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What is a Credit Score?

You’ve heard of credit scores. Maybe you’ve even checked yours. But do you really understand what they are and how they work? Here we explain what credit scores are and what you need to know to make the most of yours.

So, What is a Credit Score?

Credit scores are created by taking information from credit reports and analyzing that data to forecast how someone is likely to behave in the future. By looking at factors like how much debt consumers carry, and whether they have paid their bills on time in the past, for example, they help predict whether someone might pay a new bill on time or how they will handle a credit line increase.

Who Creates Credit Scores?

Most credit scores used by lenders and insurance companies today are created by FICO or VantageScore using credit information from the three major credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Why Do I Have More Than One Score?

It’s important not to get too hung up on a single number because, in fact, there are dozens of different credit scores that could be created right now using information from your credit reports.

One reason for this is that the credit reporting agencies each collect and report information independently and they may not have the same credit information about you. For example, a collection account may show up on one credit report and not another.

Another reason your scores can be different is that there are many different credit scores available. Some are used to predict different things; credit-based insurance scores, for example, are used to predict how likely consumers are to file insurance claims, and so they may differ from scores used to predict how someone will manage a higher credit card limit.

In addition, lenders might customize scores to help them better manage their own accounts. That means that even a FICO score based on Experian credit report information, for example, could vary from one lender to the next.

Finally, some scores are “educational” scores and they have been created strictly to educate consumers about their credit.

What is a Good Credit Score?

It depends! Each lender decides how to use these numbers. But here are some basic guidelines:

760 – 850: Excellent
720 – 760: Very good
680 – 720: Average – very good
620 – 680: Fair – poor
Below 620: Poor

A great way to understand your credit score is to use’s free Credit Report Card. You’ll get your VantageScore and an Experian score, along with letter grades that will help you understand how you’re doing in each of the major areas that make up your score, such as payment history and debt.

Does Checking My Credit (Or Scores) Hurt My Credit?

No. If you check your credit through a service that provides credit reports to consumers – including your free annual credit report or your free credit score through – it will not affect your credit score in any way. You can check as often as you like with no negative repercussions. The only time checking your report would hurt your scores is if you ask a lender to pull your report for you; for example, you ask your bank or an auto dealer to get your report and show it to you. Credit checks by lenders can affect your scores.

How Fast Do My Credit Scores Change?

Scores are calculated when they are created based on the information available at that time. So if new information is reported that significantly affects your score, such as a collection account that is reported for the first time, then the next time your score is requested by a lender – or by you – your score will be based on that new information.

Similarly, if you dispute something on your credit report that’s having a big impact on your scores and that item is removed – that collection account for example! – your scores can change significantly next time they are calculated.

Check Your Credit Score for Free

You can get your credit score for free using’s free Credit Report Card. This tool is truly free; you won’t be asked for any payment information. Monitor your score with a free update every other week. Using the Credit Report Card does not affect your scores in any way.

Making Sense of Your Credit Score

If you’ve had a credit card or a loan recently, you probably have a credit report – and a credit score.

Credit scores are created by comparing what behaviors consumers who have paid their bills on time have in common, and as well as what factors are associated with those who don’t pay on time. A high credit score places you within easier (and cheaper) reach of your financial goals, like owning a home or buying a new car. A poor credit score means you may not be approved for credit, or if you are approved, you’ll likely pay a higher interest rate.

Your credit score is based on five key categories contained within your credit reports (as follows):

  • Payment History: Accounts for roughly 35% of your score. This one is pretty self-explanatory, paying your bills on time will help keep your scores high, while late payments, charge-offs, and collections will hurt. If you’re trying to improve your credit rating, avoid the latter at all costs. And while this category makes up the largest single chunk of your scores, it’s important to understand that 65% of your score is determined by other factors. Meaning that there’s more to it than simply making your payments on time. Let’s take a look at the other categories…
  • Amounts Currently Owed: 30% of your score is based on the amount of debt you’re currently carrying –or more specifically, the amount of money you currently owe your creditors. While this category looks at the total amount that you owe (credit cards, home loans, car loans, etc.), it’s the credit cards –or revolving accounts – that have the most impact on your credit score. In order to maximize your scores in this section, you should keep your balances in relation to your credit limits as low as possible.
  • Length of Credit History: Consisting of roughly 15% of your score, this category specifically measures looks at how long you’ve had credit. It does so by reviewing all of your accounts and looking at the opened dates. Obviously, the longer you’ve had credit, the more points you’ll earn in this section. This is just one of the reasons why it’s not a good idea to close old, good accounts. Why would you want to lose the good credit history?
  • Types of Credit: Worth 10% of the points in your credit score, this section is looking for a healthy mix of accounts. Diversity is key – having a mix of different types of accounts including credit cards, auto loans, mortgage loans, etc., will insure you do well here.
  • Searches for New Credit: This section accounts for 10% of your score. Basically, when you apply for credit an inquiry will post to your credit report showing that you’re seeking credit. Having too many inquiries in a short period of time can hurt you. As a general rule of thumb, try to avoid excessively shopping for credit – only open a new credit account when you really need it. (Tidbit: By law inquiries remain in your credit reports for two years. However, only inquiries in the last 12 months are considered in your credit score calculation.)

Your credit score is essentially your “credit report card” on how you’ve managed your financial obligations – for good or for bad.

Why Do I Have So Many Credit Scores?

Credit scores help lenders gauge a borrower’s likelihood of repaying debt, and because there are thousands of lenders and dozens of loan products, there are all sorts of credit scores.

Although the bounty of credit scores can be confusing, there’s no reason to dwell on point differences among credit scores. It helps to focus on what’s behind the scores, as opposed to the numbers themselves. There are five major components that most credit scoring models examine when looking at your credit reports. You can see what your grade is in each of these categories by using the free Credit Report Card, which can tell you areas of your credit history that may need work, and provides you access to two of your credit scores – one from VantageScore and one from Experian.

The Basics of Credit Scores

The various scoring models have one thing in common: the consumer. Credit reports are a record of an individual’s financial history, and credit scoring formulas are based on the information in those reports. Here’s where variations start to come in: Not all financial information gets reported to every credit bureau, leading to different information among credit reports. As such, a consumer may get different credit scores from the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), even if the bureaus use the same scoring model.

From that point, the differences compound. Not only does your score depend on which credit report it’s based on, it depends on how the score weighs various components. For example, an auto lender may be more interested in a consumer’s history of repaying loans rather than a credit cards, so the lender may pick a scoring model that puts less weight into a credit card payment history. Some scoring models offer different options based on the lender’s market, or a lender can order a custom formula.

“Lenders, they have choice,” says Jeff Richardson, vice president of public relations at VantageScore Solutions. “That’s important, because they need to have the best predictive capabilities for their businesses.”

With every tweak of the math, a consumer has another credit score, and that turns into a lot of numbers to track.

Picking a Score

There are two main types of credit scores: educational scores and scores lenders use in their decision-making processes. Both can be valuable to a consumer.

“Educational scores — they’re not scores used by lenders to make lending decisions,” said Anthony Sprauve, director of public relations for FICO. “They can give a person a general sense of their credit standing.”

By tracking a single score over an extended period of time, a consumer can gauge the impact of financial decisions and progress toward financial goals. In other words: It’s not a score-to-score comparison that’s helpful, but rather a periodic review of the same scoring model that will provide the best insight into your credit profile.

The important thing is to compare apples to apples — pick a score or two and monitor them frequently to see how your behaviors are impacting your credit.

I Want to Get My Credit Score for Free

If you want your credit score for free, there are several ways to get it. One is to apply for credit. If you are turned down or charged more for credit based on your score, the lender must tell you the score that was used in the decision. An easier and risk-free way is to sign up for a totally free account right here on, where you can view your credit report card and have an updated credit score every 30 days.

But that’s kind of complicated. What if you don’t want to fill out a credit application just to try to find out your score? And what if you get approved at the best terms? The lender doesn’t have to send you your credit rating in that instance.

Another way to get your credit score at no cost is to sign up for a trial membership to a credit monitoring service. These services usually offer a 10-day free trial or something similar. If you don’t cancel after the trial period ends, you will be charged for an ongoing membership. These services can be useful if you want to monitor your credit with more than one credit reporting agency.

There’s another way to get your credit score for free, though, and that is to use a tool like’s free Credit Report Card. You’ll get your free credit scores, plus a breakdown of the factors that affect your credit.

3 Credit Score Facts to Keep in Mind

When you do review your credit scores, keep a couple of important things in mind:

1. You have many credit scores. At any given time, there are dozens of credit score models that can be used by lenders or insurance companies to evaluate applicants or customers. There’s no single “accurate” or “real” score; the score lenders use depends on their needs at that time. Instead of obsessing about the number, look at what your score is telling you about your credit. Is it good? Not so good? You may also find it helpful to see how you compare to other consumers.

2. Scores change. In fact, these numbers are created when they are requested. If new information about your credit is reported to the credit reporting agencies, then the next time your score is requested and calculated, it will be different. That means that checking your credit score shouldn’t be a one-time event. Monitoring your score over time will allow you to see how it’s changing and spot problems.

3. Your score is only as good as the information behind it. The score is calculated using information in one of your three credit reports — Experian, Equifax or TransUnion. If that information is wrong, then this number won’t accurately reflect your creditworthiness. For that reason, it’s important to also get your free annual credit reports to make sure they don’t contain mistakes.

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