check your credit reportsOne of the most important parts of understanding and maintaining your financial health is awareness of what your credit reports say. Surprisingly, a large amount of Americans have never checked their credit reports or only check them infrequently. A Google Consumer study conducted in 2013 by TransUnion determined that a third of adults in the U.S. have never checked their credit reports or scores, and nearly a quarter haven’t checked within the past year. Keeping an eye on your credit score can help you see a snapshot of what your credit health looks like, but the only way to know for sure what factors are affecting your scores — including potential errors — is to see what’s written on your credit reports.

How exactly do you check your credit reports? No matter whether you’ve done it before or you’re wanting to for the very first time, the good news is that it’s a relatively simple process. Here’s how to do it:

If you haven’t checked in 12 months or longer …

Performing a web search for “check my credit reports” turns up a great number of results, many of them websites advertising your three-bureau credit reports and scores — at a cost. The truth is, you don’t necessarily need to pay anything to check your credit reports. In accordance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, each U.S. citizen is entitled to view all three of their credit reports — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — once every 12 months for free. If you know it’s been a year or more since you’ve last checked your credit reports, then you are eligible to claim your free copy of each bureau’s credit report through AnnualCreditReport.com. You do not need to request all three at once, and can instead elect to receive them individually as you want.

Keep in mind, although it is free to obtain copies of your three credit reports through this site once every 12 months, you will have to pay a fee if you want to see your credit scores. Additionally, you can only review your reports once so it’s a good idea to either have a printer handy so you can save each one for future reference, or set aside some time to sort through all of your reports and confirm everything is accurate.

If you’ve checked your credit reports within the past year …

Although checking your credit reports at least once a year is a good baseline, the truth is you might be missing out on pertinent information by not checking up on it more frequently. If you’d like to check your credit reports again, unfortunately, it’s going to cost you — but there are ways to make the cost work for you rather than against you. One of the best options is to sign up for a credit report monitoring service. Many of these services deliver regular updates of your credit reports as well as up-to-date credit scores for all three bureaus so you can keep a constant pulse on your credit, and most are more than affordable at under $20/month. In addition, many services such as Identity Guard offer identity theft protection tools, which can be helpful in the event your information is exposed in a data breach.

Don’t want to pay for a monthly service? If you’re just interested in a one-time check of your credit reports, but it’s been less than 12 months since you accessed them for free with AnnualCreditReport.com, you can take advantage of a free trial offer from most of the top-rated credit monitoring services. These free trials give you access to all member features, including your credit reports and scores, and as long as you cancel within the time period (usually 14 or 30 days), you won’t have to pay.

Not sure what information goes on your credit reports in the first place? Our guide will help you better understand what to expect when viewing your credit reports. To learn more about credit and other financial topics in general, follow our personal finance blog.

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.