One big problems with credit scores is that consumers often find them very confusing. It’s not surprising — complex algorithms spit out numbers that don’t always make sense to the person being scored, and there are more scores than a person could ever hope to keep track of. Despite their issues, credit scores are useful tools and can enable consumers to better understand and leverage their financial situation to get the things they need. To best take advantage of the information presented in your credit scores, it helps to know the answers to some of the most common questions we get about credit scores.
1. How Do I Get My Free Credit Score?
Several websites and many financial services providers have credit scores consumers can access for free, and the number of places you can get free scores has been increasing recently.
Some credit scores are educational and others are used in lending decisions. Both can help you better understand your chances of credit approval, but people like the idea of seeing the same score their lender uses to review their accounts. A few credit card issuers — including Discover, Barclaycard and Citi — have free credit score programs that show cardholders the scores used to evaluate their accounts, but if you’re not a customer of a company that does this, you still have options. You can get two free credit scores from Credit.com, meaning you don’t have to enter any payment information to get them, and they’re lender-used scores, as well.
2. Who Sees My Credit Score?
Companies evaluating you for a financial service can purchase your credit score from a provider, like FICO or VantageScore. Your employer cannot get your credit score — this is a common misconception, because employers can request credit reports, though not without your consent.
3. How Many Credit Scores Do I Have?
You have a lot. That is, if you have a credit history, your credit report information can be fed into a number of different algorithms that produce scores. FICO is the most common, but even within the FICO score family, there are dozens of scoring formulas. A single formula may produce different scores, too, because the information on your credit reports, on which credit scores are based, may vary from credit bureau to credit bureau.
To best understand changes in your credit standing, compare the same credit score over time. For example, if you get a free credit score through your Citi credit card account, only measure it against the score you get through that same account. Don’t compare it to a score from another source, even if it’s based on the same credit report. (You can get your free annual credit reports if you want to see the data determining your scores.)
4. Does My Income Impact My Credit Score?
Credit reports do not show income, therefore it is not factored into credit scores. It’s not uncommon for people with high salaries to have terrible credit and low-wage earners to have good credit, because it’s about how you manage your money, not how much you make.
That said, income has an indirect impact on credit. Say you don’t make enough money to pay your bills: Those bills may end up in the hands of a debt collector, leading to a collection account on your credit report, which will certainly hurt your credit score. It’s easier to meet your debt obligations when you make more money, but if you don’t live within your means, you’re no better off than someone who makes half your salary.
5. If I Check My Score, Will It Hurt My Credit?
Nope — requesting your credit score is considered a soft inquiry on your credit report (as opposed to a hard inquiry, when a lender requests your credit report or score to aid in a lending decision). You can look at your free credit scores as often as the provider allows you to, and it won’t have a direct impact on your score. Of course, if you’re keeping up with your score, you’re more likely to focus on improving habits that affect it, so getting your score can have a positive impact.
6. What Determines My Credit Score?
Most credit scoring formulas weigh five aspects of your credit history, from most to least important: payment history, debt use, average age of credit accounts, mix of accounts and inquiries. If you want to build a good credit history, make loan and credit card payments on time, keep your credit card and loan balances low, keep old accounts open, take advantage of different kinds of credit and apply for new credit sparingly.
7. Does My Credit Score Matter?
Even if you have no interest in taking out loans or using credit cards, credit plays a role in your financial life. People with little or no credit history may find it difficult to get an apartment, have to pay deposits to activate utilities or pay higher insurance premiums, in some states. That’s something that frustrates a lot of people: Even if you don’t think you need credit, you find yourself needing to play the game or pay the price of sitting out.
Many credit scoring formulas require you to have at least a six-month credit history with activity within the past six months to be scored. VantageScore 3.0 scores consumers with activity within the past two years. If you fall outside those timeframes, you may encounter financial obstacles like those mentioned above.
Because so many parts of your life are tied to credit, it’s smart to stay on top of yours. Review your free credit scores, see what’s driving the numbers and adjust your financial behavior as necessary. It can be a confusing territory, but we’re here to answer any questions you might have.
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Christine DiGangi covers personal finance for Credit.com. Previously, she managed communications for the Society of Professional Journalists, served as a copy editor of The New York Times News Service and worked as a reporter for the Oregonian and the News & Record. More by Christine DiGangi