Q&A: How to find credit scores

Dear Liz: How do you go about checking your credit scores? I’m a recent widow and have no idea how to do these things.

Answer: Checking your credit scores can help you monitor your credit and give you a general idea of how lenders view your creditworthiness. Many banks and credit cards offer free scores to their customers, so that’s the first place you should look.

Otherwise, Discover and Freecreditscore.com, a service of credit bureau Experian, offer free FICO credit scores to anyone. FICO is the leading credit score, although the score you see may not be the same one a lender uses.

There are different versions of the FICO for different industries (credit cards, auto lending, mortgages) and different generations of each formula. Some lenders use the latest version, FICO 9, while most use some version of FICO 8. Mortgage lenders tend to use even older versions.

Also, credit scores change because the information in your credit bureau reports, on which the scores are based, changes constantly. A higher or lower balance on a single credit card can cause your scores to swing significantly.

Another type of score is the VantageScore, a FICO rival that’s used by fewer lenders but commonly offered for free on personal finance sites including Credit Karma, Mint and NerdWallet. CapitalOne also offers free VantageScores to anyone, not just its customers.

It’s best to use the same type of score from the same credit bureau if you want to monitor your credit over time. It’s not very helpful to view a FICO 8 from Experian one month and try to compare it the next month with a FICO Bankcard Score 5 from Equifax or a VantageScore 3 from TransUnion.

The data used in the scores, their formulas and even the scoring ranges may be different. Most credit scores are on a 300-to-850 scale but some industry-specific scores are on a 250-to-900 scale.

Keep in mind that getting a free score means handing over information about yourself, including your Social Security number, and typically means the provider will try to market other products or services to you.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to make saving for retirement easier. Also in the news: How to talk to a robo-advisor, switching from a debit card to a credit card, and why homebuyers with lower credit scores can pay thousands in extra mortgage costs.

Make Saving for Retirement Easier — Invest Some Fun
Taking the sting out of saving.

How to Talk to a Robo-Advisor
Getting the most from this innovative service.

How (and Why) I Persuaded My Husband to Switch to a Credit Card
Playing the rewards game.

Study: Homebuyers with lower credit scores pay extra $21,000 in mortgage costs
Work on your credit score before buying.

Q&A: Does a credit freeze hurt your credit scores?

Dear Liz: I implemented a credit freeze a few months ago. I’m wondering if that could prevent me from having credit scores. I understand that if you don’t use credit, your credit scores can basically go away. I don’t have any loans or a house payment. I do have a few credit cards, used often and paid in full monthly.

Am I at risk of my credit fading away because of neglect with the freeze in place?

Answer: You’ll continue to have credit scores as long as you keep using credit accounts that are reported to the major credit bureaus. The people who are at risk of having their credit die of neglect are the ones who stop using credit.

About 7 million people are considered “credit retired,” which means they no longer actively use credit enough to generate credit scores, according to credit scoring company FICO. Their histories are free from charge-offs and other negative marks that might indicate their lack of credit is involuntary, says Ethan Dornhelm, FICO’s vice president for scores and predictive analytics.

Being credit retired can be costly. People may be shut out of loans they want in the future, or may have to pay higher interest rates. A lack of scores could lead to higher insurance premiums, cellphone costs and utility deposits.

Keeping your credit scores alive is relatively easy — using a single credit card is enough. There’s no need to carry debt or pay interest. Just continue using the card lightly but regularly, and pay it off in full every month.

Your credit freezes will prevent new lenders from seeing your scores and opening new accounts in your name unless you thaw the freezes. Companies where you already have an account, however, will be able to see your reports and scores.

Q&A: Get your credit score ready for the home-buying process

Dear Liz: What score do you need to be approved for a mortgage? Is 520 even close? If not, how do I get that score higher quickly?

Answer: A score of 520 on the usual 300-to-850 FICO scale is pretty bad. Theoretically, you might be able to get a mortgage if you can make a large down payment, but you’ll have more options — and pay a lot less in interest — if you can get your scores higher.

That, however, takes time. You need a consistent pattern of responsible credit behavior to start offsetting your mistakes of the past. If you don’t already have and use credit cards, consider applying for a secured credit card, which requires a cash security deposit, typically of $200 or more. You’ll get a credit limit equal to your deposit. Using the card lightly but regularly, and paying in full every month, can help your scores.

A credit builder loan, offered by credit unions and the online company Self Lender, is another way to improve your credit while building your savings at the same time. The money you borrow is put into a savings account or certificate of deposit that you can claim once you’ve made 12 monthly payments. Making your payments on time helps improve your credit history and scores.

Taking a year to build your credit also would give you more time to save for your down payment and for closing costs. Rushing into homeownership is rarely a good idea, so take the time you need to get your financial life in order first.

Q&A: Changing credit scoring formulas will help some — but not everyone

Dear Liz: I read that the credit bureaus have started deleting black marks from people’s credit reports. This is good news for me. I have never been late on a house payment in 30-plus years, but my credit is in the low 600s due to a loan I co-signed for an ex-girlfriend who has been chronically late.

Answer: The records the credit bureaus are deleting won’t help improve your scores.

The three bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — are removing virtually all civil court judgments and many tax liens from credit reports. Tax liens result from unpaid state or federal tax bills and civil judgments are court rulings from lawsuits filed over old debts, unpaid child support, evictions and other non-criminal disputes.

Judgments and liens caused a lot of disputes and complaints about accuracy because the records were often missing key identifying information and weren’t regularly updated. The bureaus are removing the records that don’t include minimum identifying information such as Social Security numbers or dates of birth in addition to names and addresses. The records must also have been updated within the previous 90 days.

The deleted records are expected to lead to small credit score increases for most of the 12 million to 14 million people who have such black marks on their credit reports.

Your issue is different. Because you co-signed, the loan appears on your credit reports as well as your ex’s. Every late payment hurts your credit scores. If your ex had simply stopped paying, your scores would have plunged even more — but then would have begun to improve as your responsible use of credit began to offset the default.

After seven years and 180 days, the defaulted loan would no longer show up on your credit reports or affect your scores. Because your ex keeps paying, albeit late, your credit scores sustain fresh damage each time. Each late payment also resets the clock on how long the negative marks show up on your credit reports. You won’t begin to get relief until the loan is paid off or refinanced.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How credit use affects credit scores. Also in the news: Starting a business if you have student debt, how one couple crushed their debt, and how budgeting doesn’t have to suck if you make it a habit.

Virtual People, Real Lessons: How Card Use Affects Credit Score
Meet Cora Condo and Rebuilding Robert.

Ask Brianna: Can I Start a Business if I Have Student Debt?
Can you be your own boss?

This Couple Crushed Their Debt
How you can do it, too.

Budgeting Doesn’t Have to Suck If You Think of It As a Habit Rather Than a Task
Getting into a groove.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Cutting through credit score confusion after the Experian fine. Also in the news: Eat out without biting into your budget, the female faces of student loan debt, and why it’s harder than ever to apply for financial aid.

Cutting Through Credit Score Confusion After Experian Fine
Making sense of it.

Eat Out Without Biting Into Your Budget
It’s all about strategy.

Female Faces of Student Loan Debt
A Women’s History Month feature.

It’s Harder Than Ever to Apply for Student Aid
Finding ways to make the process easier.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 12 tips to cut your tax bill. Also in the news: Why Millennials shouldn’t forget about estate planning, 7 amazing things to be after you die, and the U.S. cities with the highest credit scores.

12 Tips to Cut Your Tax Bill
Itemizing is key.

Millennials, Don’t Forget Estate Planning
Putting it off could be a huge mistake.

7 Amazing Things to Be After You Die
A firework!

The U.S. cities with the best credit scores
Is yours on the list?

Q&A: Taking a look at the confusing world of credit scores

Dear Liz: I was recently denied a credit card and told my score was 150 points lower than what my credit reports show. Why would this be? Am I being deceived by the credit reporting agencies? It was such a low number that it’s a little hard to believe since I have been approved for other cards recently.

Answer: The creditor that denied you should have told you which score it used and from which credit bureau in addition to the actual number. Lenders employ a variety of different scores, but most use some variation of the FICO formula. Credit card lenders tend to use FICO Bankcard scores, which are on a 250 to 900 scale in contrast to the usual FICO 300 to 850 scale. Your numbers will vary depending on the version and bureau that lenders use. For example, a card company may pull a FICO Bankcard 4 from TransUnion, a FICO Bankcard 2 from Experian or a FICO Bankcard 5 from Equifax, although many issuers use the latest version, which is FICO Bankcard 8.

If that isn’t confusing enough, FICOs aren’t the only scores in town. The scores you get directly from credit bureaus, for example, typically won’t be FICOs. You may have been looking at VantageScores or at a proprietary score. The free scores offered at many websites tend to be VantageScores, which are on a 300 to 850 scale but may not be the same as your FICOs.

If you want a clearer snapshot of where you stand before applying for credit, you can pay $20 at MyFico.com to see a bunch of your FICO scores from a single credit bureau or $60 to see FICOs from all three bureaus.

You may not be able to determine in advance which score from which bureau a lender uses, however. You also should understand that whether a score is good enough may depend on the lender and on the product. Many lenders require higher FICO scores for their better credit card deals, for instance. Sites that track credit card deals may give you some idea of how high your scores generally need to be to get approved, but there are no guarantees.

Your best course is to make sure all your scores are as good as they possibly can be. That means, among other things, paying your bills on time, not letting disputes turn into collections and using your credit cards lightly but regularly. You don’t need to carry a credit card balance to have good scores, and you should try to use 30% or less of your available credit limit at any given time. Finally, apply for credit sparingly, and don’t close credit accounts if you’re trying to improve your scores.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

stack-of-billsToday’s top story: Trump’s student loan repayment play vs. Obama’s REPAYE. Also in the news: What to do if you’re rejected for a checking account, how divorce can affect your credit score, and how easing your financial stress could help you live longer.

Trump’s Student Loan Repayment Plan vs. Obama’s REPAYE
Understanding the differences.

Can’t Get a Checking Account? Don’t Give Up, Get Moving
Doing the repair work.

3 Ways Divorce Can Affect Your Credit Score
Be prepared.

Don’t Let Money Worries Shorten Your Life
Easing your financial stress could help you live longer.