Your credit score — a three-digit number ranging anywhere from 300 to 850 — is a rating of your credit risk, or how likely you are to repay a loan on time. Lenders rely on this number to decide whether to approve someone for a loan. Credit scores can also influence the terms a person gets on a loan, including interest rate. Someone with a high credit score is likelier to get approved for a loan and secure more favorable terms than someone with a low credit score.
In other words, your credit score matters. If you're not sure where yours currently stands, here's how to check it. We'll also provide some context for knowing whether or not your credit score is good — and what steps you can take to improve it.
How can you check your credit score?
There are four main ways you can check your credit score, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). These include:
- Checking a recent statement from your bank, credit card issuer, or lender
- Using a credit score service or a free credit scoring website like www.freecreditscore.com, offered by the credit bureau Experian
- Purchasing a credit score from credit reporting companies
- Talking to a non-profit credit or housing counselor
When checking your credit score, keep in mind that you actually have more than one. As such, you may see slightly varied numbers depending on where you check your score, as each credit scoring model calculates scores using distinct information and methods.
Simply checking your credit score has no effect on your credit score. Only a "hard pull," which is what a lender conducts when you apply for a credit card or loan, will affect your score.
What's considered a good credit score?
In general, a good credit score is in the upper 600s. However, because you have different credit scores, the exact range for what constitutes a good credit score can vary a bit. Credit service FICO, for instance, considers a score of 670 to 739 as good, whereas VantageScore considers scores within the range of 661 to 780 to be "good."
So which score should you pay most attention to? According to Kiplinger, "FICO boasts that 90 percent of top lenders rely on their scores, and consumers generally need to focus on their FICO score first." That being said, credit card companies will often look at VantageScores as well.
What affects your credit score?
There are five main factors that determine your credit score:
- Payment history: This is "typically the most important category in determining your credit scores," per Experian. More specifically, payment history refers to your track record of paying your bills on time. As such, late payments will hurt your score.
- Credit utilization: Your credit utilization is the amount of your total available credit that you're using at a given time. "It's how much you currently owe divided by your credit limit," explains Experian. Experts generally recommend keeping your credit utilization at no more than 30 percent, though the lower the better.
- Length of credit history: As you may have guessed, this is how long you've had your credit accounts open. A long credit history reflects positively on your score, as it shows you're experienced at managing debt and making payments.
- Credit mix: Credit mix refers to the types of credit you have. Lenders like to see that you're able to handle different types of debt, so they may look favorably on those who have both installment loans like mortgages as well as revolving loans like credit cards.
- New credit: New credit refers to recent applications you've submitted or accounts opened. This can impact your score in a few ways, such as by triggering a "hard pull" on your credit and lowering the average age of your accounts. On the flipside, it can increase your total available credit, which could help your credit utilization rate.
Are there ways to improve your credit?
If your credit score isn't quite where you'd like it to be, you're in luck — there are steps you can take to improve it. Here are some tactics you might consider trying to both build and boost your credit score:
- Make sure you're paying your bills on time. As Nerdwallet puts it, "[n]o strategy to improve your credit will be effective if you pay late." As such, if you're working to boost your credit score, it's critical that you stay on top of paying your bills on time and, if you can, in full.
- Check your credit report periodically. It's important to stay on top of checking your credit report on a semi-regular basis not only for your personal security but also for your credit score. By checking your report, you might come across errors that are dragging down your score. It's possible to dispute those, which could help improve your score. You can get a free credit report once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com.
- Lower your credit utilization. Given credit utilization is the second most important factor in determining your FICO Score, it's important that you keep that rate at 30 percent or less. According to Investopedia, "[t]he simplest way to keep your credit utilization in check is to pay your credit card balances in full each month." You might also see if your credit card allows you to set up a high balance alert so you'll know to stop using it if your credit utilization starts creeping up too high.
- Keep old accounts open. Even if you're not using an account, it might not make sense to shutter it. That's because the length of your credit history plays a role in determining a score. If the account you close happens to be an old one, that could hurt you. That being said, if a credit card has a steep annual fee and you're not using it often, then it might make sense to reconsider or ask the issuer if you could switch over to a no-fee credit card.
Becca Stanek has worked as an editor and writer in the personal finance space since 2017. She has previously served as the managing editor for investing and savings content at LendingTree, an editor at SmartAsset and a staff writer for The Week. This article is in part based on information first published on The Week's sister site, Kiplinger.com
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