How to Read Your Credit Report
Table of Contents
You’ve finally followed sound advice and received your credit report from one of the bureaus. It has a dizzying array of information. What’s on a report from each bureau and how do you read it? How are they different? Let’s examine credit reports and discuss credit scores.
The Anatomy of a Credit Report
Each of the three major bureaus provides a slightly different report, using information from a variety of sources. Each report may have a slightly different score, as the bureaus use different models to produce the number.
Each of the bureau’s reports have the same basic components.
This is the portion used to identify you. If you have multiple spellings of your name, nicknames (think “Eddie” for Edward), or multiple Social Security Numbers, these will appear here. There may also be misspellings of your name, as well. Your current address (and likely old addresses) will also appear. It’s important to make sure the information is correct, and not for someone else, especially someone with the same or similar name.
This is where loans and accounts are shown. This includes revolving accounts such as credit cards and lines of credit; real estate accounts such as mortgages; installment accounts, which covers loans not in the first two categories, such as car or student loans; and other accounts, which encompasses any other accounts affecting your credit.
Delinquent accounts and collection accounts will also be listed.
Your report will include details of each account. These include:
- The creditor’s name
- The account number
- The account type (see above)
- Your recent balance
- The date the account was opened
- The term of the loan, if it is not revolving
- The credit limit or original amount of the loan
- The high balance, or the highest owed on the account during its lifetime
- The current balance and the date it was updated
- The agreed-upon monthly payment
- The amount of your last payment
- The status of the account
- Any past-due amounts
- The payment status
- Comments from the creditor
This section includes information that can hurt your credit, including bankruptcies and judgments, tax liens, and state and county court records. Depending on which state you live in, it could also include overdue child support.
As the title suggests, this section includes any inquiries made on your credit score within the past two years. This could be attempting to secure a mortgage or car loan, for example. Only your version, not lenders’ or creditors’ versions, will include soft inquiries.
Differences in Bureaus
As noted, the bureaus each give a slightly difference report. Your credit score could be different even if you get your report from each bureau at the same time. If you are purchasing a report, you may also have a different score, depending on how it was calculated with differences between FICO, FICO 8, FICO 9, FICO Auto and FICO Bankcard calculations. Forbes offers more information on which score you will receive, such as when attempting to secure a mortgage, auto loan, or renting property.
Experian typically uses FICO 8 Score to determine your credit score, which will be between 300 and 850. You can also request other FICO Scores or VantageScore. Experian reports have a small table to give you a visual of your payment history per account. They also provide an estimated date for when information affecting your credit score will no longer be reported, such as delinquent accounts.
TransUnion provides the most comprehensive employment section in for your personal history. While this will not affect your credit score, it could help you receive a loan. If you sign up for credit monitoring, you can also see TransUnion’s Credit Score Simulator, which can predict changes to your score based on future actions and events. They do not specify which score they use on typical reports, but offer all FICO scores, as well as Vantage, for sale.
Equifax uses both the FICO 5 Score and the Equifax Credit Score Model, depending on which product you receive. They show an 81-month history of your credit. Unlike the other two bureaus, which list accounts alphabetically, Equifax groups accounts by “open accounts” and “closed accounts.”
When to Get Your Free Credit Report
Each of the three bureaus allows you to request a free annual credit report for your personal review. There are two strategies to this: Request all three at once, or stagger them.
All at Once
The main reason you would want to get all three at once is to compare your scores. While they will each be slightly different due to different scoring models, they should be fairly close. If one is not close to the others, there could be a reporting error you need to fix.
Since you only receive one free report per bureau per year, it might be more beneficial to stagger the reports every four months. This allows you to keep up with updates from creditors and will also help you stay up to date with your score. If your bank gives you a free credit score each month (usually from only one bureau), however, this might not be as beneficial.
How to Fix Credit Report Errors
Another reason to stagger your free reports is to monitor for errors. These may be fairly innocent errors, or they could be indicative of identity theft. If not addressed quickly, identity theft can ruin your credit.
You can fix some mistakes yourself, especially if you adopt good financial habits. However, if they are true errors, such as identity theft, missing information, or information that is not yours, you may need to file a dispute with the credit bureaus. We’ve provided a dispute letter template to give you a head start in writing your letter. You can find more information and other templates at our letter template resource center.
If the problems are widespread, you may need to hire a credit repair company. They can help guide you through the process of getting your credit back in line, and thus improving your credit report and score.
Ensuring your credit report is important if you are planning on applying for a loan, new job, car, mortgage, and more. With higher credit scores, you receive lower interest rates, and a higher chance of landlords renting to you.
FAKO vs. FICO: Get Your Real Credit Score
FAKO, a portmanteau of “fake” and “FICO,” refers to some free or “educational credit scores.” These are provided on some sites advertising free credit reports, but are not regulated. The three bureaus may also offer educational scores for free on their sites. These scores are usually not used by any lenders (though VantageScore, technically a FAKO score as it does not use FICO, can be used). TransRisk, TransRisk Auto, and Experian’s National Equivalency Score also fall under this category.
As these scores are not regulated, they may have different scoring models than FICO scores. For example, they may weigh paying history differently. As such, it is important you receive the correct credit report in order to make informed decisions about applying for loans.
You can receive your free, government-regulated reports here.
Now that you know how to read your credit report, you can learn more about your credit score, what it means, and how to improve it at the Fiscal Tiger credit score resource center.
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A former newspaper journalist, Cole spends his free time reading, writing, playing video games, watching movies, and learning about every subject under the sun. He lives with his wife and daughter in Idaho. Follow Cole on Twitter: @ColeMayer42
This post was updated May 4, 2018. It was originally published October 7, 2017.