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If you’ve never checked your credit score before, you may be in for quite a surprise when you go to apply for a loan or mortgage and get denied. Some people can coast through life not knowing what their numbers are and be better for it, but for the rest of us, it’s highly advantageous to know where your credit score lies so you can take necessary action in repairing it.

Why Your Credit Score Matters

Your credit score is a deciding factor for many things in life, such as mortgage rates, credit cards and loans. Lenders and banks use your credit score to determine whether you are financially responsible enough to borrow money. It’s a pretty good indicator of how you spend your income, as having a bad score often reveals that a person is delinquent on payments or has taken out too many credit cards. When you have a great score, you’re more likely to be approved for loans and credit cards with reasonable interest rates.

How to Check Your Score

You’ll need to use a credit reporting company that allows you to check your score for free. You should never have to spend money just to check your credit report. Any company that requires you to pay an initial fee to create an account is a scam and needs to be avoided. You can use any of the three credit reporting bureaus to check your score: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You may also choose to use commercial companies like Credit Karma or Credit Sesame.

How Often to Check

According to FICO, you’re able to check your score once every year without it affecting your numbers. If you want to check it more often than every 12 months, you’ll take a hit of five points per check. Sites like Credit Karma have an over-usage protection policy, which means that you can check your score as often as you like without it going down. Remember that just because you use Credit Karma and check your report daily, it doesn’t mean anything will change. One of the reasons FICO has put the once-a-year system in place is because most scores don’t change monthly, but annually.

Benefits to Keeping an Eye on Your Score

Keeping an eye on your credit score is essential for catching errors and mistakes before they affect your ability to apply for borrowed money. For example, you might pay a bill and close out your account only to find that it’s showing as delinquent on your credit report. When you check your report regularly, this alerts you of these mistakes and you can dispute them before they have any real effect on your score. Other items will have to naturally drop off of your report over time, such as a bankruptcy or closed credit card account.

Disputing Errors and Mistakes

You have the legal right to dispute anything on your credit report that you feel shouldn’t be there. You can take action with any of the three reporting bureaus or the company that filed the error in the first place. It might take months to rectify the issue, but it could increase your score by hundreds of points if it was a significant error. You’ll need to present data and paperwork backing up your claim that the issue is a mistake and needs to be removed. Without the proper documentation, your case could easily be denied.

Repairing Your Credit Score

Your credit score can take years to repair and get from a bad number to a good one. While it’s almost unattainable to go for the perfect FICO score of 850, you should still do everything in your power to get a poor or fair score into the good or excellent range. You can improve credit by paying all bills on time, making minimum payments on credit cards and avoiding delinquencies. If your debts are overwhelming or you owe more than you make, consider debt settlement and consolidation to lower those payments further. Be wary of companies claiming that they can raise your score in just a few weeks, as these are often found to be scams.