Even if you’re not the most organized person, you should have a plan for building a good credit score. The good news is building credit isn’t complicated — you just need to know a few things to get started.
If you don’t know what’s broken, you’re going to struggle to fix it. If you want to improve your credit score, the first thing you need to do is look at your credit reports. You’re entitled to a free annual copy from each of the three major credit reporting agencies, and your scores will be based on the information in these reports.
Your credit report lists all sorts of information about you, from loans and credit accounts to report inquiries (when a third party requests your report) and collections accounts. It will show how much debt you have, your overall credit limit, the dates you opened accounts and if you’ve paid your bills on time — it’s a lot of information, which can be overwhelming, but everything is labeled pretty clearly.
Once you have your credit reports in hand, look for anything you don’t recognize. If you see an account listed that doesn’t belong to you, it could be a mix-up or a sign that someone is fraudulently using your personal information. Make sure your name is spelled correctly, that your address is right and all your payment history looks accurate. You should dispute anything that is incorrect by following the dispute directions on Experian, Equifax and TransUnion’s websites.
Assuming everything is accurate, look at what may be having a negative impact on your credit standing: Do you have late payments? Do you use a lot of your available credit? Did you apply for a lot of credit cards or loans within a 12-month period? These are all things that could lower your credit score. Your score may also be suffering if the average age of your credit accounts is less than seven years or if you only have one type of credit in your name, as opposed to a mix of loans and credit cards.
Set Goals and Track Progress
Once you’ve identified the issues, the path forward can be pretty simple: If you’re late on making payments, do whatever you can to set a streak of on-time ones. Automatic payments and calendar reminders are really helpful for that. If you notice you’re carrying a lot of debt in comparison to your available credit, try to pay it down and reduce your spending — keeping your credit utilization rate below 30% (or better yet, below 10%), will help raise your score.
The most effective strategy for improving your credit score is to watch it change over time. There are dozens of credit scoring models out there — some are used by lenders and others are educational — but they all give you an idea of where you stand. There are also tools available with a free Credit.com account that allow you to gauge your credit weaknesses in addition to comparing your score from month to month.
You’ll never know which score a lender will use to assess your credit risk ahead of when you apply, so the best thing you can do is pick a score or two that you can access regularly (ideally for free), and compare the same score periodically. Your Credit.com account will show you why your score improved or fell, but you can also get a pretty good idea of that by thinking back on what you’ve done since the last time you’ve checked your score.
Awareness makes a big difference in financial behavior. Watching your score drop if you’re late on a payment or seeing it spike after cutting your debt can be a great source of motivation as you go forward, and figuring it out requires minimal effort on your part, as long as you make a habit of checking your score.
This article originally appeared on Credit.com and is written by Christine DiGangi.