(This article originally appeared on NextAvenue.org)
You’ve heard this advice since you opened your first savings account: a high credit score is the key to financial bliss. As true as that is, there’s more: a high credit rating can also help provide financial stability throughout your life. Fortunately, it’s now easier than ever to protect your credit and keep tabs on your credit reputation, which can come in handy if you’ll want to take out a loan, get a new credit card, apply for a job, purchase car or buy your first home.
It just takes these three steps:
Your FICO score is your financial fingerprint for your bill-paying habits. This creditworthiness shorthand, reduced to a numeral (from 300 to 850, the higher the better), helps lenders determine whether to approve you for loans and credit cards and what interest rate to charge. Employers also use it to learn about job applicants, and homeowners and auto insurers check prospective policyholder credit scores to determine their premiums.
According to the research firm ValuePenguin, the average FICO score in the U.S. is 695. Anything higher than that is above average.
Lately, it’s become pretty painless to monitor your FICO score (or a similar credit score). Many banks and credit card companies provide the number on customers’ monthly statements and online. Discover was one of the first, but others such as Bank of America, Barclaycard, Chase and Citi have followed.
Check to see if your card issuer provides this service.
In addition to keeping an eye on your FICO score, take the necessary steps to ensure you don’t become a victim of identity theft. When someone steals your name, address, Social Security number or other identifiers to make purchases or open credit card accounts, your ability to get credit is at risk.
A few ways to keep identity thieves at bay:
If you do become an identity theft victim, visit the Federal Trade Commission site, IdentityTheft.gov, for help developing a personal recovery plan.
Order a free copy of your credit report at least once a year to check for fraudulent activity.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires the three largest credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to provide you with a free copy every 12 months if you ask. Go to AnnualCreditReport.com — the only government-authorized source for free credit reports — to get yours.
Stan Gornicz is a corporate writer and editor living in Wethersfield, Conn. He is currently working on a memoir about family values. Follow him on Twitter @StanGornicz.