THE BLOG
12/12/2013 11:12 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

Who's Watching Your Holiday Spending?

It's not only Santa who's watching to see who is naughty or nice! In fact, while you're playing Santa, the credit bureaus and credit scoring companies are keeping track of how much you spend as a percentage of y our credit limits. And in January, they'll be watching to see how you repay all the cards you used this holiday season.

The worst penalty isn't a lump of coal in your stocking. It's a lowering of your credit score -- something that impacts your future cost of credit, and even the cost of homeowners and auto insurance. Your credit score ranges from 300 to 850 -- and is probably the most important personal score since you took the SAT exams! A score at the top of the range gives you access to the best deals and lowest rates on major purchases.

Your credit score is derived from all the information on your credit report. By now, you probably know that you're entitled to a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus every year. The easiest way to access that totally free report is through AnnualCreditReport.com, which offers direct links to each of the bureaus, without requiring you to sign up for credit monitoring or credit protection programs.

Typically, those credit reports show similar information, because they are simply a compilation of information reported to them by the companies with whom you do business -- credit card issuers, mortgage lenders, medical providers and insurance companies. Information -- good and bad -- stays on your credit report for seven years, until it "ages" off, to be replaced by newer (and hopefully better) credit information. (Bankruptcy stays on your credit report for ten years.) You can challenge reported information and correct errors by contacting each bureau.

Your credit score is a sort of "secret sauce" formula, or algorithm, created by any of several companies as an easy way to grade your credit performance. Your credit score is a number that reflects a snapshot assessment of how risky it is for a company to extend credit to you.

Some of what goes into your credit score is simply a matter of record: how long you've lived at the same address, had the same job, or held your oldest credit card. There's not much you can do about that. But there are things you can do to impact and improve your credit score, or downgrade it. Simply asking for a new credit card, closing an older card, charging up a greater percentage of your credit limit, or paying only the minimum required monthly payment can all impact your credit score.

Getting Your Score

The oldest and most widely used score is the FICO score -- the original score created by the Fair Isaac Company (thus, FICO) many years ago, when it was rarely disclosed to consumers. Now, you can get your score at www.MyFico.com at no charge. But it comes with a 10 day free subscription to ScoreWatch, which you must remember to cancel immediately or you'll be charged $14.95/month for at least 3 months!

Now, Discover Card is offering a free look at your FICO score, which will be printed on Discover card monthly statements sent to primary Discover cardholders. This may be a temporary promotion, but it is being highly advertised.

At Experian-owned FreeCreditScore.com, you can get your Experian credit score and use the Experian ScorePlanner tool for a payment of just $1. (But if you don't cancel within seven days, you'll be signed up for a membership at $17.99 per month, which includes credit monitoring, fraud alerts, and access to fraud resolution agents.)

When you sign up for the $1 trial, the credit report information that is behind your score is used to "pre-populate" the slider calculators on the ScorePlanner tool. The tool is designed to show you how your personal credit behavior impacts the risks which lenders perceive about as they make and price their credit decisions.

You can move the sliders on your computer screen to see how behaviors such as adding a new credit card, increasing the percentage of available credit you are using, inquiring about opening new credit and making late payments have on your credit score.

Obviously, the credit bureaus and scoring companies know that you're interested in "the number" that they've been compiling. It's being used as a way to bring in subscribers to their various credit-watch monthly services.

Credit Score and Non-Profit Credit Counseling

There's one more way to get your credit score. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) has joined with Experian, which has donated 80,000 free, 12-month memberships to its above-mentioned website in order to help consumers not only understand, but < improve> their credit scores. It's all part of the NFCC's Sharpen Your Financial Focus program, aimed at empowering consumers to manage credit wisely.

If you go to www.SharpenToday.org, you can start with a visit to the "MyMoneyCheck-Up" section of the NFCC website, an online financial self-assessment tool. You can also take advantage of a one-on-one review with an NFCC Certified Financial professional. And then, you can qualify for the free membership that gives you a year of access to not only your credit report and credit score, but to credit monitoring and alerts, and to the Experian ScorePlanner tool, as well.

Now, as you head into the holiday shopping season, is the perfect time to gain control of your credit. Take advantage of the NFCC program. The credit counseling can be done over the phone, and it isn't reserved for people "in trouble." NFCC wants to help those just starting out, and those caught in a rut of making minimum monthly payments. Going through their counseling program does not impact your credit, and is not reported to the credit bureaus.

Since all your lenders know the score, don't you think it's smart to get help to change your money behavior and increase your score? So get started today at www.sharpentoday.org -- or by calling NFCC at 855-374-2773. It's free -- and when the bills start arriving in January, you'll be glad you knew the score during the holiday shopping season. That's The Savage Truth.

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