The credit score myth
You think you know how the credit scoring system works: Each American has a number, from about 300-850, that tells the world how creditworthy they are. This number is based on information found in your credit report like account balance and payment history. The higher your credit score, the easier it is for you to get a loan or a new credit card.
Not just one number
But the truth is, no one has just one credit score. There is no universal number that all lenders use to judge you. Sure, there’s the well-known FICO score developed by the Fair Isaac Corporation, but even that has multiple versions based on Equifax data, TransUnion data, and Experian data. (Though Experian has recently decided to disallow its data from being translated into FICO scores for consumers. We now have access to only two FICOs: one from Equifax and one from TransUnion.)
And which FICO model are we talking about exactly? Is it the Classic 98, the Classic 04, or the latest model established in 2008 (which isn’t available to consumers yet)? Your TransUnion FICO score, for instance, is based on the scoring model from ten years ago, while most lenders currently refer to the 2004 version. There are also FICO scoring formulas geared specifically to different types of financial institutions, like mortgage and auto lenders.
But FICO scores aren’t the only game in town. The bureaus have also developed their own scoring models. For example, Experian sells a PLUS Score, while TransUnion offers a TrueCredit score. These use slightly different formulas than FICO.
And even beyond the FICO and bureau scores sold to consumers are the scores used by financial institutions based on factors most important to them. For instance, Bank of America’s scoring formula will be different from Capital One’s, and the formula used by a mortgage lender will differ from that of a credit card company. Lenders also usually take into account factors not listed on your credit report, such as income level and job history.
Thousands of scoring formulas
As a consumer, you can’t see the exact figure that a lender is using to judge you. Financial institutions don’t have any obligation to share that information with you. There are literally thousands of scoring formulas out there that differ both subtly and wildly from each other. But all of them share a common goal: to determine as accurately as possible the level of risk you present to a lending institution for the particular type of loan you are applying for.
Consumer scores are good (though rough) estimates
Don’t despair from this seemingly infinite pool of credit scoring formulas, though. You can still get a good idea of where you stand by ordering the scores offered to consumers through the credit bureaus, through myFICO.com, and through third party companies like SpendOnLife.com. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that your 720 TransUnion FICO score is the exact same number that a lender is using to evaluate your creditworthiness. But it might be close.