Afraid woman
Afraid woman

If you’ve gone a long time without checking your credit (or if you’re checking it for the very first time), you may be in for a surprise. A whopping 56% of Americans had bad credit scores, per a survey from early 2015. Fortunately, you don’t necessarily need to panic if your score is below 600 (the generally accepted definition of subprime.) Instead, you can follow these simple steps in order to unearth what’s going on — and to get your score to ultimately improve.

1. Do a Thorough Credit Check

There are a lot of reasons why a person can have bad credit. You could, for instance, have collection accounts you don’t know about it in collections, an unpaid store credit card account that you forgot opening or, worse, someone could have opened fraudulent accounts in your name. To get a better idea of what might be behind your low numbers, you may want to pull all three of your credit reports for review. (Not all lenders report to all three majorcredit reporting agencies, so doing could help you see the full scope of the problem.) You can pull your credit reports for free each year on

2. Check Your Reports for Errors

Once you have your credit reports in hand, you will want to check them thoroughly for errors that could be holding your scores back. These errors could simply be a clerical or creditor issue or deeper identity theft may be occurring. You can find out more about why errors appear on your credit report and how to go about disputing them on

3. Identify Your Areas of Opportunity

Most credit scoring models generally consider five major factors when computing your score:

  • Payment History
  • Amounts Currently Owed
  • Length of Credit History
  • Types of Credit
  • Searches for New Credit

If your poor credit score is being driven by your own data (or behaviors), it’s a good idea to identify what specifically may be holding your score back. Doing so could potentially help you also identify some new habits that might help you improve your score over time. For instance, if you’re continuously missing loan payments, you may want to use set up auto-pay on your credit cards or other loans. (Just be sure to still monitor statements regularly for fraud or new fees.) If you’re always maxing out your credit cards, you may want to try paying your bills more than once a month to keep balances from growing too high. You can see how certain factors are affecting your credit scores by viewing your free credit report summary each month on

4. Focus on the Basics

In addition to addressing negative items directly, you can generally build good credit in the long-term by making all of your payments on time, keeping the amount of debt you owe below at least 30% and ideally 10% of your total available credit and adding new credit lines organically as your wallet (and score) can handle it. Consumers with bad credit may also want to consider applying for a secured credit card or credit builder loan to begin demonstrating these habits and rebuild their credit over time.

This article originally appeared on and was written by Jeanine Skowronski.