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What is a Credit Score and Why is it Important?

Age may just be a number, but a credit score can make or break your financial future.

What exactly is a credit score? The easy answer is that it's a number assigned to an individual consumer based on their credit history. Failure to pay back debt in a timely fashion or, worse yet, defaulting on a loan or payment entirely is likely to result in a very low credit score. A stellar credit report, which includes a consistent history of on-time bill payment and loan repayment, will result in a high credit score.

The more complex answer to the question of what is a credit score is that it is a three-digit number assigned through a mathematical algorithm using information pulled from a consumer's credit report. The numbers range from a low of 300 to a high of 850. The number is supposed to predict the risk associated with doing business with that particular individual. A credit score higher than 700 is a good indicator that the consumer has an excellent credit history and is in the low-risk category for defaulting on a loan or payment.

Creditors with scores in the 500 and 600 ranges are considered medium risk and may have a history of failure to pay or consistently paying late. Scores below 500 indicate a high-risk consumer. These are the folks who may find they are having trouble obtaining loans, utility services or even employment due to their credit scores. They have consistent histories of failure to pay or of paying late, making them undesirable with which to do business.

Every credit score consists of five criteria: payment history, amounts owed, length of credit history, new credit and types of credit used. Payment history counts for 35 percent of the total score, and includes things like account payment information. The balance owed to creditors consists of 30 percent of your score, and is a reflection of how much is owed on every open account a consumer holds. The length of the credit history is 15 percent of the total score. This covers how long ago accounts were opened and how often they register activity by the consumer. The types of accounts the consumer holds counts for 10 percent of the total score and new credit consists of the remaining 10 percent.

A consumer's age, sex, race, address, marital status, income level or employment status have no effect on the credit score. However, there is one credit-score model that dominates the industry - FICO. Over 90 percent of all U.S. financial institutions use FICO scores when determining credit worthiness.

Consumers who wish to review their credit score can do so by requesting it from any of the three credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) or from www.myfico.com. While federal law requires that all consumers receive one free credit report annually, that provision does not cover the receipt of a credit score. Credit scores cost $20 and up, depending on the agency used to obtain them.

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