Most people think they have just one credit score, and that all lenders use this single score to measure your creditworthiness. But not only do you have more than 30 credit scores, a quick web search also will reveal seemingly endless ways to obtain them — all offered to you with costs ranging from free to $60.
How do you know which scores matter, when to pay, and when free is fine? Let’s break it down.
First, some background: Each of the three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — collects information about you from financial institutions and public records that they use to compute your credit score. These three bureaus generally use a standardized credit scoring system created by the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO), which is why the scores provided by these bureaus are referred to as “FICO scores.”
Just as Apple regularly releases new versions of the iPhone, FICO also releases newer, more accurate versions of how it calculates your base score. The newest base score model is called the FICO 9, but prior versions of it — FICO 8 and FICO 5 — are still in use, and your base score may be different in each model.
What is less well-known is that each bureau also creates multiple versions of their credit score. In the same way that Apple created the iPad to meet different needs than the iPhone, FICO has also created industry-specific credit scores, like the FICO Auto Score and the FICO Bankcard Score. Each scoring version is calculated differently by modifying how certain parts of your credit history are weighted. You may have 30 or more different versions of your credit score from the three major bureaus alone!
Why Does This Matter to You?
Before applying for a loan, many consumers pull a quick, free credit report online. Only when they are turned down for that special 0 percent financing rate or a mortgage do they learn that their lender was using an entirely different model — one that showed their score as 100 points lower.
It’s not that the higher score they saw was necessarily wrong — it’s just that a different algorithm was used in calculating that score. A potential lender may look at one score or three, and they may pull from different models for the same loan. The only score that matters is the one your lender is using. Put yourself in the best negotiating position possible by researching your various credit scores ahead of time, and understand which model your lender is most likely to use.
If you’re applying for a big loan — like a mortgage, car loan or business loan — I recommend MyFico.com and spending $59.85 to buy its Score 3B Report. This is especially important if you’ve had credit problems in the past, have been through a divorce, have a common name or have had any kind of financial trauma.
With the Score 3B Report, you’ll get your base FICO 8 and FICO 9 credit scores from each of the three credit reporting bureaus, as well as the industry-specific score versions used by auto and bankcard lenders. Mortgage lenders generally use the Experian FICO 2 scoring model, the TransUnion FICO 4 and the Equifax FICO 5 to create a score called the “tri-merge,” which you’ll also see on your Score 3B report.
Another good thing about pulling your own scores ahead of time is that you can address errors and surprises. The last thing you want is to be close to signing contracts on a house and have something unexpected surface that could jeopardize your loan.
Although MyFico offers a subscription service for $29.95/month, I do not recommend it. While the subscription allows you to see any score changes in real time, you can’t see what changed on the report itself more than every 90 days. To me, the cost isn’t worth it.
When clients work with me for credit repair and need to see their credit reports regularly, I guide them toward PrivacyGuard. The scores provided are generally within five to 10 points of the FICO 8 scores. Prices start at $9.99 a month following a 14-day trial ($1 cost), and the subscription covers all three credit bureaus. You’ll also receive alerts for anything new that pops up on your credit report, including address changes and new applications for credit. If you’re not receiving free FICO scores elsewhere, this is the best option to keep an eye on things, and to see if your credit is improving.
Free Credit Scores
In 2006, the three main credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, jointly created a credit scoring model called VantageScore to compete with FICO. When you use a free online service to get your credit score, the score you see is often a VantageScore, not a FICO score.
So what’s the problem with relying on the free sites?
For one thing, a VantageScore is calculated differently than a FICO score. VantageScore 3.0, the latest version of the model, disregards collection accounts that have been paid in full, whereas the FICO models still factor them in.
Also, VantageScore claims that up to 50 percent of lenders use their score, but I don’t know a single one that does. I have nothing against their scoring model, I just don’t see as much adoption of their service as they claim.
Why does this matter? If you apply for a car loan based on seeing a VantageScore of 700 without being aware that their scale goes up to 850, you might feel confident about your credit and the likely monthly cost of the car. However, your lender is likely to be looking at your FICO Auto score of 600, which means you’re going to end up with very different terms than you anticipated!
I see this happen fairly often in my practice, and my clients usually think the better score they saw for free must be wrong. In truth, neither score is wrong — it’s just that each one is calculated using its own algorithms. Remember, the only credit score that matters is the one your lender is using.
So when should you rely on information from companies that provide free credit scores?
While the scoring models used by these companies might not be used by lenders as frequently as FICO scores, their sites offer other great features that can be a useful part of understanding the overall picture of your credit health. Let’s take a look.
Credit Karma, WalletHub, and NerdWallet all give you free credit scores and reports. Credit Karma gives you access to both your TransUnion and Equifax credit reports and VantageScore, while WalletHub and NerdWallet only provide your TransUnion report and VantageScore. You don’t receive access to your Experian report through any of these services, but the odds of something appearing on just Experian, and not the other two, are low, so they can be a great way to regularly monitor what’s on your credit report for free.
These websites will also recommend credit cards and give you a ranking of which you’re likely to qualify for, which can be really helpful if your credit is anything less than terrific, because it could potentially save you from a hard inquiry.
These free services also provide a score analyzer that will tell you what actions will have the most impact on your score. For instance, your credit utilization rate accounts for about one-third of your credit score, so keeping that rate between 10 percent and 30 percent will have a positive effect on your score over time. Remember that having good credit also requires you to use credit and cultivate a positive payment history. Not using any credit at all means your credit score will be in the fair range, at best.
You can also pull all three of your credit reports (once a year, at no charge) at AnnualCreditReport.com. Just be aware that although the service will provide a free and full credit report from each of the three bureaus, it won’t show you any of your credit scores since those vary by the individual scoring model that provides them (FICO, VantageScore 3.0, etc.).