09/25/2014 05:16 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

You Have Literally Dozens of Credit Scores -- Here's What You Can Learn From Just One

By Mike Goldstein, Content Writer at Credit Karma

Each consumer has far more than just one credit score. It's true, and it's an unhappy reality for many. People make their minds up to boost their credit health, work hard to get that special number up to their target level and then see a whole new number when they get a decision back from a lender. What can you do with that?

Well, the bad news is that you can't take all the uncertainty out of the application process. For starters, lenders often consider a whole range of factors beyond your score. As it stands now, also, there is a large variety in the credit score space, and that's unlikely to change in the immediate future. You can, however, get a better grasp on the system as a whole, while using just one credit score to evaluate your financial health over time.

Learn the Basics

Even though there's so much variety in the market for credit scores, most scores are drawn from the same basic elements. Want to take some of the mystery out of credit score calculations? Get familiarized with the fundamental building blocks of most scores.

  • Credit card utilization, or CCU, is the percentage of your open credit limits you charge each month. Generally, a low CCU is preferable to a higher one. There's no magic utilization number, but 30 percent or lower is a good guideline.
  • Payment history is the percentage of past payments that you've made on time. Delinquencies could hurt you here.
  • Derogatory marks are negative spots on your credit report. This category could include both accounts in collections and public records, including bankruptcies, civil judgments and tax liens.
  • Your age of credit history records the length of time you've kept your credit accounts open for. Generally, the longer your credit history, the better.
  • Total accounts factors in the number of credit accounts you've opened. The more accounts, the more history there is for lenders to consider.
  • Finally, credit inquiries include any time you apply for a new line of credit and your credit is checked. Too many of these could potentially harm your credit score.

Once you're aware of these factors, the variation from one credit score to the next may become less concerning. Some models may weigh these factors differently, placing more importance on one element or another. Others may also factor in different stats, like whether you have both loans and credit cards or just the latter. Still, you can rest assured that you have the basic building blocks in your back pocket, and now you can work on improving your credit health while focusing on just one or two credit scoring models.

Set a Goal

Now that you understand the foundation of credit scores, it's time to make a plan and set some goals. If you've noticed that you're comparatively weak in a few categories, you could set a goal to change those numbers over the next several months or years. If you've missed a payment or two, consider automatic payments that will make sure you stay on-time. If you've constantly maxed out your credit cards, you could consider opening up a new card to spread out your charges more thinly.

Once you start setting goals, you can key in on just one or two credit scoring models as your primary measurement tool. As you continue to build a reliable, solid credit history, watch how your score reacts over time, and set a target credit score against which you can evaluate your progress. Keep in mind that credit health is built over the long term, so try to avoid getting too antsy if you're not seeing the results you're looking for in just a few months or even the first year or two.

Track Your Progress

After all your prep work, all that's left is to put your plan into action and track the results. By sticking with a single score over the course of months, you can drown out a lot of the noise of the crowded credit score marketplace. Rather than bouncing from one score to the next, stick with one and see where it takes you. I recommend using Credit Karma, of course, but find a score that works for you, preferably one you can get and track for free.

This content is for entertainment and information purposes only. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors themselves, and not necessarily Credit Karma, its affiliates, or its business partners. Efforts have been made to present information that is up to date and accurate at the time of its initial publication. However, neither the author nor Credit Karma make any guarantees about the accuracy or completeness of the information provided.

About the Author: Mike Goldstein is a Content Writer at Credit Karma. Since joining the team in June 2013, he's been delivering the financial know-how on the daily.

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