You'll never guess who's checking out your credit score

When it comes to your credit score, you might think only banks look at it when you apply for a loan. But it turns out that a lot of businesses are actually checking it out. So how can you protect yourself?

Your credit score is basically your financial fingerprint boiled down to one number between about 300 and 850. A good one is around 760 and above. A bad one is in the low 600s.

"If you have a low credit score, you are going to pay more everywhere you go," personal finance expert Lauren Lyons Cole said.

It's that three digit number, she says, that companies are now checking out.

Cell phone carriers will check your credit score to see what kind of deal they'll give you.

"You may not even be able to get a cell phone contract through one of the bigger providers," Cole said. "Which will force you to pay for your phone up front."

And you may only qualify for a more expensive monthly plan instead of an annual one.

Next, auto insurance.

"Your credit score is the greatest indicator of what your auto insurance rate will be," Cole said.

Cole says insurance companies draw a link between financial and personal responsibility.

"You're going to pay a penalty for having a low credit score," she said.

A low score could even cost you a place to live. Landlords love to look at your numbers, and the tenant with the highest score wins.

"Think about it," Cole said. "Your rent is the most expensive thing you pay on a monthly basis. They want to make sure they get their money."

Once you move into a house or an apartment, utility companies including gas, water and electric pull up your credit score too.

Finally, a low credit score can even torpedo your social life. One dating website matches potential mates based on their fiscal traits, not their physical ones.

So the big takeaway to upping your score is to make payments on time, and paying at least the minimum is critical. Also spend less than 30 percent of your available credit, as credit utilization is a big factor in your score. And finally, check your credit report. One in 5 people report errors, so get those corrected and watch your score rise.

CORRECTION: In our original story, we incorrectly stated that employers check your credit score. That is not true. We should've said employers check your credit REPORT, not the score. And that's why it's important that you check your report a minimum of once a year. One report per year is free. (www.annualcreditreport.com) Thanks to Greg Fisher at creditscoring.com who called in from Ohio to set us straight.

TheStreet.com's personal finance editor, Ross Kenneth Urken, participated in a live web chat Tuesday, answering your questions on a range of topics. CLICK HERE to read the transcript.

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