Credit crunching

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

It's time for more belt-tightening.

Lenders like credit card companies and banks are reeling in the once-loose lines of credit, reducing credit limits for existing customers - whether they have a good credit history or not - and limiting applicants to only those with high credit scores.

We'll share more about those developments in a few weeks in Alive.

But what's a person who just graduated from college or working that first job supposed to do? Like everything else in life: be prepared.

Plan on starting with a tight belt.

That means keeping track of spending and making your best effort at maintaining good credit so you don't have to suffer later.

It's the exact advice Kathy Virgallito has always given someone working to establish credit - but it's even more important now.

"Things are different," said Virgallito, director of community and business development at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Columbus. "People really do need to be a little more cautious about establishing credit."

So while the economy might have turned things upside down for a while, building credit still works the same way. Those just starting can begin boosting their scores by responsibly using credit cards and car loans.

If you use them as needed and make payments in full - which is the ideal scenario - you'll be rewarded with a good credit score, meaning you'll be considered low-risk and will probably receive future loans and credit cards with lower interest rates.

But if unpaid bills pile up and you use your credit card without the cash to pay it off, it will hurt your score more than not having one.

That's exactly what happened to many people who are now part of the tidal wave of bankruptcies, Virgallito said.

"Too many people kind of got caught without a cushion and weren't able to help themselves as credit got tighter," she said.

So before applying for a credit card - or even if you already have one - track your spending and income for a few weeks to see where your money is going, what you can cut back on and what you can afford, Virgallito said.

Banks have scaled back a bit on credit card offers, but they'll probably remain fast and loose, she said. So check out what each card offers in terms of interest rates, late fees and over-the-limit fees, and take the best one you can get.

Or consider a secured credit card. It functions kind of like a debit card because you need to make deposits to back up your purchases, but you'll still be building credit by using it to pay.

Look responsible

Many employers and landlords are doing credit checks before extending offers, said Kathy Virgallito of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Columbus - so the first step is to check your own credit rating. Log on to to check your credit history for free from the three companies that keep track of it. And find more information about things you should look for - like accounts you don't remember opening or unpaid fines you somehow forgot about - at