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When you care for a sick child, you check his/her temperature more often than you do when she/she is healthy. And you use an actual thermometer instead of touching a forehead or neck to get a rough idea of whether there’s a fever.

But what if the patient is your credit? It’s not as if you can check your credit a few hours after administering “medicine” to be sure the medicine has the desired effect. So, how do you know what’s prudent and what’s obsessive as far as checking your free credit report?

Well, federal law entitles you to get your free consumer credit reports from each of the major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, once a year. So, it’s prudent to check them no more than once a year, unless you have a specific reason for reviewing it more often, such as suspected identity theft. It’s also prudent to check each one of these three credit reports carefully every year to monitor your credit standing and find and address any errors and mistakes there may be.

Your credit reports include information about you and your payment history. The information is in your credit reports is used to calculate your credit scores. The bureaus don’t share information with each other, and there can be variations across the reports, so you want to look at each of them. If you’re doing this for the first time, request reports from all three bureaus at the same time. After that, some people choose to check the three reports at different intervals — such as one every four months. If you find mistakes, it’s important to dispute them.

How Often to Check Your Credit Scores

Your credit scores are not the same as your credit reports. Your credit reports, however, include your credit scores. Scores are calculated using the data in your credit reports and each bureau will give youa slightly different score.

Credit scores help lenders decide whether to give you credit at what interest rate. It’s a good idea to check your scores at least once a year. However, if you plan to apply for credit, particularly a car loan or mortgage, or if you’re working to build or rebuild your credit, or for one of the reasons described later in this article, check one of scores roughly once a month. This way, you can monitor your standing more closely. If you have a credit card, your provider may include your credit score on your monthly credit card statement. If not, you can get your free credit score from consumer websites, including here on credit.com.

If you’re concerned about your score, you can work to improve your scores. Some monitoring services allow you unlimited access to credit information, so you can theoretically check every day. But that isn’t necessary. Scores frequently fluctuate as information gets updated and checking once a month is enough.

When you do monitor your one of your credit scores, look for larger trends, not small day-to-day changes. Lenders are well aware that scores change from day to day. Small differences are all but meaningless to lenders. A small change can be meaningful only if your score is close to the edge of a credit score range and you might get better terms for a score jumps to the next range.

Checking one of your credit scores once a month gives you a clear view of trends in your credit. Do check the same credit score each time (there are hundreds of different types of credit scores), and don’t stress about small fluctuations. Beyond that, be sure to find you why your credit score changed if the shift is significant.

In addition to planning to pursue a car loan or mortgage, there are other reasons you may want to monitor your one of your credit scores each month, including:

  • If you think you may be the victim of identity theft or have recently had your personal information compromised in a data breach.
  • If you’ve recently divorced.
  • If you’re in looking for a new job; employers sometimes check credit reports as part of the hiring process.

If none of reasons apply to you, it’s still smart to regularly make sure your credit is healthy—if you’ve ever had to buy a new car unexpectedly, you likely already know that. Plus, sometimes the first sign of identity theft is a credit score that has changed without an obvious explanation.

While it’s not essential to check your credit every month, keeping an eye on one credit score each month can be helpful. Think of it as an early-warning system that can reveal a problem before symptoms appear—and when it’s easier to remediate.

How Do I Get My Free Credit Reports?

There are three easy ways you can get your free credit reports from a single source:

  1. Order them online from annualcreditreport.com
  2. Request them by calling Annual Credit Report at 1-877-322-8228
  3. Mail in a request to Annual Credit Report at:

Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281

You can order reports from all three bureaus at once, or you can order your report from each credit bureau separately. For example, instead of getting all three at the same time, you can stagger them and get one from a different bureau every four months. This gives you the opportunity to monitor your credit throughout the year, rather than just a year.

If you need additional copies of your credit reports, you can order them directly from the credit bureaus. They will charge you, but can’t legally charge more than $12 per additional credit report.

You can also get free additional credit reports free if any of the following conditions apply you:

  • You received a letter denying you credit or have experienced another adverse action. However, you must request it within 60 days of the letter of denial.
  • You’ve been a victim of fraud and are afraid there are inaccuracies on your credit reports.
  • You are currently unemployed, and you intend to apply for employment within sixty days following your request for your credit reports.
  • You live in a state that provides free credit reports, including Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont.

If you have any questions or want to know more about your credit reports and credit score, the Federal Trade Commission’s website along with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s website are two helpful sources of information.

Get Your Free Credit Report and Monitor Your Score

As a consumer, take advantage of your free annual credit reports. Check your score at least annually, monthly if the criteria outlined above applies to you. And use you free reports and your scores to monitor your credit, stay on top of any errors, improve your credit, and continue your upward climb to financial health and success in the future.

This article was originally published April 26, 2015, and has been updated by another author.

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