Even if you are not actively seeking a new credit card or signing a lease, it is wise to keep track of your credit score. Your personal credit score will be an important factor when considering financing for your small business. By monitoring your score, you can get an idea of how well qualified you are for loans, and you’ll be aware of any potential discrepancies that could be needlessly hurting your score. If your credit score is suboptimal, it is completely natural that you could have a sense of anxiety about checking it—still, the first step toward improving your score is to know what it is in the first place.
The 3 Major Credit Bureaus
To make the situation even more complicated, you don’t have just a single credit score–you have 3. The 3 major credit bureaus–Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax– monitor the financial activity of every American. They’re seen as the gold standard for lenders, are independent of each other, and calculate financial information slightly differently.
Because they are independent, it is up to you to report discrepancies or errors to the individual bureaus if your scores are wildly out of alignment. Additionally, not all creditors report to all 3 bureaus, so a loan or credit card might not appear on every report. You can purchase credit reports from the bureaus themselves, but there are many options to get this information for no cost.
If you want to get your full credit report directly from the 3 credit bureaus, go to AnnualCreditReport.com. The website was created by the bureaus themselves after Congress passed the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) in 2003. The website makes it possible for Americans to receive a credit report from each bureau, a document that can be dozens of pages in length. You can access your credit reports for free once every 12 months as a PDF document. Depending on the complexity of your credit history, the reports can be somewhat inscrutable, though. Furthermore, the reports don’t actually include your credit score.
Credit.com offers a free Experian credit score and a credit report card based on your Experian credit report. The scores and the report card–a useful, user-friendly summary of your Experian credit information–are updated every 14 days, so the information is very timely. The credit card will highlight any red flags, like too many hard inquiries or a suboptimal debt-to-credit ratio, that could be pulling down your score.
It’s becoming increasingly common for banks themselves to offer customers free credit score information, especially to credit card holders. If you are a customer of a major national bank like Chase or Wells Fargo, you should talk to a banker or check the bank’s website to see if you can monitor your credit score directly through the company. This information is often available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Some banks or credit card companies even offer tips on how you can improve your score.
Credit Karma, founded in 2006, has built a reputation among the public for memorable TV advertising campaigns and for blitzing the email inboxes of those who start an account with information about their credit score activity. What really makes Credit Karma stand out, though, is that it offers credit scores from 2 of the 3 bureaus, Equifax and TransUnion. You don’t have to enter any credit card information to receive your credit scores, but you will have to sign up for a free account. The credit information is updated as often as once a week.
Credit Sesame was founded in 2010 with the mission of helping Americans improve their personal finances. Credit Sesame pulls all of its information from 1 bureau: TransUnion. It provides customers with free TransUnion credit scores and credit reports, although you have to sign up for an account (similar to Credit Karma). The service also provides personalized tips and recommendations for users on how to improve their credit scores and spending ability.
Bankrate is a service, begun in 1976, that focuses on helping potential homebuyers understand their credit information. The company provides credit information from TransUnion to users for free every 3 months. The added benefit of Bankrate is that it monitors your credit information for your ability to afford a new home—it also provides free estimates of your house’s value. Bankrate also provides credit information in an easy-to-read, chronological manner. This way, you can see how your credit score has changed over time. Bankrate offers free credit score analysis based on your TransUnion report, too, so you can understand why your credit score is trending up or down.