UPDATED: June 10, 2014

Don’t let your less-than-stellar credit score get you down. Instead, check out these 5 crucial steps to raise your score:

1. Monitor your credit. You can’t boost your credit score if you don’t even know what it is, much less why. In order to make improvements, you need to know your credit scores and learn more about your credit history and the accounts that affect it. The top credit monitoring services not only provide you with your 3-bureau credit report and scores for free, but they also monitor your credit daily and alert you of any changes. This will help you get educated about your credit and protect you from identity fraud, which can be detrimental to your score. On top of providing you with your personal credit information, many of these services, like Identity Guard, for example, offer personalized “what-if simulators” that will estimate how your credit scores might improve if you took various actions. Not only that, but they explain how certain items in your credit history have positively or negatively affected your score.

Services we recommend include Identity Guard, which monitors your credit daily, updates your credit score every 3 months and comes with a complimentary subscription to Zone Alarm Internet Security Suite, and FreeScoresAndMore.com, which includes all of the same perks plus updates your report and scores every month. Read full reviews of our top picks for credit report monitoring here.

Want to give it a try? Get your 3-bureau credit scores for free by signing up for a free trial.

2. Fix any errors on your credit report. Once you start looking at your credit reports, there is a possibility that you may find an error. In fact, almost 52 million Americans had errors on their credit reports in 2012, according to the FTC. These errors may be simple office mistakes or worse, identity fraud. No matter what the cause of the error is, it could be lowering your credit score. Credit monitoring services like Identity GuardFreeScoresAndMore.com and TrustedID have helpful resources that can help you file disputes to the credit bureaus, plus they have knowledgable customer support that can help you to boot.

In order to fix any credit report errors, you need to contact the particular credit bureau in which the error was found. To do this, you must first review all three of your credit reports — Equifax, Experian and Transunion. As discussed above, the easiest way to get your credit reports is to sign up for credit monitoring.

If you only wish to look at your credit report to find any errors, you should note that every consumer is entitled to a free credit report each year from annualcreditreport.com. The reason why we recommend signing up for an ongoing credit report monitoring service, however, is because annualcreditreport.com does not provide you with credit scores, it does not help explain your credit scores and because you can only get the report once a year, you will not get the benefit of monitoring, which will help alert you to any changes and in turn, any errors.

3. Minimize your Credit Utilization Ratio. In order to fix your credit score, it is important to know specific variables that affect it. On top of fixing credit report errors and making timely payments on your loans (which I will discuss below), considering your Credit Utilization Ratio is a key element in boosting  your score. The ratio is calculated like this:

A higher credit utilization ratio affects your credit score negatively because it shows that you are using more of your credit limit. In other words, it is good to have a large amount of credit available, but bad to be using a large fraction of it.

To combat a high credit utilization ratio:

– Try not using your loans and/or credit cards to their limit.

– Do not close old credit cards, even if you do not use them. The more credit you have available and not in use, the lower (better) your credit utilization ratio will be

– If you do not have enough available credit to lower your ratio, open a new credit card. Currently, there are a number of cards that offer 0% interest for the first 12 to 18 months, read up on these credit cards here.

Note that if you’re thinking of signing up for a new credit card, make sure to only apply if you think you will be approved. This is because the credit inquiries that result  from applying for a credit card may lower your credit score slightly in the short term; however, if you are approved, the improvement in your credit utilization ratio will more than make up for the initial effect of applying for credit. Want to learn more about signing up? Visit our credit card FAQs page.

4. Stay on top of your balances and payments. If you want to stay on top of your credit score, you need to stay on top of your credit accounts. Not making payments on time lowers your credit score significantly and causes you to pay finance charges. Sign onto your accounts online and make sure you know your balances and payment deadlines, in short — get organized. If you are currently in default on a credit account, it is definitely best to at least pay the minimum amount in order to get current. While a late payment history is definitely bad, currently late payments will destroy your score — pay on time!

If you’re tired of paying off your credit card only to accrue more interest, try transferring your balance to a credit card with 0% interest. This way, you can make payments each month without worrying about interest payments. Check out these top balance transfer credit cards.

Signing up for credit report monitoring is a good way to view your credit reports, which lay out all of your past and current accounts in an organized way. This allows you to view all of your accounts and to catch any mistakes you may have made in the past that affected your score negatively.

5. Get a secured credit card. Having and using credit responsibly will raise your credit score, but if you are unable to get a regular, unsecured credit card because of a limited credit history or other credit issues, then a secured credit card, like the Capital One Secured Mastercard, that actually reports to the three bureaus is a great option for you. When you sign up for a secured card, you are required to provide cash collateral, which becomes your credit limit. You can then use this card as you would a regular credit card — making purchases and paying off your balance at deadline each month. For example, if you put a $300 deposit on the secured card, this is the amount you are allowed to spend.

By using a secured credit card and making payments on it  you are showing that you are responsible with credit. This will reflect well on your credit score, and if you maintain a positive payment history on the card, oftentimes the company may qualify you for an unsecured credit card. Again, you need to make sure that you sign up for a secured credit card that reports to the three credit bureaus. Find the perfect secured credit card here.