How to Make Sense of Your Free Credit Scores

By Steven Shaw on 10/30/2015

Credit Score

How to Make Sense of Your Free Credit Scores

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You’ll never be able to keep track of all your credit scores — there are just too many. They vary in how they’re calculated, the scale by which they’re measured and the information on which they’re based, leaving consumers with a pile of numbers that may not make a lot of sense. Luckily, you only need to watch one score to understand the basics.

The first thing to know about credit scores is that some are used by creditors to make lending decisions and others are rarely or never used in lending decisions and are often called educational scores. Both have value to consumers, because the more you know about your personal credit history, the better equipped you are to make financial decisions.

One of the most common credit score providers is FICO. It’s so common that people often use “FICO score” and “credit score” interchangeably, though FICO is just one of many credit scoring companies. According to a recent survey, 62% of consumers think they’re getting FICO scores when they’re not, and 80% of consumers think the scores they receive are used in lending decisions, when they may not be used that way.

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When checking your credit scores, it’s important to know what you’re looking at. For example, you should know the scale by which your score is measured (300 to 850 is a common scale, but it’s far from the only one), so you can tell if you have a good credit score or not. It’s also important to know what factors are driving your score, like if you have a lot of debt, have a history of making late payments or if you’re applying for credit too frequently. Many credit scoring tools, like the free credit scores you can get through and the scores you might see on your credit card statement through FICO’s Open Access program, will tell you what’s driving your credit score and how you could improve it.

While it helps to know if you’re looking at a score lenders use or just an educational one, it’s also very difficult to know what score a potential creditor will use when evaluating your application. FICO says its scores are used in 90% of lending decisions, but there are dozens of FICO models alone, so while it’s a good thing to keep track of a FICO score, you can’t be sure you’re looking at the same thing a lender is when you apply for credit.

That’s true of all credit scores, and it’s frustrating (and confusing) for many consumers. Still, checking your credit scores regularly can help you better manage your financial health. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the number of credit scores out there and trying to keep track of all of them, so take advantage of a few free tools and try to stay informed of how your credit history looks. Whether you’re buying your scores with your credit reports, reviewing a free FICO score on your monthly credit card statement or checking two of your credit scores every 30 days on, make sure you’re comparing the same scoring model to itself to measure changes over time — comparing different scoring models is an apples-to-oranges situation that is more confusing than helpful. A 670 credit score in one credit scoring model may not be a 670 in another model. Focus on the fundamentals of good credit, like making on-time payments, keeping your debt levels low, avoiding closing old accounts and applying for credit only when you need it. You can get your free annual credit reports from to see the data that credit scoring companies use to create your credit scores too.

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Christine DiGangi covers personal finance for 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

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