mortgage Corp. is not affiliated with any of the companies or services mentioned above and does not endorse them or make any guarantees or assurances regarding their services.