It’s a tough pill to swallow, but most Americans have mediocre credit scores, and chances are good that you’re one of them. You might not even know what your credit score is-if that’s the case, you’ll want to find out, pronto. Your credit score is a numerical value placed on your credit-worthiness, or how likely you are to pay back borrowed money. A high score means that you’re very good at making payments on time, and a low score means the opposite. The higher your credit score, the more likely a bank will lend to you when you decide to finally purchase a house, and your chances of getting better terms on your loans increases as well. Nobody really wants to get stuck with a bad deal on a major purchase.

Maybe you were a little reckless in college and opened a few too many credit cards and paid a few too many bar tabs that probably should’ve been split. Maybe you had some emergencies pop up, like unplanned dental work, or your car needing new brakes. Or heck, maybe you just HAD to go to the expensive, private university and have exorbitant student loans that you’re struggling to pay back. Whatever the reason, your credit may be bad, but don’t worry! You can start rebuilding your credit at any time, though sooner is better.

Once you have your credit reports, which are available for free once a year from each of the major credit bureaus (Experian, Transunion, and Equifax), take a good hard look at them. Make sure that everything is accurate, and if there are sketchy things, like an open credit account that you KNOW you didn’t apply for, call and get that cleared up. Identity theft is an increasingly real threat, and it can really do damage to your credit scores.

Next, make paying your bills on time a priority. Late payments, especially consistently late payments, not only cost you late fees, but they also ding your scores. Many companies have automatic bill pay options that let you set up a specific day every month to make payments. Like the ad says, you can just set it, and forget it! But don’t, really, as that’s a good way to overdraw your bank account… Make a budget and stick to it, and if you can, throw some extra money at your bills with the higher interest rates. Paying down your credit accounts is a good way to go, and every extra dollar counts.

Last but not least, avoid applying for more credit. It doesn’t matter if you’ll get an extra discount for opening a store card that day; in the end, you’ll end up with not only a high interest rate on items you probably didn’t need, but every credit application leads to a “hard enquiry” on your credit report. Too many of those in a two year period can badly affect your credit score, and you just did a ton of work to fix it!

A good credit score means a loan with excellent terms and lower payments; a bad credit score means you’ll end up paying way more in the long run, if you’re even able to get a loan in the first place. A lot of this, if not all of it, sounds unpleasant, but the payoff will be worth it when you get the keys to your new home.