Whenever you make a significant financial move today that requires financial assistance, it’s often accompanied by a check of your credit report and often a retrieval of your credit score. Lenders (and, quite frequently, other agencies like insurance companies) use this information to help determine a customized offer for you, so it’s quite useful to have an idea of your credit score and to make sure that your credit report is clean, particularly in terms of incorrect statements that can hurt you.
The problem is that there’s no obviously clear way to acquire this information. Credit reports are managed by three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion), and these companies make money by selling your credit report and your credit score to lenders. They also hope to make money by selling this information to you, too.
Even worse, there are sharks in the water out there. Programs like freecreditreport.com seek to trick you into signing up for subscriptions to stuff you likely will never use in exchange for your credit report.
Here are the best ways I’ve found to find out your credit report and credit score. Please, if you know of better sources than these, leave a note in the comments.
Getting Your Credit Report
Your credit report is just a listing of all of the accounts and debts that you have and whether you’ve been paying them on time. When you go to get a loan, lenders will use this to see whether or not you’re a reliable person who can be counted on to repay debts. The more reliable you look, the better the rates.
You can get your credit report for free, no questions asked, at annualcreditreport.com. This is a service offered by the FTC that allows you one free download of your credit report each year from each agency (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). Since most of the time the three reports are the same, you can effectively grab your credit report for free every four months.
Do not use other services to get your report – you’ll end up being forced to sign up for services and pay fees that you don’t have to pay. The worst offender here is the heavily advertised freecreditreport.com.
Once you have your report, you should read it very carefully to make sure it’s accurate. If you find something that isn’t, start calling. Get ahold of both the credit bureau and the organization that put the false info on your credit report. False information on your credit report does nothing but hurt you and you should seek to get rid of it as soon as possible.
Getting Your Credit Score
Unfortunately, a service like annualcreditreport.com doesn’t exist for one’s credit score. The exact method for calculating credit scores are actually considered to be a trade secret, held by the Fair Isaac Corporation. That’s why credit scores in the United States are often called FICO scores. Thus, you can find out all of the information that makes up your score, but you can’t find the score itself.
The cheapest option is to not find out your specific score. If you’ve checked your credit reports at annualcreditreport.com, you know what your credit report looks like. You can use that information, along with knowledge of your personal finances, and use a FICO score estimator to get a pretty strong estimate of your credit score. I tried this tool and found that it predicted a small range of potential scores – my real score was in fact within that range.
For some, though, an exact number is necessary, and you’ll likely have to pay for that. When I was in the process of shopping for my house loan, I looked at several services and finally used myFICO to get my credit score. They give you several options – the best one, for the long haul, is to get your FICO score from the credit bureau with the worst credit report (you checked them at annualcreditreport.com, right?) for a one time fee of $16. That’s the method I used to find my “worst” score – and it wasn’t bad at all.
There are other options (like getting your FICO score from all three bureaus at once at myFICO, or going to each credit bureau individually), but they’re more expensive. No matter what, though, you should definitely avoid any subscription services – credit monitoring is nice, but you can get the same effect for free by going to annualcreditreport.com regularly.
Now That I Have This Info…
Once you’ve downloaded your credit report, ensured that it’s clean, and figured out your credit score, you can use that information to get realistic assessments of the type of loans you can get. This tool provides a good estimate of the benefits of a strong credit score. With this information, you can make up your own mind about whether you can afford a big purchase right now – or if you need to focus on improving your credit right now.
Remember the biggest rule of thumb: don’t ever sign up for a recurring service unless you’re 100% sure you want it. For credit scores and credit reports, given the strong free and one-time services available, I don’t believe there’s any reason for the average person to sign up for credit monitoring subscriptions. Keep that cash in your pocket instead.