The question that pops up most often in the Credit Advice Center, Credit Karma’s forum for consumers to ask questions and post answers on credit-related topics, is, “How do I boost my credit score?” But a better question to ask first is, “What could be holding my credit score back?”

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You’ve probably heard cure-all advice on how to perk up poor credit scores, such as pay on-time and pay off debt. However, this advice assumes you know what to fix about your credit. What if you don’t have much debt or you already pay on-time consistently, and still don’t have a better credit score? Truth is, many consumers haven’t even glanced at their credit report, let alone understand their credit score and how to improve specific aspects of their credit health.

So let’s take a step back here. Instead of throwing general tips and steps at you, let’s start with figuring out the right steps to bring up your particular credit score.

Step #1,

Take a good look at your credit: You probably already know your credit score, but do you know how you got that number in the first place? Go back to your credit report, which you can get for free at, to check out your credit health. Or you can take a look at your Credit Report Card on Credit Karma, which is a free snapshot of your credit report that summarizes your report into important components that influence your credit score.

Step #2,

Pinpoint credit issues: There are over 200 factors that influence your credit score. While we can’t address them all, this checklist explains major components of your credit score, as graded in your Credit Report Card, to help you identify issues to focus on:

Open Credit Utilization:

The Credit Report Card calculates your percentage of credit utilization, i.e. the total credit card debt you have divided by total available credit limit across all credit cards. If you are pushing past the recommended 30% utilization rate, you’re overextending on credit, which may make you more prone to poor credit.

On-Time Payment History:

While only time and consistent payments can improve this component, it’s important for you to understand just how heavily payment history factors into your credit score. Credit Karma’s comparison of users show that users with 100% payment history had an average credit score of 706, while users with 98% on-time payment history had an average score of 628, and consumers with 96% or less on-time payment history had an average credit score of 571. This shows even one—ONE—late payment can really affect your credit score. If your history shows a trend of late payments, breaking that habit is a top priority.

Average Age Of Open Credit Lines:

The older your history, the better. This component will positively influence your credit score as long as you don’t close any old accounts. Check on your credit report to see what is your oldest credit card is so you remember to keep it open and in good standing.

Total Accounts:

Your total number of accounts is a measure of your creditworthiness, but that doesn’t mean you need to open many credit cards to have great credit. It’s not only how many credit accounts, but what kinds of credit. A diverse mix of credit, such as credit cards, auto loan, mortgage, personal loans, indicates to lenders that you can manage credit of all sizes and types. Examine your own mix of credit.

Hard Inquiries:

Every hard inquiry, which occurs when a lender or issuer pulls your credit report, knocks a few points off your credit score. Scan your history and make sure you don’t have a bad habit of applying for lots of credit at a time, which adds up in damage. However, pulling your own credit score through a site like Credit Karma is considered a soft inquiry, and does not damage your credit.

Total Debt:

This is a key metric of your credit score, and generally, paying off debt improves your credit score. But take a good look at your debt, how much they are, what kind you have. Installment debts, like loans and mortgages, are considered “good debt” because they have a set payment amount and repayment date, and paying them monthly improves your credit score. Credit card debt gets tricky because its revolving debt, which means it carries into the next month’s cycle with added interest. And unlike an auto loan or mortgage, your debt can increase depending on your monthly spending. Prioritize what debts you can pay off first; I’d recommend credit card debt because your interest payments will cost you more with added debt and paying it off will reduce your credit utilization rate.

Step #3:

Address What Could Be Holding Your Credit Score Back: Now that you’ve looked through your credit report card, hopefully you have a better idea how you could help your credit score. Maybe you have a high utilization rate and you need to dial down your credit card use, or maybe you realize you need to deal with your credit card debt once and for all, or maybe your credit score will benefit from a more diverse mix of credit. You can even simulate how certain actions will affect your credit score with the Credit Simulator.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you know what could be affecting your credit score, the difficult road to travel now is figuring out strategies to manage your credit in order to improve it. Credit Karma’s DIY Credit Help column will be running monthly to bring you step-by-step ways to tackle specific credit-related issues.

The first step was figuring out what was holding your credit score back; now it’s time to wrangle those issues head-on to earn healthier credit.