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Credit reports are among the many documents in our lives that are a dreadful combination of boring and important. They can also be very long, which adds to the fun of reviewing one.

But they’re not all that bad once you know what you’re looking at, and it’s pretty self-explanatory: It’s a report on your credit use.

Cozy Up With Your Credit

At least once a year, you should request your credit report and check it for accuracy. You’re entitled to a free annual copy of your report from each of the major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — so you can request them all at once or space them out over the course of the year. It’s up to you. (See? Fun!)

You can also get a free report if you’re denied credit, so you can figure out why you may not have seemed creditworthy.

Know What You’re Looking At

The good news is when it comes to long, boring, important documents, credit reports are pretty easy to read. They use a simple coding system to show whether your accounts are in good standing, and there’s no fancy language to decipher. (So when you’re choosing between reading your life insurance policy or your credit report, go for the credit report. Unless you’re trying to fall asleep. Then you probably want the insurance policy.)

So what’s on this report? Your credit accounts will probably make up the majority of your report. That includes credit cards, mortgages and a variety of other loans: auto, student, personal, payday and so on. It will show if the account is active or closed; whether you’re the primary accountholder, co-signer, joint account holder or authorized user; your payment history; the balance of the account; the date it was opened — basically any information about the account you can think of.

Then there’s a section on inquiries: When someone requests to see your credit report, it results in an inquiry. A request to be used in a lending decision, like a mortgage or credit card application, registers as a hard inquiry and will impact your credit score. Account reviews, also called soft pulls or soft inquiries, don’t hurt your credit score, and those result from requests like credit card companies looking to see if they want to extend you an offer in the mail or when current lenders review your credit.

There’s also a part for information of public record. You’ll find things like bankruptcies, collections accounts, tax liens and judgments here.

As you go through each portion of your credit report, make sure you’re checking for accuracy. There are statutes of limitation on how long certain trade lines can stay on your report, and you don’t want an error to hurt your credit.

Accuracy is especially important with the section outlining your personal information. You don’t want to get your file mixed up with someone else and have that messing with your credit standing. If you find errors or signs of fraud on your credit report, it’s important to dispute them.

Finally, a super-helpful summation of your credit report is your credit score. Monitoring your credit scores can help you track your credit standing, and a drop in your credit scores can alert you to pull your credit report to look for errors, fraud or negative items.

There are many ways to get your credit scores for free, including through a tool from Credit.com, which also gives you an analysis of your credit standing, along with a plan to help you get your credit in better shape.

More on Credit Reports and Credit Scores:

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