Most financial experts suggest reviewing a copy of your credit report at least once a year. Luckily, doing so is fairly easy thanks to an agreement the federal government has with AnnualCreditReport.com. By signing up through this website, you can get a free copy of your credit report from all three credit reporting agencies — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — once a year.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), checking your credit report is the best way to find actual errors and mistakes. They even note that you could spread your free credit reports from the three agencies throughout the year so you can check for errors every few months — for example, getting your Experian report in May, your Equifax report in August, and your TransUnion report in December.
Get errors fixed immediately
By checking the details on your credit report frequently, you could discover mistakes early and before they do much damage. If you do find a mistake and get it corrected, you could also see your credit score rise at a rapid pace.
But how fast can the needle move? It really depends. Recently, I chatted with someone whose credit score surged 42 points within a month after they discovered incorrect late payments on their credit report. They took the steps outlined by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to dispute the incorrect data, then watched their score bounce back once it was removed. As the FTC notes, credit reporting agencies have 30 days to investigate disputes, which is likely why this person’s score bounced back so fast.
Barry Paperno, a former consumer affairs manager for FICO and founder of the blog SpeakingofCredit.com, says that this scenario — where someone’s score goes up within a matter of weeks — isn’t that surprising.
Your credit score doesn’t have a memory, meaning that each time it’s requested, current information is used to present your score for that day. “So if you remove negative information, it’s as it if never happened,” Paperno said.
Whatever negative information or marks against you don’t exist anymore, so they don’t drag your score down. Paperno also says that, in this particular case, it’s no wonder her score was 42 points lower than it should have been. Since your payment history makes up the biggest chunk of your FICO score at 35 percent, this kind of false reporting can make a bigger impact than other types.
“A late payment can cause your score to plummet,” he said, adding that it depends on how recently it occurred and other information on the credit report.
While disputing information on your credit report is a smart move if something is off, this isn’t a strategy that will work for everyone. You aren’t going to get negative information removed from your report just for asking, says Paperno. If you dispute information that’s actually right, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.
But if information is incorrect, such as a falsely reported late payment or an account that isn’t even yours, take the steps to dispute the information with the credit reporting agency and the creditor. Disputing false information can help your credit score in a huge way.
“Accuracy is important,” he says. Since your credit score is a predictor of future risk, you want to make sure everything included in your credit report is correct. The good, the bad, and the ugly — it should all be in there. Once you start watching your credit report with an eagle eye, however, you will hopefully learn how to get your credit score in the “very good” or “excellent” range and keep it there. (See also: How to Rebuild Your Credit in 8 Simple Steps)
Other ways to improve your credit score in a hurry
What else can you do to increase your credit score in a short amount of time? Paperno says looking at how your FICO score is determined can clue you in to your next steps.
Pay your bills on time
First, pay your bills on time. Paperno says you should be doing this anyway, but that this step can have the greatest impact on your score. Remember that your payment history makes up 35 percent of your FICO score, and you’ll understand just how important this is if you make even one late payment.
“If you can’t do that, then you’re not in a position to raise your score,” said Paperno. “Your goal is to get solvent.”
Pay down balances
Next up, Paperno says you should pay down any credit card balances and debts you have right away. This is especially true if your credit utilization (the amounts you owe in relation to your credit limits) is over 10 percent.
“The ideal credit utilization is between one and 10 percent,” said Paperno. “That’s going to give you the most bang for your buck.” Why? Because your credit utilization ratio makes up another 30 percent of your FICO score.
Don’t open too many new credit cards
Other steps you can take to improve your credit score include refraining from opening too many new accounts, but also maintaining a good mix of different types of credit. Keeping old credit lines open — even if you’re not using them — is also a good move since it can keep your utilization down and increase the average length of your credit history. (See also: 7 Easy Ways to Raise Your Credit Score This Year)