Most people don’t realize how important it is to keep tabs on your credit. More than ever, credit monitoring is essential to making sure there’s no sketchy, fraudulent activity associated with your personal info. Everyone should be reviewing their credit reports at the very least once per year. And you can also now monitor your own credit year round for free, forever.
What Does It Mean to “Monitor” Your Credit?
Monitoring your credit basically means taking a look at your credit report to make sure everything looks okay—there are no errors and, more importantly, no fraudulent accounts or activity.
It’s great to check it yourself, and as we’ve pointed out, you’re entitled to a free copy of your report from each of the three major bureaus (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion) every year. You don’t have to check them all at once, either. You can stagger them and check one at a time a few times a year. However, especially in light of this whole recent Equifax fiasco, which has revealed just how vulnerable the system really is, it’s a good idea to stay on top of your credit more frequently.
There are plenty of tools and services that help you monitor your credit for free, for as long as you want. Keep in mind, a free credit monitoring service should never ask you for your credit card to sign up for an account. None of the services mentioned below will ask you for that.
Credit Karma. Credit Karma is one of our favorite free services for monitoring your own credit and keeping your identity safe. They offer weekly credit monitoring, which includes a full report (they’ve partnered with bureaus, so your score won’t get dinged) of activity and balances. You’ll also get real-time notifications for new accounts or any major changes, as well as instructions to help you understand what your credit report actually means.
So what sets Credit Karma apart? Whereas some services give access to your reports from just one bureau, Credit Karma gives you access to two: TransUnion and Equifax. This is a decent perk because you get to see your scores with both bureaus, and while your report is much more important than your score (it’ll actually show you activity), it’s nice to know how your score might vary between two places. To me, this service sets the standard and it is the one to beat, but there are still solid options out there if for some reason you don’t like them.
Credit Sesame. Like Credit Karma, you’ll get access to your credit report and score for free. They’ll also help you understand your report with actionable advice and a breakdown of what different activity means, just like Credit Karma. Again, you’ll get alerts for different types of activity.
One thing Credit Sesame includes on your dashboard that I didn’t see anywhere on Credit Karma is total debt. Seeing all of your debt in one place shows you what you have to deal with. It also makes it easy to check for any major changes to your account. But again, with real-time notifications, you should get an alert if anyone checks your report or opens up a new line of credit, anyway.
Capital One – Credit Wise. Capital One CreditWise® is open to everybody including non-customers. After signing up, you will receive the Vantage Score 3.0 by TransUnion. Capital One will also monitor your credit for free and send email alerts of suspicious activity.
While a few of the other free credit score sites also offer this feature, Capital One has a credit simulator. You can see how not paying a bill (or paying it in full), or apply for a new credit account will affect your score. The simulator can help you plan for when you should apply for your next credit card or loan, or if you should prioritize your debt payments to boost your score first.
Chase – Credit Journey. Chase Bank is also throwing their hat into the free credit score ring with their Credit Journey program. For free, you can access your Vantage Score 3.0 from TransUnion. Your score updates weekly and Chase will also send you email alerts if they suspect any suspicious activity.
Chase Credit Journey can be a good option if you have your eyes set on one of the many rewards credit cards offered by Chase. After checking your score, you might see if you qualify for the Sapphire Preferred flexible travel rewards card all within the same browser tab.
Credit.com After reading this list, you will see that the most common free credit score is provided by TransUnion. That’s all fine and dandy except banks might also use another bureau like Experian. That’s why you might signup for Credit.com too.
Your VantageScore will come from Experian which can help ensure you do not have any reporting errors by cross-checking it with your score provided by TransUnion or Equifax from one of the other free score sites. In addition to seeing your free score, Credit.com also lets you make a credit management plan and receive expert guidance as well.
Discover – Discover Credit Scorecard. Discover is the rare bird that gives you a free FICO score. While you can apply for one of the rewards credit cards, it’s not required. They will offer your score for free even if you have never heard of Discover until now.
If all you want is a credit score and don’t want credit monitoring, identity theft protection, or any other additional perks, Discover can be your best option because it’s a FICO score. The same score they pull can be what the credit card companies, mortgage lender, or auto dealership will be looking at tomorrow.
NerdWallet. NerdWallet partners with TransUnion® to provide your VantageScore® 3.0, based on information in your TransUnion® credit report. Your score and credit report information is updated weekly.
Similar to Capital One, Nerd Wallet has a credit simulator. You can see how not paying a bill (or paying it in full), or apply for a new credit account will affect your score. The simulator can help you plan for when you should apply for your next credit card or loan, or if you should prioritize your debt payments to boost your score first.
AAA Membership. If you’re a AAA member, you can get access to their ProtectMyID® Essential service. It’s pretty basic compared to the other free services out there, but it comes with the following:
- Identity theft insurance to reimburse eligible expenses should you experience identity theft ($10,000 for AAA Premier members)
- Email alerts when key changes occur, or a monthly all-clear if your credit report remains the same
- U.S. based fraud resolution services from a dedicated agent to help you investigate and resolve fraud
- Assistance with canceling and replacing your cards in the event your wallet is lost or stolen
They have a paid service that offers a few more perks, most notably, a “daily internet scan” of free sites to search for unauthorized use of your personal information.
Wallet Hub. Like any of the other services, WalletHub offers free credit scores and reports (from TransUnion) along with information and advice to help you understand and improve your credit. You’ll also get alerts when information on your credit report changes.
The most important factor that sets WalletHub apart is that it monitors your credit daily, 24/7. That’s pretty great because it allows you to take action faster if something fishy happens. According to the site, you don’t have to worry about the impact of 24/7 credit monitoring, either.
….this service was designed specifically so that your credit would not be damaged unnecessarily. In other words, credit monitoring itself poses no threat, and we’ll do our best to tell you about any changes to your credit report which could.
In other words, your score won’t get damaged from them checking your report. What’s more, WalletHub also offers a great visual breakdown of your credit timeline and each acccount on your report.
Which Service Is Best?
Any of these is a good option, but I personally use a combination of a few so I have free credit monitoring coverage across all three credit bureaus. It comes down to two primary considerations of if you want the FICO or Vantage Score and which bureau do you want the score to be retrieved from. If you want to receive a score from all three credit bureaus, you can sign up for more than one service. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt your credit score.
You do have to provide your personal info to these services, but unfortunately, that’s the reality of monitoring your credit, (even if you do it once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com). Make sure the service you use at least uses encryption to keep your data secure, though (the above services all do).
If you have a credit freeze on your TransUnion and Equifax account, you’ll have to temporarily lift it in order to use some of these services. Security freezes seem to block access to credit monitoring services during registration. But once you’re already registered, you can add a security freeze to your reports without affecting your monitoring reports.
Finally, don’t forget to set up account alerts with your current bank and credit card companies, too. Most banks have settings where you can opt-in for alerts and notifications if your balance falls below a certain amount, or if there’s a purchase over a specific amount. Take advantage of these features. It’s not the same as credit monitoring, but it’s one extra way to monitor your financial life.