Your three-digit credit score is a measure of how well you're managing your finances. There are different types of credit scores lenders may use to gauge risk when lending someone money, including FICO credit scores. Understanding the difference between credit scores and FICO scores and how they work matters for maintaining good financial health.
- A credit score is a three-digit number that measures your financial health and how well you manage credit and debt.
- FICO scores are a specific type of score that lenders can use when making borrowing decisions.
- The FICO credit scoring system is arguably the most widely used and is calculated using the information included in your credit report.
- Maintaining a higher credit score can make qualifying for loans and lines of credit easier, as well as help you land favorable interest rates.
What Is a Credit Score?
A credit score is a numerical representation of financial health, telling lenders at a glance how responsible you are with credit and debt. Generally speaking, a higher credit score suggests that you borrow and pay back what you owe on time. A lower credit score, on the other hand, may hint that you struggle with managing debt obligations.
So where do credit scores come from? They're generated by companies like Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion based on information that's included in your credit reports. A credit report is a collection of information about your financial life, including:
- Your identity (i.e., your name, aliases, date of birth, Social Security number, etc.)
- Existing credit accounts (such as loans, lines of credit, or credit cards)
- Public records, including judgments, liens, or bankruptcy filings
- Inquiries about you from individuals or organizations that have requested a copy of your credit file
Credit reports are maintained by credit bureaus. Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion are the biggest in the U.S. These companies compile credit reports based on information that creditors report to them as well as information that's available as part of the public record.
You can get a free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus once each year at AnnualCreditReport.com.
What Is a FICO Credit Score?
FICO credit scores are generated by Fair Isaac Corporation. These scores were first developed for consumer use in the late 1980s in response to the need for an industry-wide standard credit score for evaluating risk.
FICO scores are three-digit numbers ranging from 300 to 850, with 850 the best score given. FICO scores are calculated based on information included in consumer credit reports. There are five specific factors that go into their calculation:
- Payment history. Payment history accounts for 35% of your FICO credit scores. On-time payments can be helpful to your score, while late or missed payments can result in lost credit score points.
- Credit utilization. Credit utilization refers to the percentage of available credit that's in use at any given time. This factor accounts for 30% of FICO score calculations.
- Credit age. Credit age measures the average length of time for which someone has been using credit. The older someone's credit age is, the better. This factor accounts for 15% of FICO credit score calculations.
- Credit mix. FICO also considers the types of credit someone uses (i.e., installment loans versus revolving credit). Credit mix makes up 10% of FICO credit score calculations.
- Credit inquiries. Credit inquiries account for 10% of your FICO credit score. A new inquiry is registered on your credit report following a hard credit check.
FICO generates multiple versions of its credit scores, which are designed for different lending situations. It's possible to have 30+ different FICO credit scores depending on the information in your credit reports that's going into calculating them. FICO 8 and FICO 9, for instance, are widely used in credit decisions, while the newer FICO 10, which incorporates trended data, is used less commonly.
Checking your own credit reports doesn't trigger a hard credit pull or affect your credit scores.
FICO Score vs. Credit Score: Which Is Better?
Whether a FICO credit score is better than another credit score depends largely on how the scores are calculated and how they're being used. Again, FICO scores focus on payment history, credit utilization, credit age, credit mix, and credit inquiries to give lenders an idea of how likely you are to pay back the money you borrow. Other credit scoring models may consider different factors to make the same determination.
VantageScores, for example, break down like this:
- Extremely influential: Credit usage, balance, and available credit
- Highly influential: Credit mix and experience
- Moderately influential: Payment history
- Less influential: Age of credit history
- Less influential: New accounts
Like FICO scores, VantageScores range from 300 to 850 while assigning different weights to payment history, credit usage, and other activity. So in terms of which score is better, a lender might prefer to use FICO scores if they want to gauge how likely someone is to repay their debt. But if they're more interested in how much debt someone has and their credit utilization, they may use VantageScores instead.
About 90% of top lenders use FICO credit scores to make credit decisions.
Is a FICO Score the Same as a Credit Score?
A FICO credit score is a type of credit score. The difference between them and other credit scoring models is that FICO specifically develops FICO scores. The FICO credit scoring system uses a proprietary model to generate consumer credit scores based on five factors: payment history, credit utilization, credit age, credit mix, and credit inquiries.
Why Do I Have Different FICO Scores?
FICO offers multiple versions of its credit score for different uses. For example, lenders use one FICO credit score when applying for auto loans and another when applying for credit cards. FICO often updates its credit scoring models. They can also be different depending on which credit bureau is calculating them. If a creditor reports a loan account to one credit bureau but not the other two, that can affect the FICO credit scores each credit report generates.
Do Lenders Use FICO Scores or Other Credit Scores?
When you apply for loans or lines of credit, it's likely that a lender will check at least one of your credit scores. The majority of lenders rely on FICO credit scores but it's possible that a lender may use an alternative credit scoring model when determining whether to approve you for a loan or line of credit.
How Can a FICO Score Improve?
The easiest ways include paying your bills on time, keeping credit card balances low, keeping old accounts open, using different types of credit, and limiting how often you apply for new loans or lines of credit.
The Bottom Line
FICO credit scores and other credit scores can serve as a predictive tool for lenders when gauging your ability and commitment to repaying debt. Regardless of which credit scoring model they use, it's important to consider how you can get the best score possible. Some of the easiest ways to improve your FICO score, for instance, include paying your bills on time, keeping credit card balances low, keeping old accounts open, using different types of credit, and limiting how often you apply for new loans or lines of credit. The more you can improve your score, the easier it may be to get approved for loans at the lowest rates.