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Credit Advice: Easy to Give, Hard to Follow

Shannon McNay

I have a confession to make. And coming from a personal finance writer, this one’s a biggie.

I don’t usually check my credit report. I know how bad this is! If you told me you never checked your credit report, I’d probably go into full lecture mode convincing you to change your ways. So why don’t I check my own? The same reasons so many others give: because I know that my identity could get stolen but that fear doesn’t drive me to take action; because I pay for a monthly service to alert me when something is opened in my name (more on that later); and, quite simply, I don’t have time.

Reality hit home recently and I suddenly needed to take my own advice. One day I was alerted that my credit rating was low — and you can only imagine the alarms going off in my head. After spending every weekend for seven months searching and applying for apartments in San Francisco, I knew exactly what my credit score was — and low it was not. Although I have debt, I pay on time every month and pay extra as often as possible. So what happened?

Checking My Credit Report

My first thought was that I’d become a victim of credit fraud. After all, my Social Security number is displayed on apartment applications all over the city. I dropped everything I was doing and obtained my free annual credit report to see for myself.  I immediately saw a whole list of things that I didn’t recognize and started to panic — until I was called to another task during my work day. I emailed myself a note to check the report again later, assuming I’d get to it that night.

By now you might think I’d learned my lesson. I failed to check my credit report, was alerted of a potential problem, saw things I didn’t recognize, and then … didn’t check it again until a few weeks later. Yep, even with all the worry I felt about what could have happened, I still couldn’t find time (rather, I didn’t make time) when I got home from work to go through it. Between working long hours, travel, and other general pressures, I simply couldn’t motivate myself. Even writing this now, I can’t believe how much I procrastinated simply because of a busy lifestyle.

[Related Article: Help! Someone Took Out Student Loans in My Name]

When I finally made the time to pull up my credit report, here’s what I learned:

1. It doesn’t take that long to review your credit report. All that procrastination and, when it came time to take action, I was able to obtain and review my credit reports from all three major bureaus in a matter of 30 minutes.

2. No two credit reports look exactly the same. Part of my procrastination came from the simple coincidence of pulling up the least user-friendly credit report first. It took me twice as long to review the first one than the next two. Once I saw the next two, it was super easy.

3. Let the three reports tell a story. The name of the lender you see on the reports won’t always look the same as what you see on your monthly bills — thus the reason for my own initial confusion. After viewing all three reports and putting together the balance information and years opened, I was finally able to put the pieces together.

4. Checking your reports is empowering. In a matter of the 30 minutes it took me to read the reports, I went from feeling dread to relief and fulfillment. I finally saw for myself what was on there and felt good knowing I have nothing to worry about right now.

5. The need to check your credit report is real. Had there actually been errors on my report, this would be the beginning of a long process to rectify the issue and to ensure that my identity was safe. Procrastination won’t protect you from a problem that’s already happened so it’s best to bite the bullet and take action to fix the errors on your credit report.

Moral of the Story

I got incredibly lucky. At the end of all this, it turns out that the alert I received about my credit rating being low was simply a bug on a website that I was using. All is well with my credit rating for now and the things I didn’t recognize on my report were the formal version of my lenders’ names.

So what’s the moral of the story for me? Checking your credit report is an important task that shouldn’t be put off. I am diligent about tracking my spending and staying accountable to my goals, and letting this go could have caused a serious landslide in my financial situation. I allowed myself to feel safe because of the credit monitoring service I signed up for but, in reality, the service isn’t a substitute for obtaining and reading your full credit reports on a regular basis.

I’m now going to take this renewed empowerment to stay on top of my credit reports each quarter. With three free reports each year, you can do this by just obtaining one of them every three months through AnnualCreditReport.com, as well as get your free credit score once a month using Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card.

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