Make Sense of Your Free Credit Scores

By | September 14, 2017

Is your shirt size medium or large? How about your dress size? Or your shoe size? Very often, your size is different based on the brand. Believe it or not, the same goes for your credit scores. They’re different depending on where you get them from. I’ll show you how to make sense of your free credit scores, how they’re calculated, and which ones are more meaningful than others.

What is a Credit Score?

Your credit score is a 3 digit number that represents your creditworthiness to lenders. The higher the number, the more creditworthy you are. This score is derived from all of the data that’s in your credit report. Feed the data into the scoring model and the model spits out a number. Simple, right? One 3-digit number, right? Well, not exactly.

Why are there so many different scores?

It starts with the fact that the data input into the scoring model can come three different sources: Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion. Each credit bureau may have slightly different data, so the score that is based on your Equifax report will be different from the score that’s based on your TransUnion report–different inputs lead to different results.

Lets complicate it even further. There are also a few different scoring models. Plugging the same data–lets say your Experian report–into different models will lead to different scores. Most models generate scores on a scale of 300-850, but not all of them. The FICO Bankcard model reports scores on a scale of 250-900. Arrgh!

The last complicating factor is time. The same model using data from the same credit bureau a week or two apart can generate different scores. Maybe in that time, you made a student loan or mortgage payment, got an unusually large credit card bill, or applied for a new card or closed an old one. All these things have an effect on your credit score and can change constantly.

Making sense of it all

The most important thing you need to pay attention to is the scoring model. The vast majority of lenders use the FICO 8 model to make their credit decisions, so that’s the score you should value the most. Anything that isn’t FICO is commonly referred to as FAKO–a fake score.

Some free credit score sites, including CreditKarma and Credit Sesame, provide you with a VantageScore. There are no lenders that use the VantageScore model. Personally, I feel that model amplifies changes in your credit report, resulting in wild swings in your score. In other words, don’t freak out when CreditKarma says your score dropped 30 points. VantageScores can be useful in alerting you to possible errors on your credit report–if you see a huge 100 point drop, check your report–but I wouldn’t put too much faith in the week to week moves.

You can get a free FICO 8 credit score from Discover with their Credit Scorecard. There’s no need to be a customer, it’s free for all, updates monthly, and checking your score will never affect it. You can also get a free FICO 8 credit score from creditscore.com, a part of Experian.

If you currently have a credit card from a major bank, many also provide free credit scores. Bank of America and American Express provide free FICO 8 scores. You can also get free credit scores from various credit unions nationwide. Check with your individual bank.

What does Yak do?

I’m a numbers guy to be sure. Despite that, I really don’t pay too much attention to my credit scores. That may come as a surprise, but I know I have good personal finance habits that will organically lead to high scores. As long as there are no errors in my credit reports, the rest will take care of itself.

I have a CreditKarma account (I ignore the scores) that I monitor to alert me of any changes to my TransUnion and Equifax credit reports. In addition, I have signed up for a free account at creditscore.com, where I can view my Experian credit report.

Those two accounts cover all three Credit Reporting Agencies. I check them often for any errors and sleep very well at night.

Where to Get Free Credit Scores

Here’s a list of free sites and credit card issuers that provide credit scores. Note the model and credit bureau that each uses.

Source Scoring Model Data Source(s)
CreditKarma VantageScore 3.0 TransUnion and Equifax
Credit Sesame VantageScore 3.0 TransUnion
Creditscore.com FICO 8 Experian
Bank of America FICO 8 TransUnion
American Express FICO 8 Experian
Chase VantageScore 3.0 TransUnion
Citi FICO Bankcard 8 Equifax
Capital One VantageScore 3.0 TransUnion
Discover ScoreCard FICO 8 Experian
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