When you want to apply for a credit card or finance a large purchase like a mortgage, one of many numbers a lender will consider before approving your application is your credit score.
This three-digit number will also determine the interest rate you’re offered when borrowing money, which impacts the total cost over the life of the loan. So before applying for financing, it’s important to check your credit score and see where you stand.
What is a credit score?
A credit score is a three-digit number that reflects your overall creditworthiness, or how responsible you are as a borrower. Lenders use this number as an easy way to assess risk and the likeliness of you repaying what you borrow.
“Based on the details of your credit report, your score tells lenders at a glance how creditworthy you might be,” says Leslie H. Tayne, Esq, financial attorney and managing director of Tayne Law Group, P.C.
In general, credit scores have a range of 300 to 850 though there are many different types of credit scores that may have variations (more on that later).
“The higher your credit score, the better,” says Tayne, but don’t be surprised if it seems like that number is always changing. “Since lenders use different credit scoring models, your score can vary each time it’s pulled.”
Your credit score is calculated based on a number of factors, and not everything is weighted equally—some elements have a greater impact than others.
Here are the factors that are considered in your credit score calculation:
- Payment history (35%)
- Amounts owed (30%)
- Length of credit history (15%)
- New credit applications (10%)
- Credit mix (10%)
Your payment history is the most important factor. Lenders want to know you’re good for the money you borrow and can pay it back on time. Second to payment history is amounts owed, which refers to how much available credit you’re utilizing. A good benchmark is to aim to use less than 30% of your total credit limit. These two aspects make up the bulk of your credit score, so if you need to improve your credit, focusing on these areas may help.
Types of credit scores
You don’t just have one credit score; you have dozens. There are two major firms—FICO and VantageScore—and both have slightly different ways of calculating scores, so that explains why your score might be slightly different if you check it on a variety of platforms.
“FICO and VantageScore are brands of credit scores,” explains Rod Griffin, senior director of public education and advocacy for Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus. “They are kind of like saying General Motors or Ford, and there are different versions of those scores for different types of lenders, or different types of lending, for example, and that’s really why there are many different scores.”
So, auto lenders may use a different credit score than credit card issuers. Each lender may have its own credit score model to help assess risk, though many use FICO.
“The most popular model is the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO) 8, where a good score is anything over 670,” says Tayne.
VantageScore has been around since 2006 and was created by the three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. VantageScore utilizes data from all three bureaus, whereas FICO may have a different score for each credit bureau. Though FICO and VantageScore are the top players in the credit score space, there are many more out there. Lenders may use proprietary data to calculate their own credit scores.
How to check your credit scores
Just like there are many different types of credit scores available, there are many different ways to check your credit score. There are a number of free resources, but some organizations will charge you. It’s perfectly safe to check your score anytime you want—and it can be smart to check it regularly, especially before making a big financial move, like buying a car or a home.
“Contrary to popular belief, checking your score won’t hurt it,” says Tayne. “Your score will only dip when a potential lender does a hard pull on your credit.”
1. Use a credit score service or scoring site
To check your credit score easily at no cost, you can use websites such as Credit Karma or Credit Sesame. By signing up and creating an account, you can get updates about your credit scores and credit activity such as a drop or increase in your score or the opening or closing of accounts.
2. Request your scores from the three major credit bureaus
You can also access your credit score through one of the three major credit bureaus.
- Experian You can sign up for the free CreditWorksSM Basic and get a free copy of your Experian credit report, plus your FICO Score.
- TransUnion You can get a free credit score from TransUnion, generally through one of its partners such as a bank or credit card. You may also sign up for credit one of the company’s monitoring services and access your credit score, though that generally comes with a monthly fee.
- Equifax To get a free credit score via Equifax, you can sign up for the Equifax Core CreditTM program.
Each credit bureau has various credit monitoring products, some of which are at no cost and some of which you have to pay for.
3. Check with your bank
Another go-to option for checking your credit score is through your bank. Some financial institutions offer credit services that allow you to keep tabs on your credit score and any month-to-month fluctuations.
“Credit is essential for many key moments in life: getting a car, renting an apartment, buying a home, and so forth,” says Ralph Haro, managing vice president at Capital One. “The earlier you start building your credit history, the better it could be for your credit score.”
You can typically check your score via your online account, mobile banking app, or ask a customer service rep if you’re unsure whether this is available to you.
4. Check with your credit card issuer
As credit card competition heats up, many companies are adding new perks for users and that includes access to your credit scores. Next time you make a payment, review your account tabs to see if you can access your credit score—you should be able to view it without charge. Some issuers also offer credit score simulators, so you can see how certain actions (e.g., paying off a balance in full, closing an account) can make your score go up or down.
5. Go through a credit counselor
If you’re looking to access your credit scores and are also struggling with debt and feel like you need some assistance, you might want to consider working with a credit counselor from a reputable nonprofit such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).
A credit counselor offers guidance and works with creditors to help you get your payments under control through a debt management plan (DMP). Under a DMP, you can make one lump monthly payment to the credit counseling agency that works with your creditors.
A credit counselor may also provide credit education and offer a credit report review and access to your credit score. Checking your credit scores is a small but important part to building a plan to help you manage debt and achieve your financial goals.
The key is to stick to trusted sources. “Unfortunately, many scam websites on the internet offer free credit scores. Sticking with well-known, reputable sources is the best way to avoid getting scammed” says Tayne. “But, if you want to try a new service, research it first. If the provider has a poor reputation—or none at all—steer clear,”
Credit score vs. credit report
Your credit score may just be a number, but it carries a lot of weight. Numerically, it represents your creditworthiness and what type of borrower you are. Your credit score is derived from data that’s in your credit report.
Your credit report, on the other hand, goes much deeper, showing your credit history from the past seven years, the loans you’ve applied for and taken out, whether you’ve made payments on time, and any outstanding balances.
If you’re looking to pull your credit report specifically, you can request it for free through AnnualCreditReport.com.
“Your credit score is a tool that lenders use to help them predict whether you will repay a loan as agreed, according to the terms of the contract,” says Griffin. “So, it’s like the grade on a paper in school. Writing a paper in school, that’s kind of like your credit report. Your credit report is the source of information that’s used to calculate your credit score, kind of like the information on the paper is what will be graded.”
While you may have thought you’re done with grades after completing your education, it turns out the financial world grades you on how well you manage your money. Understanding the importance of a good credit score and how to check it can give you back some power, so you know where you stand—and how to improve.
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