Credit 101. Credit education about credit reports and credit scores.
As we move into 2020, credit continues to be a buzzword for consumers, but many people are unsure what part credit plays in their personal finances. In a new 5-part series, Credit 101, Ilyce Glink
, an award-winning personal finance columnist and CEO of the financial wellness platform Best Money Moves, details important information you need to know about your credit reports and scores. Create a myEquifax account (at www.myEquifax.com) to receive six free Equifax credit reports every 12 months.

While most consumers know that it’s important to maintain good credit, some may be less certain about what impact credit has on their personal finances, what things they can do to ensure their credit reports are accurate and complete, or even how their credit reports translate into their credit scores. Indeed, you may not even know what might be included in your credit reports.

Good news: our Credit 101 Series, sponsored by Equifax, is here to help answer your credit questions, so that you can better understand the information in your credit reports.

What Is a Credit Report?

Credit reports summarize your history of borrowing and paying back debt. The three nationwide credit bureaus that provide credit reports nationwide are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Your credit reports from each may not be identical, as some lenders and creditors may not report to all three. Some may report to only two, one or none at all. Credit reports offer prospective lenders and creditors a way to evaluate how you’ve handled repaying your debt in the past. This helps them decide whether to offer you credit – and at what terms. Prospective employers or landlords may also access your credit reports to help them decide whether to offer you a job or a lease.

We’ll go into more detail below, but generally your credit reports include your existing debt and outstanding balances owed for each account, as well as your payment history. The debts listed might include lines of credit, such as credit cards or home equity lines of credit, or installment loans, like personal loans, auto loans, mortgages, student loans and business loans that are personally guaranteed. Your credit reports will also include a list of past inquiries into your credit and they can include public records, such as bankruptcy and may also include accounts you have paid in full or other past accounts.

Your credit report information — along with other information you provide lenders, such as your income — will help them decide whether to approve or deny your application for credit and to set the interest rate and terms on what you borrow.

Why Is It Important to Know What’s in Your Credit Reports

Your credit history reflects the way you’ve borrowed and repaid your various debts. And various entities (such as nationwide credit reporting bureaus or analytics companies like FICO) use the information in your credit history to create a variety of credit scores that can be used to tell lenders about your creditworthiness. As your credit reports reflect how you’ve handled credit in the past, lenders and creditors use that information to help them understand how you’re likely to handle credit in the future.

It’s important to make sure the information in your credit reports is accurate and complete. If you review your credit reports and find information you don’t recognize, such as accounts you did not open, it could indicate that you’ve been a victim of identity theft.

What’s in Your Credit Reports?

While the three nationwide credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion each provide credit reports, the information included on each credit report may vary from agency to agency.  This happens because creditors, lenders, court systems and other entities may not report the information they have about you to all of the nationwide credit reporting bureaus. For example, a regional retailer that offers a credit card may only report your account to one or two of the three nationwide credit reporting bureaus – some do report to all credit bureaus but others may not.

Regardless of the individual credit accounts reported to each credit reporting agency, generally the same categories of information are included on most, if not all, of your credit reports:

1. Personal Identifying Information

Your credit reports list your name, address (current and former or other addresses), Social Security number and birth date, all of which help connect you to your credit history.

2. Credit Accounts

Unless you have little to no prior credit history (known in industry jargon as “thin file” or “nofile”), your credit accounts often comprise the most important section of your credit reports.

This section will generally show the balance and payment history for each account, as reported by your lenders and creditors. It may show whether your credit and loan accounts are open or closed, are being paid late or paid as agreed. Your credit accounts may be separated into mortgage accounts (including primary mortgages, second mortgages and home equity lines of credit), installment accounts (like auto loans), revolving accounts (including credit cards) and other loans.

For each account, you may also see the credit limit, the original loan amount (sometimes referred to as the maximum limit) and the debt-to-credit ratio (or how much you owe compared with what your maximum available credit limit is for the account). If one of your credit reports contains a summary, you may see a “total open accounts” section that lists all of your open credit accounts, the total amount you owe, the total debt-to-credit ratio, the total monthly payment amount, and the number of accounts with a balance.

In addition, your credit reports may list the dates the accounts were opened. They may also include the age for each type of credit account, the average account age, and the oldest and newest credit accounts you own. Account age is an important piece of information on your credit reports because a higher average account age generally demonstrates stability to a prospective lender or creditor.

3. Inquiries

Your credit reports include a list of those companies that have accessed your credit history. Typically, inquiries are divided into two different categories, “soft” and “hard inquiries.”

Soft inquiries do not impact your credit scores, and include general maintenance activity such as when you pull a copy of your own credit history or when your current lenders and creditors conduct periodic reviews of your accounts. A soft inquiry may also occur when a company extends you firm offer of credit or insurance, known as a prescreened offer.

Hard inquiries generally occur when you apply for credit or certain services.  Hard inquiries generally do impact credit scores, and multiple inquiries within a short period of time may have a greater impact on credit scores.  Hard inquiries remain on your Equifax credit report for two years, although their impact typically lessens over time.

4. Potentially Negative Information

Your credit reports may include a section on potentially negative information that includes information from public records, late payments (which may be listed as “negative accounts”) or collections.

Public Records may include information on select public filings such as a bankruptcy. It may also include related details, such as the date and type of bankruptcy filed. A bankruptcy will remain on your credit reports for either seven or 10 years depending on the chapter of bankruptcy filed.

Your credit reports also contain your payment history which can include negative accounts. Accounts that are not paid as agreed generally remain on your credit history for seven years from the date the account first became past due. A late payment may remain on your credit file for up to seven years from the date of the late payment.

If you don’t pay your bills on time, an account may be turned over to a collection agency. Once you have an account in collections, it may be reported as “a collection account” on your credit reports and can remain on your report for up to seven years from the date of the first missed payment with the original lender or creditor.

Are Credit Scores Part of Credit Reports?

Generally, credit reports do not include credit scores. Many financial institutions, and other companies, such as credit monitoring companies and the nationwide credit bureaus, either provide credit scores for free or as part of a paid service.

Where Can I Obtain a Copy of My Credit Reports?

It’s a good idea to check your credit reports regularly to ensure they’re accurate and complete, and to make sure you recognize all of the accounts and activity listed on the report. This can help you ensure your credit reports accurately reflect your credit history, and help you detect signs of identity theft if you spot unrecognized activity.

You are entitled to receive one free copy of your credit report per nationwide credit reporting agency, per year, from annualcreditreport.com.

You can also create a myEquifax account (at www.myEquifax.com) to receive six free Equifax credit reports every 12 months. Or you can click “Get my free credit score” on your myEquifax dashboard to enroll in Equifax Core Credit™ for a free monthly Equifax credit report and a free monthly VantageScore 3.0 credit score, based on Equifax data. A VantageScore is one of many types of credit scores.

This article is part of our Credit 101 series. Read more on Equifax.com:

What is a Credit Report and What Does it Include?

Reviewing Your Equifax Credit Report: A Checklist

Read more in our Credit 101 series here:

Credit 101: How Are Credit Scores Calculated?