Waterfall Method: How I Check My Credit Reports 3x a Year for Free

The Fair Credit Reporting Act grants you the right to get a copy of your consumer credit report every year, absolutely free. I can't even imagine what it was like before the FCRA gave everyone that right.

If someone's going to collect data about you and make credit decisions based on that information, you should have the right to review it for accuracy. Getting your credit report each year is a must. They frequently have errors and those errors can result in you paying more than you have to (or worse yet, not qualifying for a loan you should qualify for)

Before you rush out and get all the reports all that once, I want to suggest an alternative.

If this is your first time requesting your report, requesting all of them might be a good idea. It gets you to a good starting point where you know all the information is accurate. It also lets you fix any errors right now, rather than waiting until later.

If you've seen them once already, I have a better way.

You should use the Waterfall Method.

There are three major credit bureaus, so stagger your free credit reports so you can keep an eye on them throughout the year.

The three reports aren't identical since a company won't always report to every bureau. So your Experian report might be slightly different than your Equifax report, but they're going to be pretty close.

With the Waterfall Method, you still see each credit report from each credit bureau once a year … but now you get to see a credit report three times a year. If anything funny happens, you'll know about it sooner.

Due to the pandemic and the resulting CARES Act, you can now check your credit reports every single week. You don't need to use the Waterfall Method until after this aspect of the CARES Act expires. As of this writing, this benefit will last until December 2023.

The Waterfall Method

It's simple.

There are three credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

There are twelve months.

I check one credit report, through AnnualCreditReport.com, every four months. Boom. Math!

Here's the schedule I use (it doesn't matter when you start):

  • January – Experian
  • May(ish) – Equifax
  • October(ish) – TransUnion
  • Repeat…

If it's the first time you're checking your report (ever), check them all at once. You need to make sure none of them have errors. Errors are common and they take time to fix, so get on that.

Then, after a year, you can get more reports. Here's where you stagger them by four months so you get a snapshot throughout the year.

I've probably found five or six errors in the last 15 years. From random addresses (I learned this gem on a background check for a security clearance!), to accounts that weren't mine, to an extra Social Security Number! Most were easy to fix because they weren't mine, to begin with, but all of them took time.

My Reminder System

I remember to do this by setting up email reminders. I used to put it in my calendar but I found I was dismissing the reminders but forgetting to check my reports. I was far better with emails since deleting was a bigger step than dismissing a pop-up.

Also, there are specialty consumer reports you should check too and give yourself a full background check!

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a forty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and farms in Illinois, Louisiana, and California through AcreTrader.

Recently, he's invested in a few pieces of art on Masterworks too.

>> Read more articles by Jim

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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About the comments on this site:

These responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

    • Jim says

      Thanks Brian, I’ve found that sharing some of my own methods in managing money has been very useful for folks so I’m doing more and more of it.

  1. Lazy Man and Money says

    If you use a calendar system like Google Calendar, you can set it up to email you each day with your agenda.

    I think this gives me the best of both worlds as I can look ahead to see what’s on next Tuesday’s schedule if I need to, but also have the email for re-enforcement.

  2. Samuel says

    Hey Jim,

    I’ve been so paranoid about what pops up on my credit report I sometimes can’t wait in the time frames that you check your credit reports. I live in a State where there is a lot of fraud so I subscribe to a credit monitoring and quarterly reporting service through my bank. So if anything pops up on my credit from any of the 3 bureaus I will get immediately notified. Prior to this I was employing your method for doing credit checks. It’s a great system to have in place.

    • Jim says

      I’m not nearly as paranoid, despite having some stuff pop up on my report that weren’t mine, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

  3. Will says

    Hey Jim great advice- thanks!
    I have yet to check my score this year so I should check across all 3 to make sure they’re all accurate. My question is if you can only check for free once a year is it 12 months rolling or is it calendar year- so if I check now I can then check again for free in Jan?

    • Jim Wang says

      Chex Systems is considered a consumer reporting agency but they collect banking information. It’s good to review it but not nearly as important as the three credit bureaus.

  4. Katie Eikenberg says

    Where and how do I repair my credit with dispute letters or name that’s spelt wrong?

    • Jim Wang says

      You can contact the credit bureaus directly for errors in your personal information – request a report and follow their procedures for that. If it’s an information source (like a credit card, etc), then go to the source and tell them they made a mistake in the reporting.

  5. Greg DeMaio says

    Many thanks Jim. I just found your website as I was looking into an alert that was on my Equifax report. I will use your method and look forward to your newsletters

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