If you asked a random sampling of family and friends about their credit score, chances are some of them might have an idea what it is, thanks to the accessibility of credit score monitoring.
If they recently refinanced a loan or took on a new form of debt, they might even know the exact number.
But if you asked those same people about the specifics of the credit report determining their FICO® score, you'd probably get blank stares.
What does a credit report look like and why is it important exactly? The fact is, most people don't really understand the inner workings of their credit health. They just care about having a respectable score from one of the major credit reporting agencies.
But trying to understand how to improve your credit without understanding your credit report is like trying to figure out why you failed a test without knowing what answers you got wrong. Without the right feedback, you’re really just guessing.
The first step to understand how to help your FICO score is to take a close look at your credit report. If a great credit score is your desired destination, your credit report is basically the GPS to take you there.
Now here’s how to read the directions.
A credit report is not the same as a credit score. A credit score distills all the information from your credit report into one number that lenders can easily use to determine what kind of loan and terms you might be eligible for. Your credit score is like the number grade that summarizes your credit report created by a credit reporting agency.
Typically, a credit score ranges from about 300-850, with higher scores indicating better credit. The average FICO credit score is around 703 for Americans.
While your credit report doesn’t show your credit score, you can find your score information through services like Credit Karma. Some banks and credit card companies also provide free access to your credit score.
In a nutshell, your credit report is like a report card for your finances. It specifically tracks a number of debt-related metrics, and helps determine your trustworthiness as a borrower.
Your report shows all the loans, credit cards and lines of credit you’ve opened and how you’ve managed them. Lenders report this information to credit bureaus, who then compile it into credit reports.
While there are many credit bureaus, the three major credit bureaus are Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, which each issue a separate credit report. While the reports look very similar at each bureau, not all lenders report information and activity to all three bureaus. That’s why you might see some discrepancies between credit bureaus. They’re also structured a little differently, so it’s important to review each one carefully.
In general, your credit report shows your:
A credit report does not track your saving or budgeting habits, or purchases made on a debit card that are not payments towards certain debts. Except in certain circumstances, these reports also do not show some other common expenses, such as:
However, if these bills end up reported to collections, they stay on your credit report for seven years from the original date of delinquency, according to Experian. Typically, the information on your credit report is updated every 30 days or so.
Credit reports essentially act as your financial resume to lenders. Just like you could be denied a job based off your resume, you could be denied access to credit based off your credit report. When you apply for a line of credit, such as a credit card, mortgage, car loan, etc., the lender will pull your credit report.
The information on your credit report helps the lender determine the amount of credit they’re willing to lend you, how low or high your interest rates will be and whether or not they consider you too much of a risk to manage credit.
In some cases, your credit report may be viewed by employers, utility companies and landlords to determine your financial trustworthiness. For example, a tenant with multiple late payments on their student loans may struggle to pay rent on time more than someone with a spotless payment record, for instance.
However, these places will need your permission to access your credit report, and it’s illegal to view a credit report without the user’s approval.
Now that you know what’s on your report – and why it matters – it’s time to learn how to access your own copy.
Checking your credit report regularly is wise whether you’re in the market for a new loan or not. Consider it basic financial maintenance, like getting an oil change on your car.
If you check your credit report on a routine basis, you can notice errors and negative marks before they have time to pile up and tank your credit score.
Regularly monitoring your report can also help you spot identity theft so you can take action sooner if needed.
The first step in understanding how to read your credit report is to know where to access it. You can get one free copy of your credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com every 12 months.
To get started, you’ll need to provide basic information like your address, birthday and Social Security number to access the report. The site might also ask you specific questions about your background to verify your identity.
The credit bureaus allow one free look at your credit report annually. If you’ve already looked at your free credit report in the last year, you can buy a copy from the credit bureau for $9.95.
One way to stay abreast of your credit without paying extra money is to check your report once every four months, using a different credit bureau each time. That gives you three free credit reports every calendar year.
You can also sign up for no-cost credit monitoring alerts through a service like Self, which monitors your VantageScore when you have a Credit Builder Account.
While the reports from each of the three major credit bureaus look slightly different, each one will have similar information. So take a moment to familiarize yourself with how each bureau organizes your credit report.
And don’t panic if some information on one credit bureau’s report isn’t on a different credit bureau’s report. Remember that not all lenders report to all three credit bureaus, so some differences should be expected. However, if something is inaccurate, that’s a different story. We’ll get into how to deal with errors on your report later.
When you access your credit report, you'll see a list of both open and closed credit accounts. Every credit account will have a box designating a month, which will show if a payment was made on-time or late.
If a payment is late, your credit report will show if it was 30 days late, 60 days late or if there was a default or judgment. There should be a key underneath the chart explaining what the information in each box means.
For instance, on your Equifax report, a green check mark means a monthly payment was made on time, whereas a purple letter “B” means that a debt was included in a bankruptcy you filed. Other reports might use color-coded boxes, where green boxes mean your payments were made on time, while any other color usually denotes some sort of issue.
Items such as late payments, bankruptcies and defaults stay on your credit report for seven to 10 years before falling off, but their influence wanes as the years go on. A five-year old bankruptcy won’t impact your credit score as much as a five-month old one.
It’s not uncommon to find a mistake on your credit report, which can happen when a lender misreports a payment or a debt.
If you spot an error, be sure to contact the lender or collection agency directly to dispute the information, preferably via written communication. If necessary, you can also report the error to the individual credit bureaus and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Fixing mistakes on your credit report can take a long time, so it’s best to start the process before you try to buy a house or refinance a loan.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an estimated nine million Americans have their identities stolen each year. Identity thieves may drain accounts, damage credit and even disrupt medical treatment.
That’s why another important step in reviewing your credit report is to keep an eye out for the possibility of identity theft. While many financial institutions have their own policies and procedures in place for recognizing and responding to identity theft, thanks to the FTC’s Red Flags Rule, it’s always a good idea to keep your eyes open for it too.
While there are several types of clues not found on your credit report that could indicate your identity has been stolen, here are a few you can spot on your report:
If you suspect you have been the victim of identity theft, notify your banks and lenders, alert the credit bureaus, and consider placing a credit freeze on your report. You can visit Identitytheft.gov for more resources and information on recovering from identity theft.
You may struggle to access your credit report for a few reasons:
No one can check your credit report during a credit freeze, including you. This protects you from scammers opening new accounts in your name. If you try to check your report and it says your credit account is frozen, you'll need to contact the credit bureaus individually to request a temporary or permanent thaw.
Understanding how to read a credit report, spot issues and incorrect information and respond accordingly is the first step towards understanding how to build your credit or boost your credit score. After all, if you want to move forward, you have to know where you currently stand so you can spot gaps and plan accordingly.
Consider a credit builder loan from Self to help you build credit history today!
Zina Kumok is a Financial Health Counselor and Credit Counselor, certified by the National Association of Certified Credit Counselors, who writes extensively about personal finance. See Zina's profile on LinkedIn.
Lauren Bringle is an Accredited Financial Counselor® with Self Financial– a financial technology company with a mission to help people build credit and savings. See Lauren on Linkedin and Twitter.
Our goal at Self is to provide readers with current and unbiased information on credit, financial health, and related topics. This content is based on research and other related articles from trusted sources. All content at Self is written by experienced contributors in the finance industry and reviewed by an accredited person(s).