It seems like so many websites these days want to tell you about your credit score or offer credit monitoring. But if knowing your credit score is truly important to you, who do you trust? How do you know if what they tell you is accurate?
In this article, we break down how some of the most popular credit score sites work, where they get their information, and how this compares to how credit bureaus calculate your creditworthiness.
Reasons to Know Your Credit Score
There are many reasons you might want to know your credit score. Any time you apply for a loan or any form of credit, this score gives potential lenders information about your creditworthiness and determines what sort of rates they may offer you. The better your credit, the better the rates, and the more money you can save when financing.
Even if you aren’t ready to take out loans, knowing your credit score will allow you to make changes to improve it for the future. When it comes time to buy a car, a house, or refinancing your student loans, you can make sure you are in the best possible position.
What Is Your Credit Score and How Is It Calculated?
Before we dig into the accuracy of credit score sites, it is important to understand just what a credit score is and the different methods for calculating it.
A credit score is usually between 300 and 850, which indicates how likely you are to repay a loan or credit card. Lenders use your score to determine what interest rates to offer based on how likely it is you may or may not repay. They charge higher interest if you have a low credit score to make up unpaid loans.
There are several ways that credit scores are calculated. The traditional method is via generating a FICO score. FICO is an analytics software company that is best known for generating consumer credit scores.
FICO scores are calculated using the following information weighted differently:
- Amount owed
- New credit
- Payment history
- Length of credit history
- A mix of credit types
How these categories are weighted depends on how long you’ve been using credit, among other factors. The actual algorithm is proprietary and complex, but your score will always be based on information made available by the major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax). If each bureau has slightly different information about you, then your FICO score might differ.
It’s also worth noting there are different versions of FICO scores, and the company offers scores specific to certain types of lending. Your FICO score for an auto loan might be different from your FICO score for a credit card.
Another method for computing credit scores was developed by the three credit-rating agencies as an alternative to FICO. It is called VantageScore. Your VantageScore is calculated using a weighted average of:
- Your available credit
- Recent credit
- Payment history
- Credit utilization
- Depth of credit
- Credit balances
The greatest weight is placed on payment history and credit utilization, which is the same with FICO, but VantageScore’s model allows for credit scores to be produced for consumers who were virtually invisible to the FICO model, including those who are new to credit or who use credit infrequently.
VantageScore also provides reason codes to lenders, which give reasons for any particular score. This allows lenders to assess a consumer’s creditworthiness better.
When a lender does a credit check, they will use either FICO or VantageScore to obtain your credit score and determine what you qualify for.
How Credit Karma Works
Credit Karma allows users to check their credit scores at any time for free. In addition, they allow you to compare credit card offers, loans, and more without affecting your score.
You can also use their credit-monitoring service to alert you when there are any important changes to your credit report. They even give you tips and insights about what activities affect your score and how you can improve them.
But can this information be trusted? Where do they get it? And how can they offer this service for free?
Credit Karma uses VantageScore to calculate your credit score and gives you your score based on both your credit data from Equifax and TransUnion. Since this is how many lenders also determine your credit score, it’s safe to say it is reliable. Although it’s worth noting that if a lender uses FICO instead, or VantageScore through Experian, then their numbers may differ a little.
Note also that some lenders use variations of credit-scoring models offered by FICO or VantageScore designed for a certain type of credit. Some places also use their own proprietary models.
That said, because Credit Karma makes use of your information from two of the three credit bureaus, as well as the very popular VantageScore model, and updates your information weekly, it’s fair to say it can reasonably be trusted.
But how is it that they can offer this service for free? Well, because Credit Karma works with many banks and lenders to provide you with personalized offers, they receive their income from those banks and lenders.
How Credit Sesame Works
Credit Sesame works off a very similar business model to Credit Karma, offering free credit scores, monitoring, advice, and personalized offers. However, they market themselves more as a credit and loan company instead of a personal finance company.
Credit Sesame pulls your credit information once a month from TransUnion and also uses VantageScore to determine your credit score. As such, it can be said to be reasonably reliable. However, it updates your score with less frequency and with information from only one bureau instead of Credit Karma’s two.
How Mint Works
Mint is a company that allows you to track and manage your finances in one place for free. In addition to this, they provide a free credit score and credit monitoring. Just as with the other two companies mentioned, they also offer advice, tell you how to improve your credit, and help you find offers that are right for you.
Mint utilizes VantageScore, and while they do not seem to indicate on their website where they get the credit report from, other places have suggested they use Experian. As such, the scores provided by Mint are likely equally as valid as other similar sites.
How to Get Your Free Credit Score or Report
Many banks now offer the ability to check your credit score for free and enroll in credit monitoring, similar to what is available from the companies mentioned above. Start by checking with your bank to see what they offer.
The federal government allows you to sign up to receive a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting bureaus each year. By visiting AnnualCreditReport.com, you can request your reports. Note that credit reports do not usually contain credit scores.
What Scores Are Needed to Qualify for the Best Refinancing or Loan Rates?
FICO credit scores are often divided into five categories from worst to best as follows:
- Very poor (300-579): It is essentially impossible to get credit with these scores.
- Fair (580-669): These are subprime borrowers and generally qualify for the worst rates.
- Good (670-739): These applicants qualify for better rates, and it is assumed only about 8% of them are likely to be delinquent.
- Very good (740-799): These applicants usually qualify for better-than-average rates.
- Exceptional (800-850): Anyone with a score in this range should have no problem qualifying for the best rates.
The VantageScore scale runs as follows:
- Very poor (300-499): Applicants are unlikely to be approved for any credit.
- Poor (500-600): Applicants may qualify for some of the worst rates and may have larger down payments.
- Fair (601-660): These applicants are usually approved for credit but don’t get the best rates.
- Good (661-780): These applicants stand a good chance of getting more competitive rates.
- Excellent (781-850): Those in the top range qualify for the best rates and offers.
Learn More About Loans, Credit, and How to Fund Your Education
The team at CollegeFinance.com is here to help you figure out the best way to pay for your college education, whether through scholarships, grants, or loans. While most federal student loans do not require a credit check, private student loans and some federal PLUS loans do. Learn more by visiting the resources on our website or signing up for our newsletter.