If you’ve ever wanted to check your credit score and do so without dinging your score or paying a cent, guess what? It’s possible. You can get that important three-digit number from a number of sources. In fact, your bank or credit card company may provide just what you are looking for.
Why is your credit report intel such a gift? Because keeping tabs on your credit scores can help you spot potentially fraudulent activities or discrepancies. It can also help you monitor your progress if you’re working hard to establish your credit or have a stellar financial profile. Higher scores may well unlock lower loan rates and other benefits.
Read this guide to learn:
• What a credit score is and why you should check it
• How and where to check your credit score for free
• Whether checking can hurt your credit score
• How often to check your credit score.
What Is a Credit Score?
A credit score is a three-digit number that lenders and creditors use to assess your creditworthiness. In other words, it helps lenders decide the probability of you repaying a loan or a line of credit in a timely manner based on your past behavior.
Credit scores are usually broken down into two types: custom and generic scores, and this may explain why you have different credit scores depending on where you check.
While different algorithms are used, your credit score usually reflects such factors as how much money you have borrowed, whether you manage it well and pay it back on time, the length of time you’ve been borrowing money, and what kinds of credit lines you have used (you’ll learn more about this below).
• What are known as generic credit scores are the ones reported by the three major credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax, and Transunion. They utilize Information from lenders and businesses to come up with their figures.
• Conversely, individual lenders may create custom credit scores to determine your likelihood of repayment. These scores include credit reporting from the three credit bureaus and other data. This type of credit score is often meant to determine your creditworthiness with regard to a specific type of lending (like a mortgage) or a particular lender.
Examples of custom scores are FICO® scores and VantageScore®; these companies have their own guidelines to determine your credit score. Worth noting: FICO scores are the ones that many lenders and creditors use when they evaluate a candidate for credit.
What Your Credit Score Means
Now, here’s how to understand the number itself. Credit scores typically range between 300 and 850. Usually, the higher your credit score, the less risky you are perceived in the eyes of lenders. That may mean you get a better (lower) interest rate on loans, among other perks.
A bad credit score can result in your paying more to borrow money or even being declined.
The FICO ranges look like this:
• Poor: 300-579
• Fair: 580-669
• Good: 670-739
• Very good: 740-799
• Exceptional: 800-850.
Credit Score vs. Credit Report
Here’s one important distinction to be aware of: Your credit score and credit report are two very different things, even though they may sound similar.
• Your credit score is the three-digit number that reflects your creditworthiness; that is, how likely you are to manage a line of credit or loan well and pay it back on time.
• Your credit report, however, is a record of your credit activity and history. It will reflect how much you’ve borrowed, how promptly you have paid, and more details. Typically, negative information on your record can go back seven years.
Both of these sources of information can help lenders (say, for a mortgage, car loan, or new credit card) evaluate how well you have handled credit in the past and how well you might do so in the future.
How Do I Check My Credit Score for Free?
Next, here’s how to find out your credit score for free.
• Check with your bank. Most banks provide customers with their FICO number or another credit score for free. Your bank is the hub for so many aspects of your financial life, it’s likely they will help you out by allowing you to view your score at no charge.
• Ask Experian. You can get your free FICO score from Experian.
• Ask your credit card company or lender. You might be able to view your credit score by logging into your account. If not, your creditor or lender can point you in the right direction to access your score.
• Ask a credit counselor. Often, credit counselors can help you scratch that “How can I check my credit score for free?” itch. To find one in your neck of the woods, you can visit the nonprofit National Foundation for Credit Counseling, or NFCC.
• Sign up for a free money management app. Lots of choices are out there if you are looking for a money tracker app that lets you view your accounts, budget, and optimize spending. Many offer a free credit score.
You can get free credit reports but not credit scores from AnnualCreditReport.com. It’s a good idea to check your credit reports at least once a year.
Recommended: Track your credit score for free with SoFi.
How Are Credit Scores Determined?
Knowing what contributes to your credit score can help you get yours into the desired range. Here are some of the key factors that influence a FICO score:
• 35%: Payment history, or the timeliness of past payments
• 30%: Amounts owed, or how much credit you have used, especially vs. your available credit. (This can include your credit utilization ratio, which is the percentage of credit you’re using versus your limit. Ratios of 30% is often considered the limit of what you want to use, and many believe that 10% is a more financially prudent number.)
• 15%: Length of credit history; a longer credit history tends to be positive. How long you’ve had accounts and how frequently you have used them can matter.
• 10%: New credit, or whether you’ve opened a number of accounts recently. Doing so can make you look like more of a risk to a lender.
• 10%: Credit mix, or what kinds of accounts you’ve had, such as a home loan, retail accounts, car loans, and so forth. There isn’t a specific assortment you need, but this is a variable that will be factored into your score.
Learn more about credit here:
Can I Check My Own Credit Score Without Affecting It?
You may have heard that a credit score check can lower your number. In some cases, it can. Typically, this happens when what is known as a hard pull or hard inquiry happens, which is when a potential lender or other entity reviews your credit details.
But when you check your own credit score, it won’t affect those digits. Pulling your score is referred to as a soft inquiry, and you can do so without affecting your credit score. At the very least, you should review your numbers before applying for any financing like a home or auto loan or a new credit card.
What Credit Checks Can Hurt My Score?
You may wonder when credit checks can hurt your score. When you apply for new credit, the lender or creditor will conduct what’s known as a hard inquiry. This can indeed impact your score. For every new hard inquiry, your credit score may drop up to five points.
When a potential lender looks into your file, it indicates that you may plan to take on more debt. Hence, the score drops. If you have several hard inquiries back to back, your credit score may decrease more than a few points. Some hard inquiries that could affect your credit include:
• Applying for a mortgage, auto loan, or personal loan
• Submitting a new utility application
• Applying for a new credit card
• Requesting a credit limit increase
• Renting an apartment.
Take note, though: Credit bureaus consider rate shopping a financially responsible move and treat it differently than a standard hard inquiry.
When you’re rate shopping, FICO considers all inquiries when applying for student loans, auto loans, or mortgages a single inquiry as long as applications are submitted within a 45-day window. However, some lenders use the older FICO model, which has only a 14-day window for application submissions. If you are looking for a loan, keep these time frames in mind so your research doesn’t wind up decreasing your credit score.
Recommended: How Student Loans Affect Your Credit Score
Why You Should Check Your Credit Scores
Monitoring your credit scores is important, and to do it for free is that much better. Here are some of the most important reasons to review your numbers:
• You can spot discrepancies or potential fraud. Out-of-the-ordinary activities will reveal themselves when you keep tabs on your credit scores. You can immediately spot red flags when something seems unusual (say, a score drops 40 points for no reason). This way, you can act right away, work toward getting your score back on track, or file a dispute if you detect fraud.
• You can gain insight into your financial situation. Understanding your credit scores can help you determine if you’ve been tracking your spending and debt vs. your income well.
It might also reveal if it could be a good time to purchase a home or refinance your mortgage. For example, if a score is less than ideal, you may want to hold off on making big moves until you work on your score. The delay may help you qualify for more favorable terms and interest rates.
• You can better compare financial products. Lenders have different criteria and credit score requirements to qualify for specific products. So knowing your credit scores can help you determine if applying for a particular product is worth it or if you should explore other options.
• You can pinpoint ways to positively impact your scores. If your score isn’t where you’d like it to be, don’t just assume the answer to “Am I bad with money?” is yes and stagnate. Instead, you might use it as motivation to build your financial literacy.
Having a handle on a credit score as well as the factors used to calculate it can help you optimize it. Some resources and websites may offer simulations so you can see how changing certain factors will alter your credit score. Then you can summon some financial discipline and work to improve your money habits as necessary.
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How Often Should You Check Your Credit Scores?
Financial experts usually recommend checking your credit score and credit report at least once a year. If you have reason to believe you are vulnerable to fraud (say, your credentials were involved in a data breach) or you are gearing up to apply for a loan, you may want to check more often.
There are several free ways to access your credit scores, such as through your bank, a lender, a credit monitoring website, or a credit counselor. Accessing your score regularly can help you ensure there is no fraudulent activity while also making progress toward your financial goals. It can also help you optimize your scores so you can enjoy the best possible rates on credit as well as other benefits.
Interested in opening an online bank account? When you sign up for a SoFi Checking and Savings account with direct deposit, you’ll get a competitive annual percentage yield (APY), pay zero account fees, and enjoy an array of rewards, such as access to the Allpoint Network of 55,000+ fee-free ATMs globally. Qualifying accounts can even access their paycheck up to two days early.
What are some resources available to help me improve my financial literacy?
To improve your financial literacy, you might want to start with your bank. They likely have a library of content about financial topics and tools for improving your financial health. In addition, there are plenty of well-regarded books and podcasts on the topic.
How can I involve my family in developing good financial habits?
To involve your family in developing good financial habits, you might have family meetings and share information about the household budget and how you are managing the money. You could then set short-term goals they can have input on and participate in achieving, such as cutting the food or entertainment budget or finding ways to save for a family vacation.
How can I stay motivated to continue developing good financial habits over time?
There are several ways you can stay motivated and keep developing good money habits. Try surrounding yourself with like-minded people or those that share a specific goal, such as paying off student debt, to support one another and share ideas. Use apps to simplify your financial life and perhaps boost your financial health (say, with a roundup function). Reward yourself within reason when you do a good job meeting a financial goal, like adding to your emergency fund for several months.
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