Checking your credit score can be scary. It’s such an important factor in your financial well-being, but always hiding behind a curtain just waiting to surprise you. Sometimes, it can be a nasty surprise.

There are so many factors that go into determining a credit score, it’s easy to let your number dip while still maintaining ostensibly responsible financial habits. Sometimes, a negative mark just slips through the cracks.

But whether you’ve momentarily slipped up or endured a long and tortured relationship with your credit, the work needed to rebuild remains the same. Here are some of the best and easiest methods to improve your credit score, along with the information you need to get started.

How to look up your credit score

Before you can fix your credit score, you have to figure out what it is. You can get free access to your score through Credit Karma and Credit Sesame. Some banks and credit cards like Chase and Capital One also provide free scores to their customers. Mint also recently unveiled a credit score feature to customers.

There are multiple credit scores, including FICO and Vantage. Each score has a different rating system based on the type of loan you’re getting. For example, a FICO mortgage score is calculated differently than a FICO auto loan score. There are three credit bureaus where you can view your score: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.

Stop applying for new credit

Your credit score reflects the average age of all your lines of credit. The older your age, the higher your credit score will be. Lenders like to see someone who’s had a steady line of credit for several years, preferably five years or more.

Every time you open a new form of credit, like a credit card or auto loan, you decrease the average age of each account. To increase your score, put a temporary hiatus on opening new forms of credit. Even canceling newer cards can help you improve your credit history.

Plus, every time you apply for a new form of credit, the potential lender will pull your credit report to verify information. This might be a soft pull, which won’t go on your credit history, but it can also be a hard pull, which will negatively affect your credit score. Hard inquiries fall off your credit report after two years, but only affect your score for the first six to 12 months.

Make payments on-time

Over 30% of your credit score is determined by whether or not you make your payments on time every month. Lenders get nervous giving out money to customers when it seems like they’re having trouble paying that money back.

If you have trouble remembering due dates, sign up for automatic payments. You’ll never be late again, and you won’t wake up in the middle of the night wondering if you made your AmEx payment or not.

“The easiest way to improve your credit score is making consistent, on-time payments over a long period of time,” said Eric Rosenberg of Personal Profitability. “It is not a quick fix, but all you have to do is turn on autopay and you’ll never make a late payment.”

You can also set up calendar reminders in your phone which will prompt you to pay your bill. The budgeting software Mint also has a bill pay reminder for customers who link their accounts.

Delete marks

Some negative marks, like bankruptcy or defaults, come off automatically after a certain period of time. But sometimes you have to call to ask the lender to remove it from your credit report. Deleting these marks can really improve your credit score quickly.

Often, you can pay to delete. For example, if you have a debt that’s been sent to collections, you can negotiate with the lender to pay it off in full, in exchange for the lender not reporting the collections to your credit report. Your score will increase and you’ll get some peace of mind to boot. Make sure to get this agreement in writing so the lender doesn’t renege after they’ve gotten your money.

Dispute mistakes

Unfortunately, mistakes on a credit report aren’t as rare as you might think. A 2012 study from the Federal Trade Commission found that 20% of consumers had an error on their credit report.

Go through your credit report for any signs of mistakes, such as loans you don’t recognize or late payments. Call the servicer or loan provider and ask for documentation. If they made a mistake, ask them to remove it. Make sure to check every report from all three credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, since not all lenders report to every credit bureau.

Once the lender has agreed to remove the mistake, wait a few weeks before checking your report again. Try to keep a written account of all correspondence with the lender so you’re not left hanging if you suddenly get assigned to a new representative.

Use less of your credit

Credit utilization is a huge factor in how credit bureaus determine scores. Credit utilization is how much available credit you’re using. If you have access to $15,000 of credit and are using $5,000 of it, your utilization percentage is 33%.

In general, credit bureaus like to see a utilization percentage of 30% or less. This might seem like a weird standard. If a credit card company gives you a card with a $5,000 limit, why does it matter if you use $4,000 of it?

Many lenders worry that utilizing a large portion of your credit means that you can’t afford to pay off the balance, or that you’re relying on credit to finance your lifestyle.

You can get your credit utilization percentage down in two ways: pay down your balance or increase your credit limit. Call your credit card company first and ask if they can up your credit limit. They might decline, but it never hurts to ask.

Not only should you calculate your total utilization percentage, you should also figure out what that percentage is for every credit card you have. If you have 10% utilization on most of your cards and 90% utilization on one, that will still reflect poorly on you. Distribute the balance to other cards so your individual utilization percentage on each card is less than 30%.

“My favorite method to boost my credit score is to pay off as many cards as possible before the statement is generated,” said Lee Huffman of Bald Thoughts. “By paying them off in this manner, the credit card will report a $0 balance to the credit bureaus.  This will improve your score because utilization (how much of your credit line are you using) is a big factor in credit scores.  I do this all the time when I’m preparing for a mortgage application.”

Use a secured card

If your credit is really in the dumps, you may have trouble getting approved for a regular credit card. That’s where a secured credit card can come in handy.

A secured card works almost exactly like a prepaid card, except using one actually factors into your credit score. You provide your own credit limit at the beginning of a payment period, and aren’t allowed to go over that amount. It’s essentially foolproof – you’re only allowed to spend money you already have, and every dollar spent goes towards improving your score.

Like regular credit cards, there are a variety of secured credit cards. Some charge annual fees, so try to find one that’s free or low-cost. There are even a few that only require you to put down a portion of the credit limit. A handful of cards also offer cash-back rewards for cardholders, typically a reward you only find in traditional credit cards.

Once your credit improves enough, many card issuers will contact you about upgrading to a standard card. For some credit card issuers, this only takes a few months of on-time payments. Make sure to only take this step if you’re confident in your ability to be responsible going forward, as you don’t want to wind up right back in the same situation by using your new card recklessly.

Be patient

When your finances are suffering because of a low credit score, taking it easy is the last thing you want to do. But as nice as it would be the waltz into the nearest credit bureau and talk your way to a shiny new credit score, that just isn’t going to happen. If you want your score to improve, you need to wait.

Also, steer clear of credit repair services. Many of these companies can’t do anything for you that you can’t do alone, except they’ll try to charge you for it.

If you’re following the above guidelines and generally being responsible with your credit, your score will improve. It’s just going to take some time. Don’t waste your energy stressing about the score once you’re on the right path, and don’t fall into the trap of burning up your three free credit score reports in the first few months.

The bottom line

When your finances are suffering because of a low credit score, taking it easy is the last thing you want to do. But as nice as it would be the waltz into the nearest credit bureau and talk your way to a shiny new credit score, that just isn’t going to happen. If you want your score to improve, you need to wait.

Also, steer clear of credit repair services. Many of these companies can’t do anything for you that you can’t do alone, except they’ll try to charge you for it.

If you’re following the above guidelines and generally being responsible with your credit, your score will improve. It’s just going to take some time. Don’t waste your energy stressing about the score once you’re on the right path, and don’t fall into the trap of burning up your three free credit score reports in the first few months.