Your credit score is a critical component of your finances. Those three numbers can be the difference between getting approved or denied for everything from a credit card to a loan to an apartment. They can determine whether or not you pay higher rates for the things you want and they can even be that make or break component toward getting hired for an increasing number of employment opportunities.

The bottom line is that your credit score can affect so many aspects of your life and if you’re among the millions of Americans who have a damaged credit history, then you’re probably wondering how to improve it. The good news is that you have a whole range of options available to help repair and rebuild your credit. There are seven steps in particular that every consumer should take to get that all-important score up where it belongs.

1. Get a Free Copy of Your Report

By law, you are entitled to receive a copy of your credit report from each of the three major leading bureaus. They are Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion, and there is a very good chance that they don’t all match. One report may have more open accounts on it than another, another report may have some incorrect personal information or erroneous items on it. You can’t start fixing the problem if you don’t know what kind of problems you’re dealing with on your credit. So your first step should be getting copies of your report and then reviewing them for errors, inaccuracies, and mistakes. It’s likely you’re going to find at least one or two on them.

2. Fixing Mistakes

Once you review your credit histories with each of the bureaus, identify any mistakes. These can be a misspelled name, an incorrect former alias, misleading address information, or you may have items on there for outstanding balances that have been paid off or credit card debt that just simply is not yours. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but whatever they may be, they are killing your score. So when you identify any inaccuracies you need to contact the reporting bureau with the incorrect item and have it removed. Most of these errors can be removed by opening a case through the bureau’s website, provide all of the information, tell them why you think it’s incorrect, and hit send. It could take anywhere from 48 hours to 30 days for a response with their decision on removing or letting it remain on your report. But the sooner you do this, the quicker your score will start to improve.

3. Paying Down Balances

If you have a couple of open credit card accounts that are maxed out or close to it, start paying those down as quickly as possible. When credit cards report to the bureaus, they’re sending them crucial bits of information that can do serious damage to your score based on your behavior. One of the biggest determining factors to raising or lowering your credit score is something called credit utilization which takes into consideration the amount you’ve spent on your cards relative to their collective credit limits. So if you have a $3,000 limit and you have a balance of $2,500 on that card, your credit utilization ratio is near 83%. That’s not good and it’s hurting your score. Credit experts suggest keeping your ratio at 30%, which means you shouldn’t have a balance of more than $900.

4. Negotiating Debt

Your credit card debt may not be the only thing negatively impacting that credit score. Accounts that have gone into collection are also weighing you down, big time. If you have unpaid accounts with debt collectors calling you night and day, the next time one of them reaches out don’t ignore the call, answer it. Then discuss your options and try to negotiate that debt down to an amount that’s reasonable.

5. Paying Off Your Delinquent Accounts

If you do come to an agreement on a payment account, inquire about getting an official letter from the debt collector telling the bureaus to have the account removed. If you do not and you pay off the balance owed to the debt collector without having a letter explicitly directing the bureaus to erase the item from your record, it will stay there for seven years from the date you paid it off. Do NOT automatically expect the debt collector to have the item removed, they are not bound by law to do it and won’t. You must ask for this to occur. While it remains on your report, the item will be marked as paid or settled but it will also be accessible to anyone who pulls your credit.

6. Signing Up for a New Account

Now that you’ve fixed the errors, paid down the debt, and reduced your balances, you may have no other steps to take in fixing your credit. However, you may realize that after all of the necessary steps being taken, your score disappears. This could be due to the fact that you don’t have any open accounts demonstrating any type of credit use. The delinquencies were the only things holding your score, albeit as low as it is, in place. So you may need to open a new account, like a credit card. If you’ve been using debit cards all of this time, those don’t get reported because they don’t work as credit, those funds come directly from your checking account.

7. Pay On Time

We can’t stress this one enough. Make all your payments on time and each of your accounts will be reported as current and paid. This is the best way to improve your credit score and as long as you keep your credit utilization at the right level and pay your bill in full each month, you’re going see that score rise before long. This goes for all of your bills, not just your credit card. Any account where you have been extended credit privileges will be reported with consistency, pay those off when they are due.