He knows exactly where his money goes


Cheapism is editorially independent. We may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site.

With all the different credit bureaus and ratings, it can be hard to know which credit score to trust. Should you focus on your FICO score or VantageScore? And what about TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax? We’ll explain everything you need to know about different credit scores without getting too bogged down in the head-spinning details.

What Is a Credit Score?

A credit score is a three-digit number that rates your creditworthiness. A high score (690 to 850) tells creditors, landlords, and companies that you’re likely to pay your debts on time. A low credit score (629 and below) indicates the opposite. This rating affects your insurance and interest rates and the likelihood that you’ll be approved for loans, credit cards, and apartments.

Of course, the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — don’t pull these ratings out of thin air. They use a mathematical formula based on a consumer’s payment history, unpaid debts, open accounts, and other financial information. Since this information is dynamic, your credit score constantly changes depending on those factors.

Gallery: How You're Destroying Your Credit Score Without Knowing It

Performance rating or customer feedback, credit score or satisfaction measurement, quality control or improvement concept, strong businesswoman pull the string to make rating gauge to be excellent.Photo credit: Nuthawut Somsuk/istockphoto

Why Is My Credit Score Different on Different Sites?

Everyone has several credit scores that differ slightly based on two things: 1) the scoring model and 2) the credit bureau.

Credit Scoring Models

Remember those mathematical formulas we mentioned? They’re called scoring models. While there are more than half a dozen different models, the two most important ones are FICO and VantageScore.


The FICO model, developed by the Fair Isaac Corporation in 1989, is the gold standard of credit scores, with 90% of top lenders using it to make decisions. Credit scores from FICO range from 300 (very poor) to 850 (perfect) and are determined by five factors:

  • Payment history (35%): how you've paid your accounts over time.
  • Amounts owed (30%): how much you owe on loans, credit cards, and other accounts.
  • Length of credit history (15%): the age of your accounts on your credit reports.
  • New credit (10%): new accounts and recent credit inquiries.
  • Credit Mix (10%): the different types of credit accounts you have (e.g. credit cards, mortgages, loans, etc.).

To make matters more complicated, there are also multiple FICO scores, from FICO 2 to FICO 10 and 10T. While each one is tailored to different lending industries (FICO 2, 4, and are relevant to mortgage lenders, for example), the most common version is FICO 8.


The big three credit bureaus created VantageScore to compete with FICO in 2006. Today, more than 2,600 financial institutions use VantageScore, including nine of the 10 largest banks, though FICO remains the standard. Still, more and more institutions are adopting VantageScore, so it’s worth understanding how it works, including the five inputs that determine a consumer’s score (300-850):

  • Payment history (41%): how you've paid your accounts over time.
  • Depth of credit (20%): the age of your accounts and the types of accounts you have.
  • Credit utilization (20%): the ratio of your total credit to your total debt.
  • Recent credit (11%): new accounts and recent credit inquiries.
  • Balances (6%): total balances and debt.
  • Available credit (2%): amount of credit available.

While many of these measures are similar to FICO, VantageScore sets itself apart by using machine learning technology and credit behavior over time to generate scores. The scoring company also claims that it uses an “inclusive” formula that rates 33 million more Americans than other models.

Credit Bureaus

Credit bureaus keep track of consumers’ credit information for lenders, insurance companies, and landlords. While there are multiple agencies, you really only have to worry about three: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

Although each of these reporting agencies provides FICO and VantageScores, the numbers might differ slightly because they might be using slightly different data. If, for example, you open a new credit card account, it might show up on TransUnion first, altering that credit bureau’s score.

That said, credit scores should be more or less the same across all three agencies.

Where Can I Check My Credit Score For Free?

Everyone can request one free credit report a year from each of the big three credit bureaus (three total). You just have to visit or call (877) 322-8228.

Other than that, many banks, credit bureaus, and credit card companies offer free credit monitoring. If you do have to pay, know that credit reporting companies can’t charge more than $14.50 for a report.

The Bottom Line: Focus on FICO 8

At the end of the day, scoring models and credit bureaus are going to give you similar numbers. So most people can forget about VantageScore, FICO 2, and all the other technicalities. Simply pick one of the three main credit bureaus and monitor your FICO 8 score there. If you run into issues or discrepancies, that’s when you can dig a little deeper into your other scores.

For more personal finance guides and tips, please sign up for our free newsletters.

Cheapism in the News