How can I find my free credit score?

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Your credit score — it seems the whole country is obsessed with those three little digits that hold the key to unlocking better interest rates when you need to borrow money, or even if you can borrow at all, as well as what you will pay for auto or homeowners insurance.

While there are a lot of different credit scores out there, your true credit score is a number between 350 and 850 that evaluates your risk as a borrower. The FICO people are the one and only source for your true credit score — known simply as your FICO score.

A score of above 700 on the FICO scale is like getting a B+ in school. Anyone with a FICO score of 760-850 is an A student, or what’s called ‘golden’ in the industry, which means you handle money so well that you pose very low risk of default to lenders.

Read more: How the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can help you

CreditKarma offers a free non-FICO score

Did you know you have a separate FICO score with Equifax, a separate one with Experian, and another separate one with TransUnion?! Each bureau’s score varies slightly because of differences in the way they compile information on you. However, they’re all similar in range.

Then to complicate matters, the three credit bureaus — who hate FICO dominating the credit score market — sell their own score called a VantageScore. It’s just one of hundreds of trademarked proprietary scoring systems that’s competing with the FICO score. Unless you’re careful, the VantageScore is the one you’ll most often be sold in the marketplace.

You can get two free non-FICO scores available instantly online from CreditKarma.com. They’ll give you a score based on your TransUnion report and another based on your Equifax report once a week to help you gauge how your credit is doing.

CreditKarma is a totally free service that makes money by recommending credit cards and loans they believe are suitable for you. By using its services, you allow them to contact you—even if you’re on the federal ‘do not call’ list. But there’s no obligation to buy anything ever to get your free non-FICO scores.

Now a number of credit cards give you your real FICO score each month for free on your statement. This started with Discover and is now available with more card companies seemingly every month.

Read more: 4 things to know before you get your next 401(k) statement

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How to improve your credit score

If you’re suffering from poor credit, there are several surefire ways to get your credit healthy again. Follow these tips and you’ll be well on your way:

  • Always pay your bills on time and pay down the total amount you owe.
    (accounts for 35 percent of your score)
    If you forget all else after reading this, remember this one! This is the single most important rule for having a good credit score.
  •  Keep a low credit utilization rate.
    (accounts for 30 percent of your score)
    Let’s say you have a credit card with a $10,000 limit. If you’re carrying a balance month-to-month of $3,000, you’re only using 30 percent of the total limit. But if your credit limit is suddenly dropped to $3,000, then suddenly you’re using 100 percent of what’s available to you. That’s yet another reason to always pay down credit card debt as quickly as possible. You always want to stay at credit utilization of 30 percent or less.
  • When you pay off a credit card, don’t close the account.
    (accounts for 15 percent of your score)
    Doing so only reduces your available credit and drives your score down. You want to have between four to six lines of credit. Be sure to use them twice a year — even if it’s just for a dollar store purchase — and pay them off right away. That will keep them active in your credit mix.

    If you’re facing a huge new annual fee on a card that has a zero balance, try ‘leapfrogging.’ That’s my term for using the 45-day window you have before any new terms of service go into effect to shop around. So once you get notice about a new annual fee, start looking around for other no-fee credit cards. Submit your application and once you get your new no-fee card, then go ahead and shut down the original one that wanted to spring a fee on you.

The remaining 20% of your credit score is comprised of what types of credit make up your credit mix (10%) and how much new credit you have in your life and how quickly you took it on (10%).

Read more: Should you give out your ZIP code in the check-out line?

For more money-saving advice, see our Money section.

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