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Staying on top of your credit score is something that you should treat as a routine part of being financially savvy. Research shows that 36% of people don’t think that checking their credit score is important, and another 8% don’t even know how to.
Those who do check their score regularly – at least once a year but preferably once every couple of months – can catch significant fluctuations more quickly than people who don’t.
These people are likelier to know exactly where their credit stands, so they can navigate things like loans and credit card offers armed with their credit score knowledge.
Not knowing your credit score is a sure-fire way to stay in the dark about your creditworthiness and finances. You can’t afford not to know where you land.
When you search for ways to learn your credit score online, you’ll probably find several services that let you check your score every month – for a monthly fee.
Are paid services necessary? Not really. I’m going to talk about a few 100% free services that keep you on top of your credit score.
Don’t feel like reading through the entire article? If you’re looking for a quick way to get a free credit score, we recommend Credit Sesame.
First, let’s delve deeper into what a credit score is and why it’s an important part of your financial picture.
Your Credit Score and What It Does for You
There’s a lot more to a credit score than people might think. This number is far from just a number. It gives you an overview of your credit and how you compare to other consumers.
Think of your credit score like a grade of your current and past debt obligations. Your credit score takes into consideration things like:
- How long your accounts have been open
- How responsible you are with using credit and paying off balances
- The number of lenders who have recently checked your report
- Delinquent payments
- Debt utilization (the percentage of your credit lines you’ve used)
- Mix of credit types
This number may only be three digits, but you can see that it carries a lot of information with it.
Credit scores range from 300 to 850, with a score of 550 or below tagged as bad credit, and a score of 750 or more categorized as excellent credit.
People with poor or bad credit, or those with scores around 650 and below, generally have a tough time qualifying for loans. If they do snag one, they’ll have atrocious interest rates that can make them take longer to pay off.
If you have fair credit that hovers around 650 to 700, you might be able to qualify for loans or credit cards with average interest rates. Good credit above 700 can make it easier for you to be eligible for more loans, but an excellent credit score of 750 or more will give you the best interest rates and offers.
Understanding the Different Credit Bureaus
Your credit score can vary depending on the credit bureau giving you your score. There are three credit bureaus in the United States:
Lenders may inform all three credit bureaus about your new credit line, or they may only choose one or two to notify.
Your score might then be higher on your TransUnion report that gets updated information of your timely payments than it is on Equifax, which has no information about that credit line.
Lenders that do report to all three credit bureaus may also choose to report to them at different times. Your lender may send information about your auto loan to Experian every month but only sends that information to Equifax once every quarter.
Staggered reporting can also cause your score to differ between bureaus.
Your score should be similar with each bureau. If you notice that your credit score varies dramatically – 50 points or more – between bureaus, then you should obtain a free credit report from each one of the bureaus to check the differences.
You can ask for a free copy every year by requesting one from AnnualCreditReport.com, which is backed by the Federal Trade Commission.
Why is Checking My Credit Score Important?
Say you want to apply for a car loan so you can trade in your 15-year-old clunker for a newer car you found at a great price at your local car dealership. You hadn’t checked your credit score in about two years when you last applied for a personal loan.
You keep up on your bills and have paid off some debt, so you assume your score has increased and you should qualify for a reasonable interest rate.
Instead, you end up applying for three loans, all of which you’ve been turned down for. You check out your credit score and notice that it’s down 50 points from where it was when you checked last.
The culprit? There’s a medical bill in your name from a few months ago that you forgot about and haven’t paid.
Forgetting bills here and there can happen to the best of us. A situation like this is precisely why credit scores and reports exist. By staying on top of your score, you’ll always know where you stand and can quickly rectify issues that cause a drop in your score.
Your credit score can also notify you of fraudulent activity made in your name. Hard inquiries on your credit report, which are caused by creditors reviewing your credit history, can lower your score quickly.
If you haven’t recently applied for credit, then a quick drop in your credit score may signal that someone is trying to open accounts in your name.
Credit Score Versus Credit Report: What’s the Difference?
People often use the terms credit score and credit report interchangeably, but they’re two very different things that happen to work together. Think of your credit score like the grade for everything that’s on your credit report, which is like the full written report you’re being graded on.
A credit report explains the “whys” behind your credit score. Your report will list things like:
- The type of accounts you have open (like a mortgage or credit card)
- How long the account has been open
- The status of each account (current, delinquent, etc.)
- How many credit inquiries you’ve had
- Public records, like liens on your home or court cases
You’ll find just about all the information in your credit report that the credit bureaus use to determine your credit score.
Your credit report is even more essential to check than your credit score because it provides more details about your accounts and how much you owe.
If you think any fraudulent activity has happened in your name based on your credit score, you’ll need to dig into your credit report to find out what’s going on.
Using Credit Monitoring Services to Check Your Credit Score and Report
There are several excellent credit monitoring services available that will let you have access to your credit score and credit report whenever you need them.
These services will cost money, though, so you should expect to pay a monthly or yearly subscription for access.
Credit monitoring services can help with:
- Protecting against identity theft. Credit monitoring services have tools you can use to prevent someone from opening an account in your name. Some services offer things like extra verification when your social security number or other personal information is used to open an account, apply for a job, or make a large purchase.
- Recovering identity in the case of theft. These services usually have dedicated teams to help customers recover their identity in the case of theft. They can help you work with lenders to report theft and even file police reports about such incidents.
- Quick credit monitoring and alerts. When you or someone else applies for credit or opens a new account in your name, your service can send you alerts to make sure you know about it. This quick-acting system can be a lifesaver in cases of identity theft.
The average cost for a credit monitoring service is about $13 each month. If you’ve been the victim of identity theft in the past, then the cost might be worth it to you to stay protected and have constant access to your credit score and report.
Protecting Yourself for Free
What most people don’t know is that they can do much of what a credit monitoring service can without paying a dime. It might take a little longer, but it can save you about $200 a year, depending on your service.
First, head to AnnualCreditReport.com, which I already mentioned can give you access to one free credit report every year from each of the three credit bureaus.
Your credit score doesn’t come with your credit report, though, so you’ll have to get that elsewhere. Keep reading to learn about 100% free services that let you get your updated credit score.
Lastly, protect yourself. If you do find any activity that might be fraudulent in your reports, you can place a fraud alert on them. You only have to notify one bureau and, by law, that bureau will need to inform the others.
A fraud alert is good for 90 days and makes it more difficult for someone to open accounts in your name because lenders will need extra verification than usual to open an account.
Stop Paying and Start Checking: Where to Check Your Credit Score for Free
Since checking your credit score is one of the most important things you can do to stay on top of your financial history, you should know where to get this snippet of information for free.
The following companies all offer free credit scores for consumers, and you might even be surprised to see that you can usually get your credit score for free from your credit card company.
Credit Sesame combines some of the features of Credit Karma and Credit.com into one helpful resource.
You’ll have your updated TransUnion Vantage 3.0 score on your dashboard, along with a quick overview of your credit grades for payment history, credit usage, and more.
You can also see a summary of your debt analysis, which includes your total debt, monthly payments, and your debt-to-income ratio based on your current gross income.
Credit Sesame gives you some helpful recommendations for things you can do to improve your credit score, like apply for a card with a high credit limit or get approved for a debt consolidation loan to pay off debt quickly.
I love the “Borrowing Power” feature, which shows you how much credit you might be eligible for based on your current score and payment history.
By decreasing the amount of debt you currently have, you can open yourself up to better cards with higher credit lines, therefore improving your credit score.
Credit.com is a go-to resource for all things credit. You’ll find informative articles about credit and how to improve your score, as well as updated guides to some of the best credit cards and loans for you.
You can also register for free to receive your free credit score from Experian.
Credit.com takes your credit score further by giving you a free credit “report card,” which is basically a full layout of everything you’re doing well and not-so-well in terms of credit. The report card shows you a letter grade for your credit utilization, credit age, account mix, payment history, and credit inquiries.
I love the Recommended Plan, which lets you know what credit score is achievable for you if you make a few changes to how you use your credit, like paying off some debt and avoiding applying for any new credit lines.
You can save your plan so that you have some attainable goals to shoot for.
Your Credit.com plan and score will update once every 14 days, but you can check it as often as you’d like.
3. Credit Karma
Sign up free for Credit Karma and receive your Equifax and TransUnion credit score. Combined with Credit.com, you’ll have access to all three scores at your fingertips!
Click on each score to see what factors have the most significant impact on your credit score with that bureau, like your credit utilization or credit age.
Credit.com doesn’t offer a full credit report, but it does give you an overview of all open accounts, which is super helpful when you want to double-check a balance or your payment history.
If you are in the market for a new loan, you can check the My Recommendations area. Credit Karma provides suggestions for credit cards or personal loans that you might have the best chance to qualify for based on your credit score.
Quizzle is another free service that pulls your TransUnion credit score for you. In addition to your credit score, you’ll also have access to information from your credit report, like overviews of your open accounts, credit utilization percentage, and how much available credit you have.
There are several available tools here you should take advantage of to understand your credit further.
Look through your history using the Timeline feature that shows you when lenders have reported things to your credit report and use the Trending feature to see how your credit score and report have changed over time.
You can also get a Debt Summary and Debt Breakdown to help you zone in on the areas you might want to target to improve your credit score.
Quizzle also offers information about future goals you might have and where your score lands you in terms of reaching those goals. If you want to purchase a home, you can see how your current score might impact the process.
5. BONUS: Your Credit Card Accounts
If you currently have any credit cards, then you might already have access to your credit score for free every month. Make sure you sign up for online access to your accounts, which is most commonly the way that credit card companies display this information.
Some card companies have detailed information about your credit in addition to your score, while others just provide a score. Either way, you’ll be able to stay on top of your score without having to sign up for any extra services.
Here are some credit card companies that give you access to your score if you currently have an open account:
- Bank of America: You’ll get a free TransUnion score for the past 12 months, so you can see how your credit habits are affecting your score.
- Capital One: Capital One uses a system called CreditWise that provides your free score, credit alerts when accounts open in your name, a grade overview, and even a credit simulator that can help you achieve your credit goals.
- Discover: Discover offers a monthly updated TransUnion credit score, along with a timeline of your score’s history.
- US Bank: Get your free Experian credit score updated monthly when you have a US Bank account.
Some banks and credit unions also offer free credit scores for consumers who have a checking or savings account or some type of loan through them and sign up for online access. Check with your financial institution to see if this is something it offers.
Finding out your credit score shouldn’t be hard. This number is something you need to know so that you always know where you stand when you apply for a loan, credit card, or mortgage.
Thanks to helpful services that keep consumers in the loop, you should have no problem staying on top of your credit and planning your financial future.
I suggest signing up for a couple of your favorite services that overlap the credit bureaus they pull scores from. You’ll then have access to all three scores with valuable insight into your credit profile.
Do you check your credit score routinely? Do you use any of the above services to do it? Let us know your thoughts in a comment!