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Credit scores have never been more accessible, and there's never been better information about how our choices and actions influence those scores. Those are great things—but for some of us, checking our scores can become something of an obsession. Here are some tips for monitoring your credit scores without letting them drive you crazy.
A Wealth of Credit Score Information
Not very long ago, most American adults were only vaguely aware they had credit scores. They might have been aware those scores played a role in determining eligibility for loans and credit cards, but likely only encountered their scores when they applied for credit, or perhaps when a credit check was used as part of a tenant-screening process. Even then, unless an application was rejected on the basis of a score, few even knew the results of their own credit checks.
That has changed tremendously over the past decade. Many credit card issuers make FICO® Scores* available as part of cardholders' online statements. Free services such as Experian CreditMatch™ have emerged as well, enabling subscribers to check their credit scores and get recommendations for credit cards or loans that match their credit profiles.
The widespread availability of FICO® Scores and VantageScore® credit scores has also brought a flood of educational information about credit scores. Practically every website that makes credit scores available also provides background on the relationships between credit scores, the credit reports maintained by the national credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion), and the personal credit decisions that influence all of them.
It's never been easier to understand how to take control of your credit scores, but certain people may find themselves checking credit scores more often than necessary. They may even be stressing themselves out needlessly over how quickly scores are changing (or haven't yet changed).
If this sounds like you, you're not alone. You're also not doing yourself any good by fixating on every rise and fall of your credit scores. Put another way, just because you can check your credit scores daily (or even hourly), there's no real benefit to doing so. To understand how often it makes sense to check your scores, it helps to have some perspective on the credit scoring process, and the tools you can use to track your scores.
Seeing the Big Picture
Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind when deciding how often to check your credit scores, and whether or not to be concerned about what you find when you do:
- Credit score improvement is a long game. Financial decisions you make today can and will affect your credit scores, but it may take weeks or months to feel their impact. Credit scores are based on credit behavior recorded in the credit files at the national credit bureaus. When you pay down a chunk of your outstanding credit card balances (or run up a high balance) or pay off your car loan (or miss a car payment), your lender will report those activities to the credit bureaus, and the bureaus in turn will update your credit files to reflect them. Only once they appear in your credit file do those events spark improvement—or decline—in your credit scores.
Lenders typically report activity once a month, and it can take the bureaus a week or more after receiving an update to post it to your credit file. So checking your score for changes based on activity you did this week, or even this month, could leave you frustrated. If you're patient and continue to make good decisions, you'll eventually see score improvements.
- Update schedules vary. Some free online credit score sites update your scores once a month. Others update weekly. The most timely scoring tools, such as the Experian smartphone app, refresh your score once each day. So checking your score more than once daily never gives you meaningful new information and, depending on the site you use, checking more than once a week, or even once a month, may not tell you anything new either.
- Scores fluctuate. It's a good idea to check your scores from at least a couple of sources. You might want to sign up to get your FICO® Score from one source and your VantageScore from another, for instance, and you should also make sure you're seeing scores based on data from all three national credit bureaus.
- When you check scores from multiple sources, don't worry if you see score differences of 20 points or even slightly more. The differences can be chalked up to differences in the scoring systems (FICO® and VantageScore) and differences in the data stored at each credit bureau. The bureaus all track the same information, but they don't all receive that information from lenders or post it to your report at the same time. This results in normal discrepancies between scores delivered from different sources.
- What benefits one credit score will generally benefit them all. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of credit scoring tools lenders use. (The FICO® Score is the market leader, but many lenders use it in conjunction with other custom tools.) Even if you had access to all of them—and no one does—monitoring all those scores would be a full-time job. Fortunately, despite the mathematical fine-tuning unique to each system's particular design, they all respond favorably to behavior patterns that indicate responsible credit management. You'll find a more detailed breakdown of the factors that influence FICO® Scores here, but if you stick to the most important factors noted below, they'll help you improve all your credit scores over time:
- Pay your bills on time as agreed, every month.
- Avoid maxing out your credit card accounts and try to avoid carrying balances greater than 30% of your borrowing limits.
- Take out only as much credit as you need, and strive for a mix of installment loans, with fixed monthly payments (like auto loans and mortgages) and revolving credit, in which you borrow and make repayments against a set borrowing limit (like credit card accounts).
How to Monitor Your Credit Scores
- Pick a couple of tools. You can sign up for literally dozens of free services that let you check your FICO® Scores and VantageScore credit scores. The Experian smartphone app, available for Android and Apple devices, lets you check FICO® Scores from all three national credit bureaus in one place. VantageScore scores from one or more bureaus are available from a variety of free services as well.
- Make checking your score part of your bill-paying routine. Paying your bills at the same time each month is a good habit for avoiding late payments, and using that time to check your credit scores is a good idea as well. Consider reviewing your credit scores online at the same time you're reviewing the online versions of your credit card statements. Changes in credit scores tend to lag your credit usage behaviors by a few months, but there's usually some correlation between score changes and your credit accounts, so cross-checking scores against your last few credit card statements can help you see the causes of changes. And if there are any surprises in your scores or unfamiliar transactions on your statements, this routine can help you spot them and alert your credit card issuer right away.
- Try "setting and forgetting" to monitor changes. Experian's credit score monitoring tools, like other free credit score reporting services, will notify you via email or text when your credit score changes appreciably. When you click a link in the notice, you'll be shown your new score and given an explanation for the change. Generally speaking, you should know why the score went up (you've paid off the charge for the last year's emergency car repair) or down (you just put a new furnace on your credit card).
Combined with a monthly check at bill-paying time, this passive monitoring approach can let you relax, knowing you won't miss meaningful credit score changes, but sparing you the need to continually check your scores.
What to Watch For
There are two main things to look for as you monitor your credit scores:
- Inexplicable changes. Wherever you check your credit score online, via website or smartphone app, you'll find an explanation, in writing, of the basis for your score. If your score has changed in a way that puzzles you, look for this explanatory text (you may have to click a link to find it). Keeping in mind that score changes may lag your activity by several months, watch for unaccountable notices that you've recently applied for credit, opened new accounts or significantly increased your outstanding charge balances. These could be signs of fraudulent activity or identity theft. If you see them, check your card statements carefully (going back a few months) for unexplained charges, and also check your credit reports to see if anyone is trying to borrow money in your name. Report any suspected illegal activity immediately.
- Credit-building progress. When you make it part of a broader commitment to good financial habits, tracking your credit scores becomes a source of encouragement. Seeing your scores trend upward over time as you manage your bills and pay off your debts is satisfying and rewarding. Keep in mind that you're in it for the long haul, and recognize that dips and recoveries are normal anytime you open new credit accounts, take out new loans or run up the occasional emergency purchase.
If you stick to good credit habits, you don't have to obsess over every minor change in your credit scores. Check your scores regularly—but not constantly—and you can trust that they will improve steadily over time.