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Understanding free credit score services

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In an effort to monitor your credit progress, you may have signed up with a free score service. But then you applied for a credit card or car loan and realized your free score was different from your FICO score. What gives?

It used to be that all free scores were from VantageScore, FICO’s biggest competitor. And VantageScore used to have a different scoring range from FICO’s basic 300-850; now both have the same range for base scores (but the calculations are slightly different).

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Free score services calculate your credit scores based on proprietary scores from the major credit reporting bureaus. You have hundreds of scores, and they can vary by which model is used and which credit reporting agency provided the data. (And in the case of credit cards and car loans, the score may not even be on the same 300-850 scale.)

Let’s dive into some of the free score services available today and the factors they use to determine your score.

Where to get a free FICO score

Discover credit cards have recently started offering free FICO scores to everyone, not just their customers. The FICO score given is a base score derived from data from Experian.

Here are the factors used in FICO’s scoring algorithms:

  • Payment history (35% impact on your score)
  • Credit utilization (30% impact on your score)
  • Age of credit history (15% impact on your score)
  • Account mix (10% impact on your score)
  • Credit inquiries (10% impact on your score)

Where to get a free VantageScore 3.0

Like Discover, Capital One has begun to offer scores to anyone, not just its customers. You can get a TransUnion VantageScore 3.0.

Like a FICO score, VantageScore credit scores will range from 300 to 850. They are calculated with the following factors taken into account:

  • Credit card utilization (high impact)
  • Payment history (high impact)
  • Derogatory marks (high impact)
  • Age of credit history (medium impact)
  • Total accounts (low impact)
  • Credit inquiries (low impact)

The formula used to determine your VantageScore isn’t as precise as that of a FICO score. That’s not to say it isn’t useful — the VantageScore takes into account many of the same factors that the FICO score does. And if you have a high FICO score, you’re likely to also have a high VantageScore.

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The VantageScore was created in a collaboration of all three major credit reporting bureaus, and it puts more emphasis on the last 24 months of your credit report than does the FICO. This puts people with a shorter credit history on a more equal playing field with those who have long credit histories.

Monitoring your score

Whichever score you choose to monitor, it’s smart to use the same version from the same credit bureau month after month. Looking at different scores each time isn’t very useful and can be frustrating. But watching one score over time can give you a good idea of where you stand and whether you’re progressing toward your goal.

Bev O’Shea is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: boshea@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @BeverlyOShea.

This article was originally published on NerdWallet.