Checking your credit report may seem about as exciting as flossing your teeth, but it's essential to your financial health. The information it contains can affect everything from your employability to your insurability. That information also is used to create your credit score, which affects your access to credit and the interest rates you'll pay.

The Federal Trade Commission has found that more than one in four reports contains errors, so it's important to check your report for accuracy. Here's how to access your report (or reports—three are available to you) and what to look for.

Where To Get Your Free Credit Reports

Annualcreditreport.com is the place to go. Don't go to freecreditreport.com because, ironically, you'll find that your report is not free! That site is run by one of the three main credit bureaus, and it wants to sell you its credit monitoring service. Oh, you'll be offered a "free" credit report for signing up, but it will require your credit card info, and if you don't cancel the monitoring service within seven days, you'll be charged $19.99 per month.

At annualcreditreport.com, you'll be able to request a truly free report from each of the three bureaus: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. By law, you are entitled to one free report from each bureau once a year.

If you're married, both of you should request your reports. Since credit information is tied to a Social Security number, there's no such thing as a joint credit report or score.

One of the more maddening aspects of credit reports is that while your reports are free, your credit scores are not. To obtain your score, go to myfico.com and buy that information from Fair Isaac Corporation. While each bureau uses its own algorithms to create proprietary scores, most lenders use "FICO" scores.

What To Look For

When you get a copy of one of your credit reports, look it over to make sure your personal information is accurate, and especially that you recognize all credit accounts listed. If you see any you don't recognize, that may be a sign of identity theft (this is a primary reason some people like getting one report every four months—it doubles as a low-level identity-theft monitor).

Five factors affect your credit score. It's difficult to gauge the exact impact any one of the five may have on your credit score, or how quickly any changes will show up. Many moving parts are involved in determining your credit score, each working in synch with the others. Your score is ever changing based on all these moving parts.

Nevertheless, you don't have to be completely in the dark. Let's look at the five factors that go into calculating your credit score and what to look for on your reports.

1. Payment History

Your track record of paying creditors on time counts for 35% of your score. Each bureau reports this information differently.

  • With Equifax, the ideal is for the "Status" of each account to be listed as "Pays as Agreed" and for "Date of first Delinquency" to read "N/A."
  • With Experian, look for a "Status" of "Never Late" and the "Payment History" to show "OK."
  • With TransUnion, you want the "Pay Status" to read "Paid or Paying as Agreed" and the "Past Due" and "Late Payments" sections to read "0."

If you see indications of late payments that are in error, contact the specific creditor, plead your case (it'll help to have proof!), and ask the creditor to contact the credit bureau(s) to request a change to your file.