It's happened to us all before. We try our best to monitor our credit and make moves that will increase our score. We pay down debt, we make on-time payments, we even ignore that 20% off that we could have gotten at our favorite retailer by signing up for their credit card. You get to the point where you feel that you're ready to apply for financing that you actually do need, like a student loan, a car or even a home, and for some reason the score they find is wildly different from what you've seen online. Why does this happen? And how can you know what you're looking at before deciding to pull the trigger on another application? Here are a few reasons why your score can be so different when a lender checks your credit.
Different Credit Bureaus
There are three major credit bureaus - TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. Each of these three bureaus issues a credit report based on your payment patterns, the credit lines you have open with various financial institutions, even debts that have been previously paid off. And while you would think that all of your financial behavior is reported to each bureau, it's at the discretion of the businesses with whom you have accounts to determine what they submit to each bureau. One company may submit information to one bureau and not the other two, which means differing credit reports and thus a different FICO score. If you're using credit monitoring services as your barometer before pulling the trigger on something like a home purchase or even a student loan, it's important to call ahead and ask the lender which score they are using. As an example, Credit Karma only reports the scores from TransUnion and Equifax, meaning that if you're applying for financing with a lender who uses Experian, you wouldn't have an idea of your score. While good financial behavior should mean a high score with all three, go to www.annualcreditreport.com and access your free credit reports so that you can read through each first to make sure there's no misreported information. If you do find something that's listed inaccurately, you can sumbit a dispute directly on the credit bureaus website and request an investigation.
Different Scoring Models
FICO is the most widely-known scoring model, but not the only one that is used in the marketplace. In recent years, the VantageScore has seen a rise in utilization, particularly among credit monitoring services and even credit card companies. We've covered the different categories that make up a FICO score in the past, and with different versions of the FICO score (see below), the state of your finances at the time of the credit inquiry has been most the most important indicator. The VantageScore is a scoring model that is not only meant to be a more passionate version of scoring - for example, VantageScore ignores paid medical debts - but also one that values financial trends over your current status. As an exmaple, if your credit utilization this month is strong, but over the previous two years it has been abysmall, you may not see as dramatic an improvenent in your VantageScore as you might see in an older version of a FICO score. So who uses these particular models? Many areas such as mortgage and business lending still rely on FICO score as the score of choice. However, credit monitoring services almost exclusively use VantageScore when reporting progress. This difference is the most likely reason that your credit score is so different if you're leaning on a service such as Credit Karma to keep track of your progress.
Different Version Of the Same Scoring Model
Within each of the FICO and VantageScore worlds are different versions of each scoring system. For example, there is a FICO Score 8, 9, 10 and so on and so forth. While each version makes changes in how they view the information on your credit reports, certain versions are more frequently used than others. For example, many mortgage lenders use FICO Score 5 or 8, even though there are newer models available.The same is true with VantageScore, with VantageScore 3.0 being the score of choice with most services that monitor scores such as Credit Karma. Regardless of the model used, each version pulls the information fromt he same credit reports to compile your score; the difference is in how that information is viewed. For example, FICO 8 disregards all accounts in collections if the total balances are below $100. FICO 9 went a step further, and does not factor in any collection account that has been paid in full. And if you've been reading the news lately, you might have seen that a new FICO 10 model is due to be rolled out in the coming months. Unlike previous versions of FICO scores, which lean more heavily on the state of your finances at the time of the credit inquiry, FICO 10 is designed to look back as far as two years in the past to evaluate the patterns of your financial behavior. If you have a history of strong credit useage and on-time payments, then FICO 10 will reward you for your past behavior. Conversely, if your finances are fine now but you've had a rough past in terms of credit, FICO 10 could penalize you even though your current status is postive. These changes make FICO 10 more similar to VantageScore than previous versions, but don't worry; although FICO 10 is the new kid on the block, the majority of industries will likely still use older versions when evaulating financing applications.
I hope this brings some clarity to why your credit scores can differ so greatly from place to place. Before you apply for financing, first ask the institution what credit bureaus they use to check your score, what scoring model, and what version of the scoring model. Doing so can make sure that you have as accurate a picture ahead of time of what your score might be, and even help decide whether changes can be made to improve your odds of getting the best deal.