An annual free copy of your credit report is mandated by Federal law. The "official" site is https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action; watch out, there are copy cat sites that may end up costing you money. A good technique is to get one free every 4 months, rotating between the three bureaus.
The three major reporting bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion, and experian) now make more money selling people their "credit scores" and so are more amenable to giving you free credit reports. Check their individual sites.
A nice, truly free, site is creditkarma.com. They will want to upsell you and have a lot of advertising, but you can view your credit reports from at least TransUnion and Equifax for free, and get your "credit score" as well. Note that there are many different credit scores now, besides the original FICO score (and there are permutations of FICO as well). The particular credit score used by a loan agency may be different if you are applying for a mortgage, auto loan, insurance, home rental, etc. Credit Karma will provide credit reports updated pretty much weekly, as I recall. Same with credit scores. I used to pay some cash to FICO to get my credit score years back.
How to improve your credit score and your desirability to lenders? Well, it's all pretty much common sense. There should be a bullet point list somewhere (probably thousands of them on the web; all mostly the same). They'd include:
- Use your credit regularly (not necessarily daily or monthly, but don't use a credit card only for emergencies every other year, that's not a real history of your credit worthiness). Pay your bill on time! I have set up automatic payments for all my regular bills (credit card, utilities, etc). I really don't want to miss a payment due to forgetfulness; there's always a lot of discussion about this point, the pros and cons of on-line bill pay vs. automatic payments. But don't ever miss a payment. It can be the minimum or the full balance, or between.
- Helps to have a variety of types of credit (more difficult for us oldsters), such as credit cards, auto loans, home mortgages, line of credit, etc.
- Don't apply for too much new credit. There are special rules so borrowers won't be penalized by shopping for a home mortgage (or auto loan?) over a short period of time, during which multiple lenders might pull your credit report. Each application for new credit can temporarily drop your credit score slightly, but those rules to account for a single event, like a mortgage, will mitigate this.
- Having "older" accounts is better. So reconsider if you are thinking of closing a credit card that you've had for 30 years. Again, the score dip won't be much and it's temporary (but those dips for missed payments are not so benign!)
- Don't have too many open accounts. They may look askance at your collection of 57 credit cards (there are people who make a hobby of this, opening new card accounts. too much bother for me). Nor too few open accounts; feel free to have 3-4 credit cards, rotate through their usage so they all remain active.
- Don't use too much of your credit line.. If your credit limit is $10,000, try to limit the current balance to 15% or so of that (the percentage may vary, but keep it low). Some people game the system by manually making multiple payments throughout the month. I suppose one motive might be to charge more to get more points, cash back, etc. Again, too much bother for me.
- older people may be especially susceptible to getting into debt over medical bills. Try not to get in this situation.
But always pay those monthly bills on time. Over time this is one of the biggest "plus" factors in having a good credit rating.