Why Does Checking Your Credit Score Lower It?
Heard a rumor that checking your credit score harms it? Let’s find out if it’s true — along with a few bonus tips.
December 23, 2021
Few things feel better than checking your credit score and seeing you’re firmly in the “good” category — especially if you’ve been working hard to improve your personal finances.
Yet you might have heard that a seemingly innocent check can actually be a bad idea; that checking your credit score lowers it. Let’s get to the bottom of this, and clear up some other mysteries while we’re at it.
By the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll have a strong grasp on everything related to credit score checks, including best practices for credit monitoring, different types of credit checks and why it’s so important to keep track of your credit score.
Understanding your credit score
To really understand credit checks, you need a basic understanding of how credit scores and reports even work, so let’s get into it.
The three major credit bureaus are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. These credit bureaus compile credit reports based on your financial activity, with the overall aim of figuring out how reliable of a borrower you are.
For instance, lenders report new credit applications and factors like repayment history, credit utilization ratio and total credit limit to bureaus; issues like bankruptcies also show up.
Then, credit score companies like FICO and VantageScore compile credit scores using the factors mentioned above. They use different scoring models, but the scores should still be in the same ballpark.
FICO scores are defined as follows:
Exceptional credit score: 800 to 850
Very good credit score: 740 to 799
Good credit score: 670 to 739
Fair credit score: 580 to 669
Poor credit score: 300 to 579
Why does checking your credit score lower it?
First of all, let’s clear one thing up: Checking your credit score won’t necessarily lower it. It all depends on the kind of credit check that’s being run.
If you’re checking your own credit score without making an application for a financial product, this is known as a soft inquiry, or a soft pull, and generally won’t make any difference to your score. Preapproval for financial products is another example of a soft credit inquiry, as is an employment background check.
There is another type of credit check called a hard inquiry, which crops up whenever you apply for something like a car loan or new credit card. Rental applications and student loans also fall under this category.
These hard pulls do lower your credit score. Why? Because as we’ve seen already, lenders are ultimately trying to figure out if you’re a creditworthy borrower. If you’re trying to apply for lots of different lending products, it looks as though you’re in desperate need of more credit and therefore less likely to pay it back.
How to check your credit score without lowering it
We’ve already seen that soft inquiries won’t lower your credit score, but in case you still have some doubts about how to check your credit score safely, it’s time to put your mind at rest.
There are plenty of places you can get a free credit score without facing a hard pull. One great way is to go directly to a bank or credit card issuer. Many of them provide soft inquiries and scores for free. For example, Discover, which uses FICO scores, gives anyone a free credit scorecard — you don’t even need to be a customer to use the service.
Another popular website is annualcreditreport.com, which gives users a free credit report from each credit bureau every year. Although it won’t give you the score itself, a credit report provides crucial information about the factors that contribute to your score and can therefore give you insight into how to improve your score. This can be a good one to check out once you’ve found out your score.
Generally, you don’t need to pay to see your credit score, though some companies do charge. These companies may give you a more precise score, but the free options will suffice in most cases.
As for the hard pulls, unfortunately it’s inevitable that your credit score will decrease slightly. However, it’s not the end of the world.
How much does your credit score decrease when it’s checked?
By now, we’ve established that soft inquiries won’t affect your credit score. Hard credit inquiries will result in you losing one to five points of your FICO score, which is a fairly negligible number. Plus, the inquiries will only stay on your credit file for about a year.
Although this isn’t a big deal for a one-off, all those extra points can add up if you’re applying for new loans every week. It’s a good idea to err on the side of caution.
On the bright side, if you make multiple hard inquiries for auto, mortgage or student loans within a given period — usually between two and six weeks — they will typically be merged together as a single inquiry, meaning fewer points lost.
So, if you want to get one of these products, you can apply to a few different loan providers and see which one offers you the best rate without worrying that it will destroy your credit score. However, this doesn’t apply to all lending products — for instance, credit cards are excluded — and it’s still a good idea to avoid applying for something unless absolutely necessary.
Why check your credit score?
Given all the complexities and problems that checking your credit score can potentially bring, you might be wondering if it’s even worth the bother. The answer to that question is yes … within reason.
Knowing your credit score gives you a gauge of whether you’d be eligible for certain credit cards or financial products, so you don’t have to “waste” your hard inquiries on products that you’re unlikely to ever get accepted for in the first place.
Many credit cards and lending products are only available to those who have a certain credit score — for instance, you’ll usually need a high score for a luxury card. Knowing your credit score gives you an idea of what type of product you’ll be able to access.
It can also help you secure the best rates. If you know you have an “excellent” credit score, you’ll know that you should be able to access the lowest rates, meaning you could reject a lender offering anything that’s too high. Once you find out your score, do some research to find out the kinds of rates and terms you might be able to expect.
Plus, if you check your credit report, you’ll be able to access even more valuable information. You’ll find out if there’s any incorrect information on your report or fraudulent activity, like identity theft. This might sound extreme, but some statistics suggest that around 47% of Americans were victims of identity theft in 2020 alone.
By keeping an eye on your credit report, or using credit monitoring, you can report anything that doesn’t look right and prevent inaccurate information from hurting future lending applications.
How often should you check your credit score?
Just because you can check your credit score as often as you want using soft inquiries, you may not want to check it too often. Some people can become anxious as they watch their score go up and down, but slight fluctuations are normal as your data and the credit scoring algorithm change.
It’s wise to check your score once every two to three months — long enough for things to change, but often enough for you to notice any problems and take action if needed. Also, you might want to check your score just before taking out a loan or applying for credit. This will be your starting point for researching the kinds of rates and terms you should be aiming for.
Once you’re in a situation where you’re happy with your score and don’t plan on making any applications any time soon, you may want to reduce your frequency further.
Ultimately, it’s about choosing a frequency that is right for you and helps you keep your personal finances on track.
Mystery solved — now you can take action
Given all the nuances and complications involved in checking credit scores, it can sometimes feel like the system was invented solely to confuse us. You might be tempted to give up on credit scores altogether, but keeping them in shape is crucial for maintaining good financial health and will pay off later down the line.
If all this seems a bit overwhelming, you don’t have to go it alone. You can get all the information you need to know in one place by signing up for Tally’s newsletter. We’ll send you personal finance tips that go beyond credit score checks to ensure you never have to scratch your head in confusion at financial jargon again.