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Do you know your number?
Nearly one in five credit card users is still under the false assumption that checking their credit score could drag it down, according to a recent online survey of more than 2,000 credit card holders conducted in June by Discover, a direct banking and payment services company.
This was surprising, said Jeff Bielski, vice president of marketing at Discover. The study showed that the majority of respondents were more aware of their credit score this year than last. However, the frequency with which a credit score can — or should — be checked may not be clear to users. While over 80 percent had checked their score in the last year, only 12 percent reported checking on a monthly basis.
"People tend to overthink their credit in general," said Matt Schulz, chief industry analyst for comparecards.com.
"Ultimately, it's not as complicated as people think. It's important for people to understand that if they check their own credit score, they won't hurt it," Schulz said.
Much of the mix-up around credit scores is by design, said Kimberly Palmer, a personal finance expert for NerdWallet, a personal finance website and app.
"We don't know the formulas for calculating credit scores," Palmer said. "That adds up to consumer confusion."
The only kind of inquiry that will have a negative, but temporary impact on your score is a "hard pull," Palmer said. This is when you apply for a new loan, a mortgage or credit card and the lender checks your full credit history to assess if you will be able to pay back the loan.
You want to limit the number of hard inquiries you have per year to minimize any potential long-term affect on your score, Palmer said.
"Generally the impact of a hard pull is pretty small and pretty short," said Schulz from CompareCards.com. "It's not something that anybody should be particularly worried about in most cases."
Tracking your score, or checking it individually, will not have a negative impact, said Palmer. A "soft pull" will not hurt your credit score either.
A soft pull is not a full evaluation of your credit following an application. It's done by lenders to show you an estimate of the rate you could get before you apply, said Zack Friedman, founder and CEO of Make Lemonade, a free personal finance site that shows such previews. Checking your own score is a soft pull as well.
If you have no idea what your credit score is, it will make it harder for you to make smart decisions when it does come time to apply for a student loan, mortgage or new credit card.
"You could find yourself applying for a card thinking you'll get a 15 percent rate and get a 25 percent rate," said Schulz. "That's an unpleasant surprise."
Because credit scores and soft pulls are readily available online, it has never been easier for consumers to find out where they stand, Schulz said. It's the first step towards bettering overall financial health.
For those looking to improve their credit score, it's important to remember that the score is basically a number grade for your credit worthiness.
Your credit report, a detailed history of your debts, is a very important tool, Schulz said.
"It can be intimidating and that can keep people from diving in," said Schulz, "But it's really important that you take the time at least once a year to make sure that everything is ok."
1. Pull reports from all three major credit reporting companies
The three big firms that generate reports for consumers are Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. While the reports they produce are similar, they are not exactly the same, said Palmer from NerdWallet. Make sure that you pull reports from all three at least once a year.
You are allowed one free report from each of the three companies each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. To get your report, you can order from annualcreditreport.com, a website authorized by Federal law.
2. Check for mistakes
Mistakes on credit reports can range from a misspelled name, to having a loan or credit card that you did not open listed on your report. If there is a mistake, it could lower your score. Resolving the error will be the quickest way to improve your score, Schulz said.
Fixing an error is not always a simple process. It should first start with filing a dispute letter to the credit reporting company, according to the FTC. The credit reporting company will investigate and give you the results in writing. Then, you should also file a dispute with the creditor giving the incorrect information. Otherwise, they may report incorrect information again.
"Building good credit is hard enough, so you want to make sure you're not getting penalized for mistakes you didn't make," said Schulz.
3. Look for fraud
If someone has opened an account fraudulently in your name, one of the only ways you're going to find out about it is on your credit report, Schulz said. Checking it regularly will help you detect and resolve issues before they have an adverse effect on your financial health.
4. Take stock of debt
Your credit report may be one of the only places where you see all your debts and accounts in one document, Schulz said. It "can give you a different perspective on your own financial situation," said Schulz, and help you better understand how you might want to tackle the debt you're facing.
Your credit score is "such an influential number in your life, it's something you should pay attention to," said Palmer from NerdWallet.
Starting a good financial habit of checking your score regularly when you get your first credit card will set you up for success long term.
The youngest respondents of the Discover survey, aged 18 to 21, were the most likely to check their scores often.
"It's a positive sign," Bielski said. "The people who check their scores regularly show the most improvement in their score."
If your credit score is not where you'd like it to be, and you have an important purchase such as a house in your future, remember that it can be improved over time, Palmer said.
"It might not happen tomorrow but if you pay your accounts on time every month, you will see a steady improvement," Palmer said. "It is something you have control over."
Having good credit is basically about paying your bills in full on time every month, keeping your bills as low as possible and not taking on too much credit too fast, said Schulz.
"It's a marathon, not a sprint," Schulz said.