What is a credit score versus a credit report?

First, you need to know the difference between a credit report and a credit score. The credit report shows all the data that has been reported on your financial habits, such as which credit cards you have and how big your balance is; if you have student loans, a mortgage or an auto loan and the amount you owe on each; and whether you have paid your bills on time.

The credit score, however, is a three-digit number that’s derived from the credit report using a somewhat vague formula that can vary, but in general uses the following calculations:

Payment history (35 percent)

As in, do you pay your bills on time?

Credit utilization (30 percent)

Credit utilization essentially means how much credit do you have and how much of it are you using? (Basically how much of the credit available to you is being used. Experian recommends that individuals keep their utilization rate below 30 percent.)

Length of credit history (15 percent)

As in, how long have you had credit, dating back to your first card?

Credit mix (10 percent)

As in, how many different types of credit accounts do you have?

New credit (10 percent)

As in, how frequently have you applied for additional credit cards or new loans?

The formula above is the one used by FICO, the company that provides credit scores known as FICO scores, to 90 percent of the top 100 largest lenders. What about the other 10 percent? They use the VantageScore, which was created by the three credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—to compete with FICO. That score essentially incorporates the same factors although they carry slightly different weights.

The point of a credit score is to give lenders a heads-up regarding how risk-worthy you are. In other words, how likely you are to pay them back based on your past behavior. They’ll examine your credit score to decide if they are going to extend you credit at all, and if so, at what interest rate.

The higher your credit score the better, and, consequently, the lower the interest rate they will charge you. That’s because they are considering your past behavior as a guide to how likely you are to repay this new loan and will be more generous if they like what they see.

So, how do I find out my credit score?

As we mentioned, free credit reports are readily available, and that’s thanks to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which requires each of the three credit reporting agencies to provide you with a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months. But that doesn’t require them to include your actual credit score.

It used to be pretty tricky to get your credit score: Most likely you would have had to pay FICO to get a glimpse. But now free credit scores are relatively commonly available—if you know where to look.

Here are some top options.

Your credit card company

You know those perks, such as free airline miles, that credit card issuers lavish on you to attract your business? Increasingly many card companies are also offering free credit scores as one of their benefits. It’s a little less flashy than cash back, but might be just as useful in the long run.

Your bank

Some banks are also offering a free credit score to their patrons. Check with yours to see if you can score your score.

Financial websites

A number of websites will give you a peek at your credit score. Try Credit.com, NerdWallet, LendingTree, Bankrate (formerly Quizzle), Credit Sesame and Credit Karma. But read the fine print on any website you click on: You may be asked to sign up for a free trial membership that can cost you big bucks if you don’t cancel it in time.

Your lender

In the event you are turned down for a mortgage, you can request to see your credit score.

Why does my credit score differ in different places?

If you sought a free credit score from several of these places, you might find that it differs slightly depending on the source. And that’s because of the different models that companies use. Not only are there two main types of credit scores—the FICO score and the VantageScore—but each routinely introduces new tweaks in an updated version.

Over its history, VantageScore has rolled out four versions, while FICO is up to FICO Score 9, along with different versions specific to credit cards or auto loans.

Since the different credit score models have variances in how they prioritize information on your credit report, your score could fluctuate slightly, but there are unlikely to be huge swings.

How do I know if I have a good credit score?

There’s one key reason you’re seeking the free credit score in the first place, and that’s to see how you measure up in the eyes of lenders. So, what does that three-digit number tell them?

The two different types of scores, FICO and VantageScore, use slightly different scales. Here’s how they stack up:

FICO scale and its interpretation:

Exceptional  800+
Very good 740 to 799
Good 670 to 739
Fair 580 to 669
Poor 579 and below

VantageScore ranks you like this:

Exceptional  750 to 850
Very good 700 to 749
Good 650 to 699
Fair 550 to 649
Poor 549 down to 300

As you can see, the targets are relatively similar, but as mentioned, they might weight different factors with a slight variance, creating some dissimilarities between your scores.

How do I improve my credit score?

Once you have your credit score, you plan should be to work to improve it (unless you’re one of those stellar few already at the top). There are three easy ways to improve your score, without resorting to drastic lifestyle changes—although it’s always wise to cut back if you think you should.

1. Pay your bills on time

Every time. As you can see, timely bill payment is the largest component of your credit score so it behooves you to pay all those bills on time.

2. Limit credit inquiries

Unless you really need a new credit card to up your credit utilization rate (and you plan to pay it off in full monthly) or your car is rattling toward its demise, try not to have your credit “pulled” too many times. An inquiry-—or ‘hard pull”—happens whenever you apply for a new credit card. That’s why it’s important not to open too many new credit cards. It’s not worth the ding to your credit.

3. Verify your credit report

Your credit score, while important, is just one number. For a more complete picture that offers insight into how lenders have come to their conclusion about your financial habits, check your credit report. And be sure to report any errors ASAP.

The more information the better when it comes to your credit score. And checking your credit score for free might be just the boost you need to make some positive financial changes.

This article contains the current opinions of the author, but not necessarily those of Acorns. Such opinions are subject to change without notice. This article has been distributed for educational purposes only and should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.