monitor your credit yourselfAfter the Equifax data breach and its widespread effects on consumers, you may have heard financial experts throwing around the term “credit monitoring” more often – and for good reason. Data breaches seems to be occurring more frequently than ever, so it’s become increasingly important to keep an eye on your credit to make sure it reflects your financial life accurately. Credit monitoring services can do this for you, assisting you with catching errors, fraudulent activity and other indicators of identity theft early on, but is it possible to save money and monitor your credit yourself? Keep reading to find out how you can monitor your credit on your own and when you need to put your trust in the professionals.

What is credit monitoring?

Before getting into whether it’s possible to monitor your credit yourself or not, here’s a refresher on credit monitoring basics.

Put broadly, credit monitoring can be thought of as regular checkups of your credit reports – records of your credit history and account activity – and credit scores to denote any changes. When it comes to your financial health, your credit reports are key documents that should be monitored. That’s because credit reports are put together by credit bureaus or credit reporting agencies to illustrate your level of financial reliability, and, as such, these reports detail all kinds of information about your accounts, including credit cards, loan amounts, debts, personal information like addresses and known aliases and other information. Keep in mind that even if you don’t have a credit card, loan or mortgage, you may still have credit reports, since they also include public records. Because credit reports are tied to your social security number and other personal information, they can also reflect fraudulent activity done in your name (e.g., accounts opened by an identity thief). Thus, it’s a good idea to monitor them to make sure they are free of credit reporting errors and malicious activities.

While your credit scores don’t offer the same level of detail as your credit reports, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on them. That’s because your scores are a reflection of what’s in your credit reports, and reviewing them regularly means you’ll be alerted to unexpected changes that could suggest errors, fraud or identity theft have occurred, all of which require your attention.

Why should you monitor your credit?

Unless you have been in a total media blackout for the better part of the past eight months, you are likely aware of the Equifax data breach, as well as the myriad of other data breaches that have happened before and since, and the leaking of sensitive information from these breaches. While freezing your credit is one way to protect yourself from some types of identity theft, credit monitoring can also help you with the detection of fraudulent activity on your credit reports early on. That’s why free credit monitoring is something most companies that have suffered major breaches offer to impacted customers (though it’s debatable how effective those free services actually are).

Credit monitoring is also helpful to check for reporting errors, which are more common than you might think. Mistakes can appear in the form of misspellings, outdated information, accounts that aren’t yours and more. If you find errors, you can report them by contacting the credit bureau, which can potentially lead to them being removed and improved credit scores. For more details about disputing an incorrect item, check out our guide to disputing credit report errors.

Lastly, monitoring your credit helps you check your credit’s health on a regular basis. By keeping an eye on your credit reports and scores, you can identify ways to improve your financial standing. For example, if you know that your credit scores are low and you can see why that is by viewing your credit reports, you have the opportunity to improve your credit by pursuing credit-benefitting actions, including paying your bills on time and eliminating any debt you may have. In this way, credit monitoring can breed a deeper understanding of your credit health, allowing you to identify ways to better your credit.

What do credit monitoring services offer?

If you’ve been the victim of a data breach in recent years, chances are you’ve been offered free credit monitoring services as compensation, or you’ve been advised to sign up for a paid credit monitoring service for protection. You might wonder exactly what these services have to offer and if they’re worth your time. Credit monitoring services keep you in the loop about updates and changes to your credit reports. Most credit monitoring services also provide you access to your credit scores from at least one of the three major credit bureaus – and many, including the top two credit monitoring services we’ve reviewed, include access to all three of your credit reports and scores.

Because most credit monitoring services will provide your credit reports and scores immediately (or soon after) signup, if you choose a service that offers a trial period when you first subscribe, you could potentially save some money by becoming one of its customers. That’s because ordering additional copies of your credit reports after you get your free ones can get costly. While credit report costs can vary – TransUnion, for example, charges $11.50 per report for most consumers, but it also has reduced fees for certain states – and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau states that, by law, a credit reporting company can’t charge more than $12 for a credit report, the costs can add up if you’re regularly ordering your credit reports from each of the three credit bureaus. Your spend increases substantially if you want to view your credit scores, which are not part of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and thus always cost an additional fee to see. By signing up for a credit report monitoring service with a free trial, you can view your credit reports and scores and then cancel before the trial period is up. That said, depending on your situation, it may be more worth it to subscribe to a credit monitoring service and take advantage of regular access to updated credit reports and scores, as well as round-the-clock credit monitoring.

As noted, credit monitoring services will usually alert you when changes to your credit files occur, which can be helpful when it comes to catching fraudulent activity and identity theft early on. As such, if you’ve been subjected to identity theft or financial abuse – or if you think that you may be – a credit monitoring service could be helpful to you. Just be sure you consider a service that monitors all three credit bureaus instead of just one or two. Some credit monitoring services are also known for offering credit education, such as explanations of how your actions are bettering your credit or making it worse. Because of this, if you’re trying to rebuild your credit, these explanations could be helpful, since they can assist you by identifying areas of improvement and enabling you to troubleshoot potential issues.

Since credit monitoring services aren’t all the same, it is a good idea to learn more about different services and what they can offer you. Our top-rated service, Identity Guard – Total Protection, provides a 30-day trial period and offers three-bureau credit monitoring, copies of all three of your credit reports and credit scores upon signup, social security monitoring and more for just $16.99/month for individuals (it also offers couples and family plans) after the trial period expires. Take a look at our credit monitoring reviews to find out more about how the different services compare and contrast.

Can you monitor your credit yourself?

You may be wondering if there’s a way to do it all yourself and avoid spending your money on a credit monitoring subscription. The answer is yes, somewhat, though doing so does come with a few challenges.

A first step you can take is to order your free credit reports. Thanks to federal law, once every 12 months, you’re entitled to view one of your credit reports from each of the three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — for free. It might be tempting to just look at a report from one of these credit reporting agencies, but it’s important to obtain your credit reports from each of these credit bureaus. Lenders submit credit profile updates to at least one of these credit bureaus — not necessarily to all three agencies, which could result in each credit bureau generating credit reports for you that feature differing information. For this reason, three-bureau credit monitoring is important if you want to view your credit health accurately.

To obtain your free credit reports, order them from AnnualCreditReport.com, an official government website. Since you only get one free report every 12 months, it’s up to you to decide when you want to order each credit report. You can choose to order the reports all at once, or you can stagger when you receive them. For example, you can order one credit report from each credit bureau every four months. After receiving your credit reports, you will want to make sure you recognize all the information on them. Take extra care when validating your name, address, social security number, account information and other data on these reports.

The process behind obtaining credit scores can be a little different, and you usually have to pay a fee to see them. However, these days many credit card issuers share credit scores with customers for free. We should note that these credit scores are usually sourced from one credit bureau or use a proprietary scoring system, so they may not be as accurate as you might want them to be if you’re trying to get a grasp on your credit’s health.

When should you consider using a credit monitoring service?

As you can see, whether you should monitor your credit yourself or get the assistance of a credit monitoring service depends on various factors. For example, while monitoring your credit yourself may save you some money, it’s a task that costs time, and it’s not a task that’s optimal for those who don’t know much about credit. If you find yourself in either of these positions, it may be better to subscribe to a credit monitoring service, which can do the work for you. Additionally, there are some things you just can’t do as an individual that a competent credit monitoring service can offer, such as continuous real-time monitoring of your three credit reports for changes, assistance in the event you become a victim of identity theft or fraud and regular access to updated credit reports and scores for a low cost. If you aren’t concerned about fraud, identity theft or improving your credit drastically, you will probably be able to get away with self-monitoring by way of your free annual credit reports and scores obtained from free sources. Otherwise, you will want to look into a reputable credit monitoring service.

Now that you know more about different methods of credit monitoring, find out more about how you can improve your credit and safeguard your finances. Get started by learning more about credit monitoring and identity theft protection through our blogs.

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the companies referenced in this article. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the companies mentioned. NextAdvisor.com may be compensated through advertiser affiliate programs.