Good credit is a combination of a clean credit report and a high credit score. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Every consumer actually has three credit reports and many, many credit scores. So, how are you supposed to know which reports matter and which scores to follow?
What are the three credit bureaus?
There are three credit reporting agencies – also called credit bureaus or CRAs – in the U.S.: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
Then what are the three credit reports?
Each bureau maintains its own private version of your consumer credit report. So, consumers get Experian credit reports, Equifax credit reports, and TransUnion credit reports.
The reports basically all say the same thing. A federal consumer rights protection act known as the Fair Credit Reporting Act controls what the reports can say. But the three credit bureaus have creative license to present your personal information and credit data in different ways.
What are the three credit scores?
Trick question. There are not three credit scores. In fact, there are many, many more than that.
- FICO credit scores are the most widely used; they’re used in 90% of all financing decisions
- But, there are different versions of the FICO score – FICO, FICO 9, FICO 10, UltraFICO
- Your FICO score can also change depending on which credit bureau’s report is used to calculate the FICO score
- Each credit bureau also had their own private scoring system, such as Experian Score, TransUnion Credit Score, Equifax Credit Score
- There have also been different versions of those scores, too
- Then you have the VantageScore. This is a scoring model that all three credit reporting agencies created together to compete against FICO
What’s more, an individual lender may have their own private scoring model calculated to use in financing decisions. The good news is that all these scores generally use the same factors as FICO. But they often have different point ranges. They may also vary in the “weight” that they give certain factors. But what’s good for one score generally won’t be bad for another.
That means you can build credit and have confidence all your scores are headed in the right direction.
Deciding Which Credit Scores and Reports Matter
Look at all three credit reports
In general, you want to look at all three credit reports periodically. This ensures that anyone who checks your credit will see a good, clean report, regardless of which bureau issued it. At a basic level, you can check your three reports for free once per year. Just go to annualcreditreport.com to download them. There’s no requirement that you check them all at once, so you can spread the downloads out over several months. This gives you the ability to check your credit reports year-round for free.
Of course, if you’re working to build credit, you may need more information than a few reports per year. In this case, a credit monitoring service does provide a benefit, in that many of these services offer a three-in-one credit report.
Which credit score should you monitor?
VantageScore is usually the score that the best credit monitoring services track. FICO tends not to share, so usually, the only way to get FICO score tracking is to pay for it separately directly through FICO. But the credit reporting companies designed VantageScore to closely mirror FICO. So, an excellent VantageScore will usually translate to an excellent FICO score, although there can be slight differences.
But if you’re looking for all-in-one credit monitoring, products that include 3-in-1 credit reports and VantageScore tracking often end up having the most value.
Are credit monitoring services worth it?
Absolutely! Creditors and lenders make financing decisions based on creditworthiness, which is a combination of credit reports and your credit score. If you have bad credit or weak credit, you may not get approved for new financing at all. And even if you do, you can expect to pay higher interest rates. That increases the total cost of borrowing.
Using a monitoring service means you can be aware of reported changes in your credit within days, instead of months or years. And you won’t go into credit checks thinking you have a good score when you don’t. It also helps you protect against identity theft, since you will be able to catch inaccurate information sooner. Some credit monitoring services even offer fraud alerts and identity fraud insurance.
You can also qualify for loan and credit card offers you see advertised. Only consumers with the best credit usually qualify for these offers. Credit monitoring gives you the power to be amongst those lucky few who get the most financially beneficial accounts.
How do I choose a credit monitoring service that is best for my three credit reports?
Although you can get three free credit reports every 12 months, these reports don’t come with context or advice for how to improve your credit history; they also don’t include any credit score.
There are some free tools like Credit Karma and Credit Sesame, but they only give you a limited view of your credit. With a service like SmartCredit’s premium subscription, you can get a copy of your credit report from all 3 bureaus in addition to invaluable credit building tools.