Updated as of April 2016
April is one of the months that I have designated to check my credit report. Since you’re allowed (by law) a free credit report annually from each of the 3 credit reporting agencies, that gives you an opportunity to check one report every four months. Here’s the schedule I recommend:
- April (because everyone’s thinking about money anyways because of the tax deadline)
- August (four months after April)
- December (another four months later, and also the end of the year, another convenient time)
So consider this your reminder for April to pull your credit report from one of the three agencies this month! You’ll need to assign one credit reporting agency to these months, to make it work, since you’re only allowed to pull each report once a year. So do something like this:
- April — Experian
- August — TransUnion
- December — Equifax
Remember, despite what TV commercials starring singing characters might tell you, there’s only one authorized source for getting your federally-mandated free annual credit reports: AnnualCreditReport.com. You can verify this fact at the Federal Trade Commission’s website.
Getting Your Credit Report, 100% Free
Information You’ll Need to Have Handy
When pulling one of your 3 credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com, you’ll be asked a short series of questions to prove your identity (so that, in theory, no one else can pull your reports).
You’ll need to know (or have handy to type in):
- Your full name
- Your Social Security Number
- Your current address
- Any addresses you’ve lived at in the last two years
Once you hand over this info, you’ll be given the opportunity to request your report from any of the 3 credit rating agencies:
If this is your first time pulling your report, it doesn’t really matter which one you pull. For simplicity’s sake, I recommend pulling Experian, as it always seems to be at the top of the list, so it will be easier to remember that it’s the one you pulled if you forget. Now’s the time to establish your April/August/December calendar for pulling each of these.
Once you select a credit reporting agency to pull from, you will be asked a series of multiple-choice questions about your own credit history (or other things that might appear on your report, such as previous addresses and phone numbers, etc. etc.) to further prove your identity. Again, this is information you should already know or keep handy.
You may also be prompted to buy some “up-sell” products, like your credit score. Ignore everything they offer here — even if you do want to buy your credit score, they’re not likely to offer you the best of their best deals at this point. Do your research on the cheapest ways to get the score you want (see below) first.
Then, you should get access to your report! You should print a copy of both the receipt page (which you’ll get even though you didn’t pay anything) and your credit report itself. If you’re using Google Chrome or have a PDF printer installed (highly recommended!), you can print to PDF and save part of a tree – as long as your hard drive is secure and you do regular secure backups, of course. This is sensitive information that an identity thief would love to get their hands on!
What am I Looking for When I Look at my Credit Report?
#1 – Errors
It’s a pain in the behind, but read your entire report and look for anything that’s inaccurate. You can dispute inaccuracies with the credit reporting agency to get them removed. Inaccuracies can hurt your credit score, prevent you from getting a loan, job, or insurance down the line, or just plain make it hard to get your report again in the future (thanks to those multiple-choice questions!).
If you do find any errors, there should be instructions within the report itself (or back on your receipt or confirmation page) on how to dispute them. If not, do a quick Google search for “disputing errors [name of credit reporting agency that you picked].”
Even if there aren’t any errors, there could still be bad stuff…
#2 – Areas for Improvement
While you’re reading your credit report, look out for anything you could be doing to improve your report. What can you do, exactly? Well, if you familiarize yourself with the 5 components of your credit score, you can identify ways to influence those components.
Those 5 components are (in order from most influential on your score, to least):
- On-time payment history
- Debt-to-credit ratio
- Length of credit history
- Variety of credit used
- Recent “hard” credit inquiries
Keep these things in mind while you look over the report. Just keep in mind that in most cases, there’s nothing you can do to “fix” what’s already on your report — you can only strive to do better in the future.
For most people, most of the time, pulling your credit reports one at a time, three times a year, to check them for reports and areas to improve, is all you really need. But if you’re curious about your credit score, or if you’re going to be shopping for a big loan (like a mortgage) in the near future, you may decide that you want access to that score.
How I Get My Credit Score for Free
Before we get into how I get my credit score without forking over any cash, it’s important to establish that there are many different credit scores out there. You may actually have as many as 100 different credit scores floating out there for you. Scary thought, huh?
Most people divide credit scores into two types:
- FICO – credit scores based on one your three reports using the Fair Isaac Corporation’s algorithm (aka the five criteria for a good score I outlined above)
- FAKO (pronounced “Fake-O”) — anything else
A FICO score is what a lender, employer, rental authority, or insurance agent is most likely to look at when they pull your credit score, so ideally that’s the credit score you want if you’re pulling your score to find out exactly what such a person will see.
Credit Card Perks
A fairly new development over the last few years that makes me pretty happy: several credit card companies are giving their customers a free peek at one of their FICO scores. My American Express card gives me a free FICO score, as does my Pentagon Federal Credit Union account. I simply log into my existing online account and click one button, and get my true FICO score, for free!
The catches: for one thing, you need to have or get a credit card with a company that provides this as a credit card perk. If you already have any credit cards, log into your online account(s) and poke around to see if there are any “Get your free FICO score!” links in your account. If none of your credit cards offer this, you’ll need to use one of the alternatives below to get your free score.
The other catch is that this score may not update as often as you like. It looks like at least one of my free FICO scores via credit card only updates every 3 months. This is fine for just satisfying my normal curiosity, but if I were to be looking for the most up-to-date info to get a new loan in a few weeks, I’d want something more recent.
I already use Mint.com to track my transactions across all of my accounts, so it’s really convenient to have a free one-click credit score in there, too! Mint is run by the company Intuit, who I already trust with my financial information (they’re the folks who run TurboTax). The only problems with the Mint credit score are: #1) It’s a FAKO score, not a FICO score (this one based on your Equifax credit report), and #2) It only updates every few months. Still, it provides some insight into where the score is coming from (and what’s on your Equifax report), so it can be a good way to keep an eye on your Equifax data throughout the year.
It’s a FAKO score (your TransUnion VantageScore), but you can pull both the score and your TransUnion report daily – for free! And it’s a “soft pull” on your credit, so you’re not taking a “hard” hit to your score daily by checking (very important!). Signing up for WalletHub is quick and easy: very similar to getting your free credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com, you’ll just need to put in some information and answer a security quiz to verify your identity.
You get FAKO scores (VantageScore 3.0 scores from TransUnion and Equifax), but it’s free and you can request your scores from Credit Karma as often as daily without putting a “hard” inquiry on your credit report. You also get two more FAKO scores from TransUnion: your Auto Insurance Score and your Home Insurance Score, as well as some tips for improving your score and some savings offers.
How accurate are these scores to your real TransUnion and Equifax FICO scores? Hard to say, unless you also pay for your FICO scores to compare. But, the real question is: does it really matter for your purposes?
If the only reason you want to see your credit score is to satisfy curiosity, and to keep an eye on the changes of it over time, then the VantageScore will work just fine for that. Keep any eye on your score for any drastic changes, checking it at least as often as you pull your free reports (but monthly would be even better).
Another FAKO score, Credit Sesame is based on your Experian report. It’s also free with no credit card required to sign up, and you’ll get free advice on saving money and improving your credit, too.
The catch? You can only get your score once a month- but if you’re just looking to see how your credit score is doing over time, do you really need it more often than that? No, ya don’t. This is a good addition to Credit Karma, since it diversifies your “score base” by giving you access to an Experian score vs. Credit Karma’s TransUnion-and-Equifax-based scores.
Get a Loan
This may seem counter-intuitive, but it can work! If you’re reasonably certain of your good credit score (by checking it on one of the other sources in this post, and checking your credit reports themselves), you can get your true FICO score for free while getting a loan.
How? You just ask!
When I bought my Camry in 2012, the dealership helped me apply for a loan at several different financial institutions. When the offers came back a few days later, the finance guy at the dealership showed me the credit reports and scores that had come back when the banks evaluated me. Now, I could have just jotted down those numbers quickly, but I did one better:
I asked the dealership finance guy if I could have copies of all those papers! (It was definitely one of those it never hurts to ask moments.) He walked me back to their copier on the spot, giving me hard copies of my FICO and other credit scores from multiple agencies. Score!
This will also work when applying for a Peer-to-Peer loan from either Lending Club or Prosper; Jonathan over at My Money Blog has a guide on how to interpret your score based on the information you get while applying for a loan at either of these places.
The catch here is that your credit score will be a little dinged, since you’re doing what’s called a “hard inquiry” rather than the “soft inquiry” of checking you credit score just to check it. Oh, and you’re applying for a friggin loan, which you should never do unless you have a darn good reason, like needing to replace your dying car with an affordable, reliable, used one.
FICO Score Estimator
A few quick questions about your credit history, and myFICO’s FICO Score Estimator will spit out a fairly accurate guestimate range of where your credit score is. The catch being that it is, of course, only an estimate.
Alternately, Just Bite the Bullet
If you really, truly, actually need your FICO scores because you’re taking out a big loan soon (such as a mortgage), than the best thing to do is to just pay for your FICO scores. In the grand scheme of things, the $15 or so you spend now will reap much larger benefits down the road.
You can use your FICO score to empower your search for the best loan with the lowest rate — but only if you know it! A FAKO score won’t cut it in this particular case, so it’s worth spending the cash when you are actually about to start shopping for a loan.
Remember to shop around for your FICO scores, as well! There’s no need to pay more than you have to, and considering I’ve seen ranges between $14.95 and $89.95 to get your three FICO scores, it really is worth it to do a little research. Check the websites of all three credit rating agencies, as well as myFICO, to see what they’re offering. Don’t forget to Google for coupon codes to each one!
Do you check your credit reports and credit scores as often as you should? Make a pledge to April/August/December in the comments!