Here is the most basic, 101-level financial advice anyone will ever give you: Know your credit score. If only it were that easy.
For starters, you don't have just one credit score. You have dozens and dozens, all from different credit agencies that have a treasure trove of different scoring models they can use. Since your credit score is a snapshot of your creditworthiness taken at the time you request it, if your financial picture changes a week later, your score will change along with it.
So where should you check up on your score? Let's start at the beginning.
There are three major credit reporting agencies: Transunion, Equifax and Experian. While each of these agencies can give you its own credit score, the one most lenders use is called the FICO score, named for the FICO company that distributes it. FICO takes information from those credit reporting agencies and delivers you three scores from each of them, graded on a scale of 300-850. Generally, you want to have a score of 720 or higher to be considered safe by lenders. You can grab two of those scores at myfico.com for a small fee (or grab your Equifax FICO score by signing up for a free trial period – just don't forget to cancel it before your card is charged).
There's also the VantageScore, another system that all three credit bureaus contribute to. This is newer than FICO, so fewer lending agencies use it. It's calculated slightly differently, and it ranges from 501-990. Again, you'll have to pay $8 or so to see it.
You can find your credit score for free – but generally, those scores will not be the same scores used by lenders. Sometimes you'll see these called "FAKO" scores. But that doesn't mean they're useless. Web sites like Credit Karma, Credit Sesame and Quizzle may not give you a FICO score, but their scores will still give you a picture of where your credit stands and how to improve it. It's all relative.
Besides, even the official FICO score you can see might not be the one that lenders look at. A study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in September found that credit bureaus use different models to calculate the scores they sell consumers and the scores they sell lenders. The same study determined that different scoring models will put you in the same relative category 73 percent to 80 percent of the time, so it's not the end of the world if your scores vary.
Here's the bottom line: Keep an eye on your scores, but don't take any of them as absolute gospel. If you plan to apply for a big loan soon, then shell out the cash for FICO scores. In between, monitor your score on a free site or two, or request an official score through your bank.
MEGAN CREPEAU IS A REDEYE COLUMNIST AND A 20-SOMETHING GRADUATE NAVIGATING THIS DUMPY JOB MARKET LIKE THE REST OF US.