How to Check Your Credit Score Fast, Frequently and for Free
Nobody likes to be treated like they’re just a number. But when it comes to your personal finances, your credit score looms large as one of the most telling indicators of your financial health. To help we’ll teach you how to check your credit score for free, and help you understand what a credit score is and why knowing it matters.
Hopefully your credit is fine—but if you haven’t checked it in a while, now’s the time.
A little number with a big impact
Your credit score is a number, usually between 300-850 (in general, the higher your score the better) that represents to lenders your level of creditworthiness. Banks use this little three-digit number to decide whether to lend you money (say, for a car or a house) and on what terms. You may be able to get a loan even if you have a low score—but you’ll probably be faced with abnormally high interest rates or be required to provide collateral.
Potential employers and landlords can also use your score to decide whether you’d be a safe bet as an employee or tenant.
Who’s keeping score?
When you take out a loan or line of credit, the bank keeps a record of your credit limits and balances, as well as how much and how often you pay. They pass this data along to one or more credit reporting companies (also known as credit bureaus) who use this to calculate your credit score.
There are three primary credit bureaus in the U.S.: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Because each maintains your credit history separately and may use their own proprietary scoring models, you shouldn’t be surprised to see a small amount of variation between the scores each bureau reports.
You may see your credit score referred to as a FICO score. FICO stands for Fair Isaacs Company, which is the analytics firm that created the scoring model back in the 1980s that is still used today to assess creditworthiness. There are other scoring models out there (VantageScore is another popular one), but FICO is still the most common.
A popular app for checking your credit is Credit Sesame, which provides free (no credit card required!) monthly credit score monitoring and analysis. Just give them your name, address, phone number, birth date, and the last 4 digits of your social security number.
Below is an example of their dashboard. It looks great whether you’re viewing on your computer or on their smartphone app. It shows your score alongside a graded Credit Analysis of how you stack up in key areas.
How to check your credit score the easy way
We love this report card-style analysis. It makes it easy to see what, if anything, in your credit report is pulling your score down. Grades are provided for the following areas:
You can select “View Details” for more in-depth information about how you’re doing in any of these categories. Here’s more detail on the “Account Mix” category, which is where we got the lowest score in this example:
See all your loans in one place
In addition to your letter grades and overall credit score, you’re also provided information about what range your score falls into. Credit Sesame’s scale is below; it’s pretty much in line with how other credit trackers and lenders classify scores:
When it comes to debt, ratios matter
Credit Sesame’s dashboard also includes a Debt Analysis section, where you can see your total debt balances, monthly payments towards debt, and debt-to-income ratio.
Your debt-to-income ratio doesn’t directly affect your credit score because the credit agencies don’t know how much money you earn. But it’s a key indicator of financial health, so it’s good information to have. Generally speaking, you want it to be a low number, otherwise too much of your income is going towards servicing debt. Credit Sesame uses an estimated income to calculate their ratio—but if they got it wrong, you can update it manually for a more accurate percentage.
While all the features discussed above are free, Credit Sesame does offer some fee-based premium services, including 3-Bureau Monitoring (instead of just TransUnion), Daily Credit Score Updates (rather than monthly) and Identity Protection. I’ve never felt the need for any of these upgraded services, and I suspect they would be overkill for the average consumer.
Other options to explore
Credit Sesame is our favorite credit tracking service, but it’s not the only game in town. Check out Credit Karma or MoneyTips if you’re interested in other options. All are free to use—so there’s no harm in checking them all out and deciding which you prefer.
One great thing about Credit Karma is that it gives you access to credit scores and reports from TWO bureaus: Equifax and TransUnion. And check out their Resources section for some handy tools, including a credit score simulator, an amortization calculator, and more.
MoneyTips offers similar credit score analysis to the other sites, but with a focus on guiding you towards financial advisors, loan providers, and brokers for professional advice. Their Retirement Planner tool is worth checking out, but their interface is a bit clunky (and they don’t have a mobile app).
Avoiding the ads
Many credit tracking services (including some of the ones discussed here) feature credit card ads in their app and via emails. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; after all, they’re providing a free service, and they need to make money somehow.
If you’re in the market for a credit card, great—these ads can give you info about good cards you might qualify for. But don’t let the ads convince you to take out cards you don’t need.
Get the full report
Your credit score is very important, but it’s only part of the story.
I also recommend that you review your complete report at least once a year—or any time you see a substantial, unexplained change in your score—just to make sure everything looks accurate. By federal law, the credit bureaus are required to provide your report free of charge once a year…but only if you ask for it.
To request your free annual report from any (or all) of the three main credit bureaus, go to www.annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228. This site is jointly operated by the three credit bureaus as mandated by the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) so consumers can have some oversight into what’s being reported about them.
Keep in mind, these reports will not include your credit score—you can use Credit Sesame or your favorite tracker for that. But the report will include all the information the bureau used to calculate your score, from your current and past credit card accounts and loans to any late payments or delinquent accounts.
If you see something, say something
Achieving and maintaining a good credit score can be hard enough without being dinged for someone else’s late payments or bankruptcies.
A 2013 Federal Trade Commission study found that 1 in 5 Americans had errors on their credit report. Some errors can be pretty harmless (like a misspelled name), while others can totally crush your credit score, costing big bucks in higher interest rates.
If you find inaccuracies on your report that you want to have fixed, each of the credit bureaus have a process for filing a dispute. Here’s where to go to start the process online with Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion.
Now that know you know how to check your credit score for free, it's time to tap into a wealth of information about your finances.
Knowledge is power, so if you're serious about improving your credit, check out apps like Credit Sesame or Credit Karma today.