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So you've had a few problems getting the bills paid lately, and you're wondering what you can do to repair the damage to your credit.

You've got plenty of company. Tens of millions of people in the United States have credit blemishes severe enough (and FICO credit scores under 620) to make obtaining loans and credit cards with reasonable terms difficult.

Or maybe your credit is OK, but you'd like to make it better. After all, the better your credit, the less you pay in interest and, typically, for insurance.

To improve your credit scores, it's important to know where you stand now. You can get free credit reports once a year, but you typically have to pay to see your FICO scores. (You can get other credit scores for free at sites like Credit Karma, but these aren't typically the scores lenders use.)

You can buy two of your three FICO scores for $19.95 each at myFICO. (One of the three credit bureaus, Experian, no longer sells FICO scores to consumers, although it still sells them to lenders.)

If your scores are above 760, you're probably already getting the best rates. If they're anywhere below that mark, though, they could stand some improvement.

So here are the nine steps you can take to speedy credit repair:

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

1. Get a credit card if you don't have one

Don't fall for the myth that you have to carry a balance to have good scores. You don't, and you shouldn't. But having and using a credit card or two can really build your scores.

If you can't qualify for a regular credit card, consider a secured credit card, where the issuing bank gives you a credit line equal to the deposit you make. Look for a card that reports to all three credit bureaus.

2. Add an installment loan to the mix

You'll get the fastest improvement in your scores if you show you're responsible with both major kinds of credit: revolving (credit cards) and installment (personal loans, auto, mortgages and student loans).

If you don't already have an installment loan on your credit reports, consider adding a small personal loan that you can pay back over time. Again, you'll want the loan to be reported to all three bureaus, and you'll probably get the best deal from a community bank or credit union.

3. Pay down your credit cards

Paying off your installment loans (mortgage, auto, student, etc.) can help your scores but typically not as dramatically as paying down -- or paying off -- revolving accounts such as credit cards.

Lenders like to see a big gap between the amount of credit you're using and your available credit limits. Getting your balances below 30% of the credit limit on each card can really help; getting balances below 10% is even better.

Though most debt gurus recommend paying off the highest-rate card first, a better strategy here is to pay down the cards that are closest to their limits.

4. Use your cards lightly

Racking up big balances can hurt your scores, regardless of whether you pay your bills in full each month. What's typically reported to the credit bureaus, and thus calculated into your scores, are the balances reported on your last statements.

You often can increase your scores by limiting your charges to 30% or less of a card's limit; 10% is even better. If you're having trouble keeping track, you can set up email or text alerts with your credit card companies to let you know when you're approaching a limit you've set. If you regularly use more than half your limit on a card, consider using other cards to ease the load or try making a payment before the statement closing date to reduce the balance that's reported to the bureaus. Just be sure to make a second payment between the closing date and the due date, so you don't get reported as late.