This post is was originally published on Investor Junkie

Pop quiz: What’s your credit score?

If you’re like many Americans, your answer is probably “I dunno.” Surveys repeatedly show that when it comes to this three-digit indicator of your credit history, most of us are still clueless.

Or — if we do know our score — we tend not to know how to interpret it.

There are so many reasons why we should monitor our credit — the rise of identity theft incidents makes it practically a requirement. And you should know if you need to make improvements to your score before making a major purchase like a car or a house.

Below are eight of the best services for monitoring your credit score. Some are free. Some charge a monthly subscription fee. And some start out free, then impose the charge. It’s important to understand that not all monitoring services are made equal. Many of the free score providers offer informational (fake) scores, commonly known as “FAKO” scores. They’re not the actual FICO scores that lenders use.

It doesn’t mean that the informational scores have no value. They often closely parallel FICO scores, and they can certainly alert you when credit issues arise. They can work if you want only to loosely monitor your credit scores. But if you want to track your actual scores and improve them where necessary, a paid service might be the better strategy.

Here are eight services for monitoring your credit. They aren’t ranked, so the order doesn’t represent the quality of the service.

Your Bank, Credit Union or Credit Card Provider

There are all kinds of credit monitoring services available, some free and some paid. But you don’t necessarily need to subscribe to a special service for monitoring purposes. These days, most financial institutions are offering some kind of free credit score service. This includes banks, credit unions, credit card providers and even some investment brokers.

For example, I have the Citi Double Cash card. It provides a free credit score to cardholders. The score is calculated based on data from Equifax, using FICO Bankcard Score 8, which is a common score used by credit card providers.

DCU Credit Union provides a free FICO Score 5 based on Equifax data for all its customers.

In the case of both providers, all you need to do is be a customer and sign up for the service.

Free Credit Score Sites

Free credit scores are now widely available. And some financial institutions even provide your score automatically on monthly statements. If you’re looking to monitor your credit score on a regular basis, this may be the way to go. The scores provided will be free. And you won’t need to add an extra vendor to your already busy life.

Credit Karma

Credit Karma has become almost synonymous with free credit scores. I suspect that’s because the service truly is free. You don’t even need to put a credit card on file, which is a common requirement among “free” credit score providers. Credit Karma earns its revenue from the offers it displays from various service providers. If you click through to one of those providers from Credit Karma and subscribe to its service, Credit Karma collects.

Credit Karma provides two-bureau credit score monitoring. Credit scores are provided through TransUnion and Equifax. They use VantageScore 3.0. This is not your FICO score and not used by lenders. The difference is that FICO scores are commonly used by lenders, while Vantage scores are informational scores for consumers only. They roughly parallel FICO scores, but it’s not an exact match.

Still, not only will you get the credit scores, you’ll also get the factors that contribute to your score. That will include your payment history, credit utilization ratio, length of credit history, new credit and the types of credit you have.

Credit Karma also offers a credit score simulator. It will allow you to run different scenarios and see how they impact your scores going forward. It’s a good low-pressure way to monitor your credit scores on an ongoing basis and without any expense.

Credit Sesame

Credit Sesame also offers free credit score monitoring, but it covers only a single score. That’s the one issued by TransUnion. However, like Credit Karma, it uses the VantageScore 3.0 and not FICO scores.

Like Credit Karma, Credit Sesame is a true free credit score provider and does not require that you put a credit card on file. The service updates your credit score once each month. It also gives you access to your credit report. One disadvantage is that you can check your score only once each month. If you check more frequently, there will be a charge.

Mint.com

We already like Mint for its budgeting services, but did you know this personal finance powerhouse also provides credit score monitoring?

Mint has joined the ranks of Credit Karma and Credit Sesame by offering free informational credit scores to its users, courtesy of Equifax. All of Mint’s services are totally free to use.

Paid Credit Score Sites

TransUnion

TransUnion offers both free and paid credit monitoring services. You can get the free service through the TransUnion Online Credit Score Simulator. Not only does it provide you with your free credit score, it also enables you to run scenarios — simulations — to see where your credit score will be if. As in, if you pay off a debt or if you go another six months without a delinquency.

The Online Credit Score Simulator provides only your TransUnion score and not those from Experian or Equifax.

To get your credit scores from all three major credit bureaus, you will need to subscribe to the deceptively titled FREE TransUnion Credit Score & $1 Credit Report offer. I say “deceptively” because it’s free for only the first seven days. After seven days, you’ll be billed at the rate of $19.95 per month. (This is not to knock TransUnion. The tactic seems to be common among free credit score offers.)

The paid service provides your credit scores from TransUnion, Experian and Equifax, as well as Instant Alerts and the Credit Lock capability. (NOTE: Credit scores provided are VantageScore 3.0 and not FICO scores.)

Experian

Experian offers a free service that entitles you to receive a copy of your credit report every 30 days. But it doesn’t provide a credit score, so it doesn’t qualify as a credit reporting service.

You can get monthly credit score monitoring through Experian CreditWorks Premium. The plan starts at $4.99 for the first month, then goes to $24.99 per month thereafter. The plan provides you with your Experian FICO Score 8 every 30 days. It also provides credit monitoring and alerts.

For $39.95 per month, you can get a 3-Bureau Credit Report and FICO® Scores that will also include your FICO Score 8 from TransUnion and Equifax.

Fast3CreditScores

Fast3CreditScores will provide you with a 14-day free trial of the service. After that, you’ll pay $19.95 per month. The service comes with monthly three-bureau scores, daily credit monitoring and alerts, a credit information hotline and identity fraud support services.
It provides you with scores from all three credit bureaus: TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. But there’s a catch. The scores you are provided with are proprietary and not FICO scores. However this is not unusual among free credit score providers. The scores are developed by CreditXpert, and while not “official,” they will provide you with relative tracking of your overall credit situation.

If you want your actual FICO scores from all three bureaus, there is a better option and at only a slightly higher fee:

myFICO

myFICO offers what is probably the most comprehensive credit monitoring service available. Its plans allow you to get instant access to your credit report, plus regular updates. They also monitor credit events and changes in your FICO score(s), as well as detect identity threats.

myFICO offers two plans:

  • Single Bureau Reports. At $19.95 per month, this plan provides you with instant and monthly access to your Experian credit report and FICO scores, including FICO Scores 8 and 9. The credit reports and scores are updated every month.
  • Three-Bureau Report. For an extra $10 — $29.95 per month — you can get instant and quarterly access to the most widely used FICO scores, as well as a new three-bureau credit report.

Both plans detect threats to your personal information and can work to restore your identity with expert identity theft features.

One of the big advantages with the myFICO plans is that they provide you with a wide variety of FICO scores. There are different scores used in different lending capacities, such as mortgages, car loans and credit cards. myFICO provides you with access to all of those scores. For example, the three-bureau report gives you access to up to 28 different FICO scores.

The disadvantage with the three-bureau report is that it provides updates on only a quarterly basis. But for most consumers, this would be sufficient to regularly monitor their credit, particularly since it includes the threat detection feature.

So there you have eight different services for monitoring your credit score. Choose the one that will work best for you, whether it’s a free or premium version.

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