Your credit score can vary slightly depending on the scoring model and which bureau’s data is used. (Photo: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock)

Is There Just One Credit Score?

By Meg C. Hall

Your credit score is very important to your financial well-being — especially when you want to buy a home or a car, open a credit card account or take out a loan. But did you know most people have more than one credit score?

“Consumers have many scores, rather than just one score,” explained nationally recognized credit expert John Ulzheimer, “and those scores are going to vary based on the credit bureau that provides the credit report data and the type of credit scoring system used.”

Credit scores are calculated at the time your credit report is accessed, so different variables — such as bureau data, score brand and variant of credit scoring model — can add up to different three-digit scores, even at the same point in time.

FICO vs. VantageScore

While several different credit scoring models exist, FICO Scores and VantageScores are the two primary systems used in consumer finance today. Together, said Ulzheimer, these two scoring “brands” make up nearly 100 percent of the market in the United States for credit score calculations.

“Think of them as Pepsi and Coke,” he said. “They’re in the same industry, and both build a credit risk model for lenders to make decisions about applicants and existing customers. But they’re definitely not the same company, and they compete for business.”

To calculate your credit score, both FICO and VantageScore use the information found in your credit report, but each has its own unique way of considering the various elements that go into that calculation. For instance, according to a 2017 article in USA Today, VantageScore weighs missed mortgage payments more heavily than FICO does but requires fewer months of credit history than FICO to calculate a score.

Even though the two scores may be slightly different when calculated, said Ulzheimer, the variance is not significant. “By and large, people who have good credit reports are going to have good scores under both scoring models, regardless of who they’re buying it from. And if you’ve got lousy credit, unfortunately you’re going to have lousy scores, regardless of what brand score it is.”

Different bureaus, different scores

In the U.S. there are three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — which collect and store consumer credit history. So even with the same scoring model, your credit scores can differ depending upon which bureau’s data is being pulled for that particular calculation.

“The information at the different bureaus is not going to be exactly the same,” Ulzheimer explained. “It’s going to be very similar, but it’s very unlikely that it’s going to be identical.”

While most major banks and creditors report to all three credit agencies, there’s no requirement for them to do so. Some lenders choose to only report to one or two of them — or not at all.

“And even if they did report to all three, there’s no guarantee that your information will be updated with all three at the same time,” he said, “So it’s very unlikely that if you pulled all three of your credit reports over the course of a month that the information would be spot-on identical, and that can lead to the differences in scores.”

So which credit bureau’s data should you pay attention to?

“All three,” said Ulzheimer. “You have no idea which report your lender is going to pull, and you only have three of them, so it’s a good idea to focus on all three.”

According to federal law, consumers are entitled to one free credit report every 12 months from each of the three agencies. If you spread out your requests over the year, you can receive a different agency’s report on your credit every four months.

When it comes to variations in your credit scores, Ulzheimer said not to worry too much. “They’re all going to tell you the same thing. It’s just not reasonable to expect to see the exact same three digits that some lender is going to see at some point in the future.”

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