Personal Finance Basics: Credit Scores

What is a credit score?
Your credit scores are numbers generated from your credit reports using a secret algorithm created by the Fair Isaac Corporation. These numbers, called FICO scores, supposedly correspond to the likeliness you will pay your debts in a timely manner. Your FICO scores are important because they directly affect your insurance premiums, the interest rate you will pay when you obtain a loan, and whether you are eligible to be hired for employment.

A word brief about debt
Let’s talk about debt for a moment. Debts are not the same as bills. A credit card or a loan is a debt, while your electric bill is not. Missing single a electric bill will not show up on your credit reports; however, if you stop paying your bills altogether, they become debts because you didn’t pay them and the fact that you didn’t pay in a timely manner will eventually show up on your credit reports.

What factors determine my FICO scores?
FICO scores range from 500 – 850, the higher the better. The pie chart below illustrates the weight of the factors that determine your score.

As you can see Payment History is the most important factor of your FICO scores, so at least pay the minimum payments for all your debts and bills.

From where does the information behind FICO scores come?
In the United States, three consumer reporting agencies are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. These for-profit corporations collect information from credit card companies, financial institutions, and collections agencies to build your credit report. Since there are three consumer reporting agencies, you have three different credit reports and three different FICO scores.

Where can I get my credit reports?
The best place to get your credit reports is from Annual Credit Report because you can get all three credit reports for free once a year. Notice I said credit reports for free not credit scores for free. You are entitled to view your credit reports from all three consumer reporting agencies under Federal laws (long pdfs warning). Since there are three credit reports I recommended checking one every four months. This way you can look for errors or identity theft all year long instead of once a year.

Unfortunately the Federal laws don’t include free FICO scores, and the three consumer reporting agencies don’t sell FICO scores anyway. They each sell their own proprietary scores known as FAKO scores. FAKO scores are basically fake FICO scores that have a numerical range similar to FICO scores. Basically the three consumer reporting agencies are trying to oust FICO in favor of their proprietary scores by making it difficult for consumers to access their real FICO scores. Regardless of these shenanigans, lenders look at FICO scores and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Where do I get my FICO scores?
The only place you can reliably get your Equifax and Experian FICO scores for a reasonable price is from MyFICO.com. For your TransUnion FICO score MyFICO or TransUnion Consumer Solutions are your only hope.

Lending Tree does offer a 30-day credit monitoring trial that provides an Experian FICO score and credit report, but then it’s $12/month until you cancel. MyFICO offers a 30-day credit monitoring trial that provides an Equifax FICO score and credit report, but then charges an annual payment of $89.95 if you don’t cancel.

FYI, it is highly unlikely all three of your FICO scores will be exactly the same, since all three consumer reporting agencies use their own slightly different rules to build your credit reports. Don’t freak if they vary rather significantly. Potential lenders will pull all three scores and take the middle score.

Controversy Time
Ok, I’m going to be fairly controversial for a moment and say don’t worry about your FICO scores. There is no reason for you to shell out money to track your FICO scores unless you are applying for a loan or seeking employment that requires a handling money or a security clearance. If you aren’t doing these activities, who cares what your scores are? You won’t get any prizes. The most you’ll get is bragging rights on personal finance blogs Note I said FICO score and not credit report.

If you have been consistently paying your debts (mortgages, credit cards, other loans) on time for several years, your FICO scores will be in decent shape. If you want excellent FICO scores, continue consistently paying your debts on time and reduce the amount of debt you have.

Let’s recap:

    1. FICO scores represent the likeliness you will pay your debts in a timely manner
    2. Payment History, Amounts Owed, Length of Credit History, New Credit, and Types of Credit in Use are the factors that determine your FICO scores ranked in order of importance
    3. FICO scores come from information contained in your credit reports from the three consumer reporting agencies
    4. Always obtain your credit reports from the Annual Credit Report website
    5. You can only get your FICO scores from MyFICO.com or TransUnion Consumer Solutions
    6. Don’t worry about the scores if you aren’t looking for a loan or seeking employment that has to do with money or security clearances
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3 thoughts on “Personal Finance Basics: Credit Scores

  1. Great breakdown. The only thing I would add is that it can be helpful if you save our free annual reports until you need to get them, rather than making a habit of grabbing them on the spur of the moment.

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