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Now that it’s so easy to get your credit score for free, you may have checked it several times in several places — personal finance sites, credit card issuers, your bank. No doubt you’ve seen how your score varies between sources and even week to week from the same source.
That's because you have many credit scores, not just one. Even if they don’t match, each of those scores could be “right.”
Why are there so many different credit scores?
A credit score is a three-digit number that amounts to an educated guess about how likely you are to repay borrowed money as agreed.
You have more than one score because more than one company creates them — and there are different scores for different purposes, such as auto scores and bankcard scores. There are also different versions, as scoring companies update scores to make them more predictive. Your scores may be different depending on:
The credit bureau providing the data
Three major credit-reporting bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — collect, maintain and sell data about your credit use. Each creates a credit report for you using information from lenders, debt collectors and public records.
Your creditors may or may not report your activity to all three bureaus, so the information at each is not identical. And creditors report activity on different cycles, so your data varies throughout the month as new information comes in.
The scoring company and formula
They also update their formulas from time to time, but lenders and card issuers may stick with an older version instead of upgrading. So each company can have more than one version in use at the same time.
Most scores are on a 300-850 scale (FICO refers to this as the “base score”). But there are also specialty scores, like auto loan and bankcard scores, and those usually use a scale of 250-900.
How to make sense of your scores
Check the source of a score to understand which credit report it looked at, and which company and scoring version produced it. That will explain some differences.
For instance, NerdWallet offers a free VantageScore 3.0 using TransUnion data. It’s updated weekly and uses a 300-850 range. Discover offers a free FICO 8 score every month to all consumers. It gets data from Experian and also uses a 300-850 range. However, Citi offers its credit card customers a FICO Bankcard Score 8 using Equifax data. Its range is 250 to 900.
That’s three scores, each with data from a different bureau, each calculated using a different formula — and each one valid.
You really don’t need to obsess over finding “the right” score or the exact number. Credit score bands — the general area where your scores fall — are more important. It’s likely your credit scores are in or near the same band.
Also, watch your scores' trend over time. You want to work toward being in the “good” or “excellent” bands, because the highest scores typically translate into the best rewards cards and lowest interest rates.
How can I get better credit scores?
Credit scores, for all their differences, have major similarities. They’re using most of the same data, just weighting it differently. That means the same techniques will work to help your credit no matter what scoring model or data is used:
Pay bills on time, every time. Your payment history has the biggest influence on scores.
Use only a small portion of your credit limit — no more than 30%, and less is even better. This factor, called "credit utilization," also has a big influence on scores.
Apply for credit sparingly — more than once in six months can hurt your score a bit.
Keep old credit cards open unless there is a compelling reason to close them.
Check your free credit reports to be sure your accounts are reported as they are supposed to be. Correct any errors you see because inaccurate negative marks on your reports can hurt your scores.
Do all those things, and over time, your scores will take care of themselves — no matter which score, which version or which credit bureau.