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Hate to break it to you, but when it comes to your credit, it pays to sweat the small stuff.

That’s because a first fumble can leave a big old blemish on your credit report. And seemingly small missteps can really swing your scores in the wrong direction. Plus, under federal law, negative information can stay on your credit file for up to seven years — 10 years if we’re talking bankruptcy (you can learn more here on how long stuff stays on your credit reports)— and thanks to the agreements most creditors have with the credit bureaus, it can be hard to get certain line items removed ahead of schedule.

But knowledge is power. So, with that in mind, here are five fumbles you should avoid so you don’t seriously damage your credit score.

1. Taking Your Good Credit for Granted

It’s very easy to turn a blind eye to your credit scores, especially if you were at an 850 last time you checked and aren’t looking for any new loans. But it’s important to check your credit reports regularly since errors can crop up unexpectedly. (Here’s what to do if you find one.) Plus, there could be legitimate line items you weren’t aware of (ahem, medical bill) that’ll need addressing.

You can keep an eye on your credit by viewing your free credit report snapshot, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com. You can also pull your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com. If you find your credit score needs improving, consider paying down any high credit card balances, addressing any delinquent accounts and limiting new credit applications until those numbers rebound.

2. Missing Just One Loan Payment

We’ve said it before, but given how important payment history is to credit scores, we’re going to say it again: A first missed loan payment can cause a good credit score to fall by up to 110 points and an average score to fall by up to 80 points. That’s why you’ll want to set up alerts or automatic payments for those monthly bills and, if you do accidentally miss a payment, give your lender a call ASAP. They may be willing to forgive the fumble “this one time.” (P.S. See if they’ll let you skip the late fee, too. Most issuers will accommodate previously perfect customers.)

3. Your Recent Shopping Spree

Retail therapy isn’t going to help your credit much if you charge all those purchases to your credit card — particularly if you can’t even come close to paying them off anytime soon. Credit utilization is the second-most-important factor of credit scores, and, if you’re using more than 10% to 30% of your total available credit limit(s), you can expect your credit scores to take a hit. Keep in mind, too, that credit card interest can quickly accumulate, and the higher your balances climb, the bigger that hit will be.

Be sure to keep your credit card charges to a minimum. And, if you do rack up a big bill, be sure to come up with a solid plan to pay it off. Strategies for getting rid of credit card debt include prioritizing payments (usually by smallest balance or highest annual percentage rate), drafting a new budget to find funds you can put toward your debts or looking into a balance-transfer credit card or debt consolidation loan.

4. An Unpaid Medical Bill

We know. Medical bills are the worst. Half the time you don’t know you have one and the rest of the time, the cost can be hard to cover. But leave any medical bill unattended long enough and it could wind up going to collections — which can end up on your credit reports and do big damage to your credit scores. The same goes, incidentally, for unpaid parking tickets, lapsed gym memberships and even outstanding library fines, so be sure to keep a close eye on your mail. And, if you get an unexpected bill, see if you can negotiate with the creditor or collector before they report it late on your credit reports.

5. That Boatload of Credit Card Applications You Just Filled Out

Sure, credit card churning sounds great in theory. Just think of all those points you can readily rack up. But each credit card application likely generates a hard inquiry on your credit report — and while each one should only cost you a few points, a whole bunch of inquiries in a short time span can really add up. Plus, points aside, the mere presence of too many inquiries can lead to a loan denial. Lenders see it as a sign of money troubles to come, meaning you’ll want to apply for credit cards (and those all-too-alluring signup bonuses) carefully.

Image: Geber86

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