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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What Your Credit Score Actually Means


Tom Murphy owns and manages rental properties in one of the Top 25 markets in the United States. His rents range from $750 to $1200 a month, but every tenant must pass the same test before they get a key to the front door.

They've got to have a good credit score,” Tom told Debt.org. “I want to know if they have demonstrated responsible financial behavior.

“It’s nice if everybody says he’s a good guy and takes his family to church every Sunday and all that … but what I really want to know is whether he has a history of paying on time.”

Bankers, insurance companies, car dealers, utilities and plenty of other businesses would say “Amen” to that!

Are You a Good Financial Risk?

What a credit score really indicates is whether you are deemed a good financial risk, based on your history of paying bills. If you’re trying to get a home loan, a car, insurance for that home or car or just get the electricity turned on, the most influential factor in making it happen, is probably going to be your credit score.

“If you’re irresponsible about paying your bills, the general feeling is you’re likely going to be irresponsible about how you drive or when you pay your mortgage,” said Dave Viola, an insurance broker in the same city. “You still might get some insurance with a bad credit score, but you’d be flabbergasted by the rates.”

Representatives from banks, insurance companies, car dealers and property owners confirmed that credit scores do affect the terms and conditions of any agreement they make with a consumer. In most cases, the higher the credit score, the lower the monthly payment. And if the consumer’s credit score is at the low end of the scale, some companies won’t do business with them at all.

Credit Score Range

The lines of demarcation in credit scores, also known as FICO scores, range from 300 at the low end to 850 at the high end. The median FICO score is 723, meaning half of people with credit scores are below 723 and half are above.

The FICO scores are compiled by three companies:  TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. Each one claims to use a different formula in arriving at their score, but generally speaking it’s computed like this: Payment history (35%); amount owed and credit available (30%); credit history (15%); new credit (10%); and type of credit used (10%).

It would be wise to note what doesn’t affect your credit score, namely how much money you make, age, sex, race, religion, marital status and where you live. 

The problem for most people is that they don’t know their credit score and haven’t reviewed their credit report. Consumers are entitled to a free credit report every 12 months, one each from TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. The free report is available at annualcreditreport.com, but credit scores are not included. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates that only 20 percent of consumers request their free credit report.

If you receive your credit report and aren’t satisfied with what you see, there are some steps you can take to improve your credit history:

  • Check the accuracy of the report. Incorrect information is the leading cause of consumer complaints about their credit history. Remember, all three companies that issue reports use different data, so get a free one from each company and check all data.
  • Pay your bills on time. This is especially significant with credit cards and bank loans. Set up a bill payment reminder system, if necessary.
  • Pay down the balances on credit cards.
  • Do not open a new credit card account unless absolutely necessary.
  • Maintain a good mix of credit (mortgage, car loan and credit cards).


Having a good credit score can mean hundreds or even thousands of dollars’ worth of difference in what you pay for a loan or insurance coverage. You can go online to see examples of the relationship between your credit score and the interest rate charged on your loan. In today’s tight lending market, consumers need to be at the high end of the spectrum to receive favorable treatment for loans or insurance.

Bill Fay writes and blogs for Debt.org. He is an award-winning writer with more than two decades of experience in the areas of news, sports and public policy.