How can a three-digit number cause so much trouble? No, not your weight, although that figure, too, has been known to define and restrict. Just as with poor health, learning how to improve your credit score takes discipline, a behavioral modification plan, and of course, time.

It would seem a worthy long-term commitment considering how scores have dropped with the recession these past few years.

Lenders such as banks and credit card companies use the scores to evaluate your ability to repay their debts. The scores also may affect insurance rates.

The biggest factors impacting credit scores are payment history and amounts owed, according to The consumer Web site of the Fair Isaac Corp. created the FICO score, the most widely used U.S. standard for determining creditworthiness.

Credit scores below 620 make it difficult to obtain credit cards and loans with reasonable terms. Depending on the lender’s specific pricing scales, even a few points off a set mark could cost you thousands of dollars on interest charges, reports, a consumer financial services company.

Higher interest rates can rack up over the life of a loan, but so can small changes in credit payment patterns. Raising credit scores generally involves fixing any errors in your credit history that may exist and then maintaining a good, consistent credit history, myFICO advises.

Here are a few other pointers to improve your credit score:

Check your credit report.

Federal law allows you to request a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the three national consumer reporting companies at

The report’s findings are used to calculate your score. (The score isn’t included in the report; there’s a charge for it.)

Make sure the information on the report is accurate, complete and up-to-date before you apply for a loan for a major purchase like a house or care, buy insurance or apply for a job, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests.

If you find errors, dispute them with the credit bureau and the reporting agency. There’s no cost to dispute mistakes or outdated items. Consumer reporting agencies have 30 days to investigate.

If that doesn’t resolve your dispute, you can request a statement of your dispute be included in your file and in future reports. The statement can also be provided to anyone who recently received a copy of your report, but expect a charge for this service, FTC states.

Pay your bills on time.

Collections and delinquent payments, even if only a few days late, can have a major negative impact on your score, myFICO states.

You can set up automatic payments from your bank account to help you pay on time, but be sure you have enough money in the your account to avoid overdraft fees, the Federal Reserve advises.

Poor credit performance won’t haunt you forever. Scores reflect payment patterns over time so the impact of older credit problems will fade. An improved pattern of managing your credit well can stem the tide.

Accurate negative information about your credit stays on your record for seven years; 10 years for bankruptcies and 15 for unpaid tax liens. “There is no quick fix for bad credit scores,” according to Experian, one of the major reporting agencies. “Time is your ally in improving your credit scores.”

Keep revolving balances low

Most credit experts seem to recommend consumers keep their credit card balances below 50 percent of their credit limit, although some say below 30 percent is helpful and 10 percent is ideal. If you need reminders, you can set up e-mail or text alerts with your credit card companies to tell you when you’re approaching your limit.

Use credit sparingly

“Don’t open accounts just to have a better credit mix,” Experian warns. “It probably won’t improve your credit score.” It might even look risky if you’re a new credit user, my FICO warns.

Also, you won’t boost your score by closing unused accounts. “Owing the same amount but having fewer open accounts may lower your score.”

Remember, in rebuilding your credit history, the longer an account is open without negative reports, the better.

On the other hand, never using credit – keeping a zero balance -- doesn’t demonstrate to lenders responsible stewardship of credit obligations, says Craig Watts, FICO public affairs director.

“Someone with no credit cards tends to be higher risk than someone who has managed credit cards responsibly,” myFICO states.

Regardless of your credit score, don’t be afraid to shop for a loan, FTC says. “Creditors set their own standards and not all look at your credit history the same way.”