If you’ve ever applied for a new credit card or a loan, then chances are your lender evaluated your application by pulling your credit report. And if you’ve ever been denied financing, the contents of that report were possibly the reason why. But what’s in your credit report, and why does it matter?
The answer is simple. Your credit report is a record of your borrowing and repayment activity. Credit card issuers, mortgage lenders, banks, and car dealers are just a few of the businesses that use credit reports to make financing decisions.
If your credit report doesn’t show late payments or too-high balances, it’s easier to get approved for a credit card or loan. On the other hand, inaccurate or outdated information in your credit report could negatively affect your chances of securing affordable financing.
That’s why many savvy consumers make a habit of regularly checking their credit scores. To help them better understand what impacts these scores, businesses such as Credit Karma provide consumers with free information so they can work to correct or improve their credit scores — great, right?
But before you sign up, let’s talk about how Credit Karma works, including what’s great about it and its limitations. We’ll also answer the important question: Is Credit Karma accurate?
What is Credit Karma?
Credit Karma is a free service that gives members access to scores and reports from credit bureaus Equifax and TransUnion. It also provides members with credit education articles, financial calculators that help you evaluate loan terms, and free credit monitoring.
Credit Karma can also help prevent identity theft. For example, if you get an alert from Credit Karma that a new account has been added to your credit report but you haven’t applied for any lines of credit recently, you can take immediate action and prevent difficult-to-untangle damage.
Despite these services being free for you, Credit Karma is still a business that makes money. When you become a member, it will analyze your personal information and credit history and make recommendations on personal finance products that may help you save money. If you apply for a recommended product and the lender approves your application, that lender will pay Credit Karma a fee.
This seems like a win-win, right? In many cases, it is.
But before you enroll, make sure you understand how Credit Karma’s scoring model works and how it can apply to your financial choices — because small-but-important details can make the difference between getting approved and being denied for new credit accounts.
What is the VantageScore 3.0 scoring model?
If you’re like many consumers, then you’re probably familiar with the Fair Isaac Corporation, more popularly known as FICO. For years, FICO has been synonymous with credit scores — after all, it invented them over 25 years ago. FICO scores quickly became the industry standard for lenders looking to evaluate loan applications. But there’s a new kid on the credit score block — VantageScore.
VantageScore is a credit-scoring model first used in 2006. It started as a collaboration between Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, which are the three credit reporting agencies that collect and record your loan and payment data. Once the first scoring model was released, the three bureaus stepped back, and VantageScore became an independently-managed enterprise. Today, it “maintains, revalidates, and updates the scoring model and educates lenders, consumers, and regulators about its benefits,” according to VantageScore itself.
VantageScore has made significant inroads with lenders such as Chase. In fact, if you’re a Chase credit card customer and already have access to your credit score through your account, chances are you’ll see a VantageScore number. But just because you get access to a credit score through your bank doesn’t mean it’s the same score a lender will use to evaluate your loan application. In fact, according to FICO, over 90% of lenders use FICO, not VantageScore, when making credit decisions.
That may change soon — at least for mortgage lenders. An August 2019 decision from the Federal Housing Finance Agency cleared the way for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to use credit-scoring models other than FICO when evaluating mortgage loan applications. VantageScore, naturally, cheered the decision.
What does this have to do with Credit Karma? Remember, when you sign up, one of the key benefits is free access to your credit score. But because Credit Karma uses the VantageScore 3.0 model, the number you see may not be the same data a lender would use. And because Credit Karma can’t guarantee your lender will approve your application, you could find yourself denied if your prospective lender is looking at a different credit score than you. And then you’ll have a hard inquiry on your credit profile and no line of credit to show for it.
One major advantage to using Credit Karma
One major advantage of opening a Credit Karma account is that it collects data from two major credit bureaus, Equifax and TransUnion. Other credit score and education providers, such as Credit Sesame, only collect data from one bureau.
In concept, that shouldn’t be a problem because the loan and repayment data should be the same on all reports. But because bureaus sometimes pull data from creditors at different times, there could be significant discrepancies — especially if you’ve recently paid off a big loan. That matters because paying off a significant debt can boost your credit score fairly quickly. But if a lender isn’t referencing the same credit bureau that you are — and that bureau hasn’t updated its information yet — then you could risk being denied or being offered a less-favorable interest rate if you apply too soon.
How long does it take Credit Karma to update my score?
Credit Karma updates its records weekly, enabling members to see a fresh version of their data. This is a great feature if you’re actively working to improve your credit score or clear up inaccurate information — or anxiously awaiting the right time to apply for a loan.
That said, remember that Credit Karma’s information is simply a reflection of what’s cataloged by Equifax and TransUnion. You can’t hold it against Credit Karma if the credit bureaus aren’t keeping up with your payment history or if they’re taking their time correcting information you’ve disputed.
What else should I know about Credit Karma?
There’s no question that free-and-easy access to your credit scores and reports is a huge benefit. But remember, you don’t pay Credit Karma — lenders do. And the way lenders find new customers is by advertising their products on sites such as Credit Karma.
If you use Credit Karma, you can expect to see ads with a variety of financial offers. Credit Karma takes your score into account when putting these offers in front of you, but that doesn’t mean applying for all of them would be a great idea. That said, if you have good credit, it’s not a bad idea to consider special offers for balance transfer credit cards or installment loans, since you could save a significant amount of money on interest.
The good news is that Credit Karma is upfront about how it earns money, and many consumers find that transparency comforting. Credit Karma’s mission, which is to match members with appropriate products based on the lenders’ desired customer profiles, could help you find the offers that will save you more money.
The bottom line on whether Credit Karma is accurate
The information you see on Credit Karma should match what Equifax and TransUnion show. But if you want to verify the data, you can order free credit reports directly from each bureau once per year at AnnualCreditReport.com. It’s good to do this anyway because you’ll also get a free report from Experian, which is the one major credit bureau Credit Karma doesn’t work with.
Now that you understand how it all works, if you choose to sign up for Credit Karma, make sure you also take advantage of the website’s loan calculators. They’re a great way to evaluate your borrowing options and can help you figure out what’s truly affordable when you're deciding how to manage your money.
One last tip: consider signing up for another credit service, such as Credit Sesame. By using two free services, you can compare the scoring data and see what different products they offer you. You’ll also have a better understanding of how businesses such as FICO and VantageScore evaluate your credit information. You can compare Credit Sesame vs. Credit Karma and see how the two services work well together.