First off, I am sorry for getting the freecreditreport.com jingle stuck in your head. It's the worst, I know. But the stupid song has a point. Your credit score is hugely important, and -- this is a wild guess -- you're not paying enough attention to it.
Big mistake. That little number is a snapshot of your entire credit history, and it will hang over every financial decision you make like a big, depressing, loan-application-denying cloud. The good news: You have some control over it. Here are five ways to improve your credit score, for those of us who don't plan to win the lottery or marry rich:
1. Know your score. You can check it, for a small fee, three times a year at annualcreditreport.com. Don't go anywhere else for this -- shockingly, most other "free credit score" sites aren't exactly free and aren't exactly above board.
2. Pay your bills on time, every time. Most of your credit score boils down to plain old making payments on time. A couple of late payments won't kill you, but if you make it a habit, that will be really obvious, really quick.
3. Make sure you have a good mix of credit. Ideally, you have a nice, diverse financial record: a few different credit cards, bank accounts, loans, etc. But don't go opening new accounts just for the heck of it -- applying for lots of credit in a short amount of time will impact your score negatively.
4. Don't max anything out. Having lots of cards and making regular payments is great, but credit bureaus also consider the ratio of how much you've spent in relation to your credit limit. The lower your balance and the higher your limit, the better. Here's an easy fix: Ask for a higher limit on a credit card, then spend like your limit were still lower. It keeps that ratio down without costing you much money.
5. DON'T close any credit accounts. In general, the longer your credit history, the better your score. Canceling a card won't erase the deadbeat history you have with that card, but it will make your credit history look shorter. If you're too tempted by easy credit, don't kill your account -- just cut up your card and leave it alone.
Megan Crepeau is a RedEye special contributor. She's a twenty-something college grad navigating this dumpy job market just like the rest of us.