Is It Worth Paying for Your Credit Score?

By Carrie Kirby on 12 April 2018 0 comments

For decades after credit scores emerged in the late 1950s, they were rarely seen by anyone but loan officers. Nowadays, offers of free and cheap credit scores are everywhere — from the online dashboard of your bank or credit card account, to self-help finance sites. Other sites charge as much as $20 for a credit score.

Why would you pay $20 for something you could get for free? Is the free score as accurate as the $20 score? It turns out, the answers to those questions are not simple, but — spoiler alert — it is sometimes worth it to pay up.

I tested the various credit scores available myself by visiting a number of free sites, checking the free scores offered by my bank and credit cards, and by purchasing three credit score products. Of my three checking accounts, two of them offered free credit scores. Of three credit card issuers I looked at, all of them offered free scores, although I sometimes had to dig around for them once signed into my account. I learned that different credit scoring systems can come up with a range of numbers based on the same credit history. While all my scores were pretty good, they were spread over a 39-point range, which put me in the top category on some score reports, but only the second-best on others.

Test results

My results are summarized in the chart below. The chart notes the website or other source where I got each score, the name of the particular score I got (more on that in a minute), the credit bureau that provided the information upon which each score was based, and the price for the score. All the scores are based on a range of 300-850 points, unless otherwise noted. (See also: What Is a Good Credit Score and Why Is It Important?)

I am just one person, with one set of credit cards and one mortgage. How can I have so many different credit scores? How can I even have different credit scores that say they are based on the credit report from the same bureau? Which score is correct? (See also: FICO or FAKO: Are Free Credit Scores From Credit Cards the Real Thing?)

What you're paying for

Barry Paperno, who worked in the credit industry for 40 years and now writes about credit in his blog, Speaking of Credit, explained that I was looking at least three different products, created by different companies. The free score offered by popular websites is usually the VantageScore, formulated by a software product co-created in 2006 by the three major credit bureaus, Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax.

The $15.95 score was created by Equifax with its own proprietary scoring system. Both VantageScore and the proprietary scores offered by the individual credit bureaus are great for educational purposes; in other words, they'll tell you if you have generally good credit or bad credit. But most banks don't use them to make lending decisions, Paperno says.

The scores I paid $19.95 each for are from FICO, the original credit score company and the one that most banks turn to when making mortgage decisions.

Another small difference among the different scores may be how old they are. The free scores that my financial institutions and Credit Sesame gave me were between two weeks and two months old, while the ones I paid for were dated only a couple of days before I checked them, and the free scores I got from FreeCreditScore.com and Credit Karma were dated the same day I checked them. (See also: 4 Surprising Things Lenders Check Besides Your Credit Score)

To further complicate things, several weeks passed between when I paid for the myFICO scores and when I checked the free scores. myFICO, I found, doesn't update once you've paid, so those scores are now almost a month old. During the intervening time, I charged some large purchases, and my credit score declined by 10 points or more on some of the other score reports but you'd never know that looking at the myFICO scores.

Which score should you get?

None of these scores are fake or inaccurate. All work in similar ways, assessing how likely you are to repay debt by looking at your history and your current use of credit. All provide an accurate picture of how your credit stacks up compared to other consumers. Which one you should get depends on your purpose.

Credit score health check

If you just want to know whether you have good or bad credit, any score will do. In that case, you might as well get a free score from your bank or credit card issuer, or go to one of the free sites listed here.

There is no apparent advantage to going to a credit score site rather than getting it from your own bank or credit card site. Different sites have different bells and whistles; some show you the history of your score, while others take information from your credit report to help explain your score.

Mortgage

The type of score you look at matters more if your goal is to get a new credit card, mortgage, or other type of loan. "Then your goal is to get your score to a certain point so that your credit application will be accepted," says Paperno. "Since the scores tend to differ, it becomes important to know what score the lender is likely to pull."

If it's a mortgage lender, they're likely to pull the FICO Score 8 from each credit bureau, possibly along with others. When you purchase your FICO score from myFICO, you can get your FICO Score 8 from all three credit bureaus, as well as a number of industry-specific scores. So if you want a mortgage and you're not sure if your credit is good enough (760 is usually the cutoff to qualify for the best rates, Paperno says), it's a great idea to go this route.

Finding these scores takes a little hunting around on the website. The home page currently promotes FICO's monthly and quarterly subscriptions to 28 "most widely used" FICO scores. You don't really need those unless you are rebuilding your credit in hopes of qualifying for a big loan and you want to monitor your progress.

For a one-off snapshot of your scores, click on the Products tab at the top. You can buy one-time single-bureau credit reports (FICO Score 1B Report) or three-bureau reports (FICO Score 3B Report).

Why pay more for all three FICO 8 scores instead of just getting one? Since the credit report from each bureau could be slightly different (each may include some details but not others), it's best to avoid surprises by making sure that the credit score based on each report is in the same range.

Car loan

If you're getting a car loan, the lender might pull the industry-specific FICO Auto Score, which comes with the scores from myFICO. To know for sure, call the finance department at the dealership you're considering and ask which bureau they pull from or which scores they use.

Next, go to myFICO.com, click on the Products tab at the top of the page, buy one or all three scores from myFICO, then click on "View additional FICO score versions used in mortgage, auto and bank card decisions." There, you'll find your FICO Auto Score 8, optimized to reflect the credit behavior that auto lenders care most about, with an emphasis on how well you've paid off previous auto loans (mine was 779, four points higher than my FICO Score 8).

Credit card

There is also a FICO score customized for the credit card industry, FICO Bankcard Score, but Paperno said that it's not as popular with credit card lenders as the Auto Score is with car lenders. He says it's not worth paying money just to get a Bankcard score. Any free FICO Score 8 is good enough.

Person loan

For personal loans, even a 50-point difference in your credit score could affect your interest rate by several percentage points, according to GoBankingRates.com. But many lenders will do a soft pull of your credit during a prequalification process.

How do you know which score you're getting?

Most of the time, if you're getting it for free you can assume you're looking at a VantageScore, but not always. Most websites will identify — sometimes in small print — the source of the score they're providing. I purchased my three-bureau FICO score report from myFICO.com for $59.85; Experian also offers a three-score and credit report package for $39.99.

But is it possible to find a FICO score for free? Yes. I got an Experian-based FICO Score 8 at FreeCreditScore.com, a site owned by Experian. And my bank provided my Equifax-based FICO Bankcard score.

If you want to follow Paperno's advice and check FICO 8 scores on all three credit bureaus when you have an important borrowing decision ahead of you, you will have to pay to do so. I didn't find any way to get all three for free.

Why are your FICO Score and VantageScore different?

Now that I understand that both FICO and VantageScore give me an accurate picture of my credit, I still wonder how they can look at the same reports and come up with different numbers. In particular, my FICO scores are my lowest scores. Is it always that way?

"FICO tends to be a little stricter," Paperno says. Although both systems consider basically the same facts — late payments, how much credit you have available, how much debt you have, the age of your accounts, etc. — they might vary slightly in the details. For example, if you have an account that went to collections and you paid it off, VantageScore will drop that black mark from your record, but it will still influence most versions of the FICO Score.

Buyer beware

When searching for free credit scores, I came across a number of Google ads promising them, leading to websites I was unfamiliar with. I found that many such sites are owned by companies with some pretty unsatisfied customers, many who complain they were charged for ongoing credit monitoring services without their knowledge.

Even with the big name companies, make sure when paying for a credit score that you know what you're signing up for. Many will at least ask you if you want to sign up for a paid monthly credit monitoring subscription. When I purchased the $1 TransUnion score, I at first completely missed that I had also signed up for a weeklong free trial of a $19.95-per-month credit monitoring service. Fortunately, I canceled it in time to avoid billing. I didn't want to repeat that experience, so when I clicked on a $1 credit score offer from Experian and realized that buying it would sign me up for a free trial of their $14.99-per-month monitoring service, I didn't buy either.

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Is It Worth Paying for Your Credit Score?

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