Keeping an eye on your credit score and your credit report is easy these days. By federal law, every consumer is entitled to one free credit report from each of the credit reporting agencies annually. These annual free credit reports don't give you your credit score, though. And what if you want to view your report each month to make sure there is no identity fraud or other problem? MyBankrate.com provides free credit scores and credit reports. Just sign up to check them every month.
On the credit report, you'll see the status of accounts open in your name. Accounts closed in good standing continue to be listed on your report for 10 years. Charged-off accounts or accounts in collections will stay on your report for seven years. If there are problems with accounts that you don't agree with, you will want to address those so that you can keep your credit report clean and improve your credit score.
Credit card companies and banks that lend money for mortgages and car loans use your credit score to decide whether to lend you money and at what interest rate. With a mediocre credit score instead of a good credit score, you could be paying hundreds of dollars more a month on a loan.
So where does this credit score come from? It's derived from your credit report. Businesses that lend you money report your financial behavior to one or all of the credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian or TransUnion – each month. They note if you've paid on time, canceled an account, or paid of the loan, for example.
This information is translated into a three-digit number, which is your credit score. A VantageScore ranges between 300 (poor) and 850 (excellent).
There are six factors that contribute to your credit score:
- Payment history
- Age and type of credit
- Percent of credit limit used
- Total balances to debt ratio
- Credit behavior
- Available credit
How to dispute a credit report mistake
Mistakes on credit reports can range from an address where you've never lived to an account you have paid off but is listed as active, for example. You can dispute information on your credit report by contacting the creditor or the credit reporting agency. A phone call to the creditor pointing out the error may fix the mistake. If not, get your proof ready and write a letter to the creditor and the credit reporting agency explaining the error and request that they correct it.
You should dispute errors with one of the credit reporting agencies in order to get the full benefit of the protections offered by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, or FCRA. The FCRA requires that disputes be sent to the business that provided the erroneous information and that the information be corrected or deleted from your credit report within 30 days.
Besides tidying up your credit report, adopting these good money management habits will help boost your credit score.
- Pay on time. Even if you can't pay your credit card balance in full, paying the required minimum payment on time will help your credit score.
- Keep your balances low. Using less than 30 percent of your credit limit will help inch up the score.
- Only ask for what you need. If you're applying for a lot of credit at the same time, you could look desperate for money, which is a red flag to lenders.
- Nothing will improve your credit score faster than paying down debt.