First steps in building your personal credit rating

When college students go on shopping, dining, or entertaining sprees, chances are they'll pick up the tab with cold cash. And when you're a student, you don't really need to do it any other way.

But graduation is the launching pad into the world of real furniture, cars, and washers and dryers - ''big ticket'' items that often require a loan. And though a diploma can work wonders, it can't give you a credit rating. So what then?

There are a number of ways to go about establishing a credit rating, though the process takes time and patience. In any case, starting small and locally and gradually working up to that MasterCard or car loan is the route most creditors advise.

One of the easiest ways to embark on the road to credibility is to ''get credit at your own bank,'' says Judy Thelen, a consumer credit specialist with State Employees Credit Union in Lansing, Mich. ''Use your savings account as collateral to establish a repayment habit. There's no risk to the lender because he's got your savings, and it's a good deal for the borrower because the bank will usually loan at a preferred rate,'' she says.

After proving yourself with the bank for six months to a year, Ms. Thelen then suggests applying for a credit card with a local merchant. ''However, don't go applying to too many places at once, since inquiries are recorded with a credit bureau (where lenders go to check an applicant's credit history). Five inquiries in two weeks could look bad to a creditor, so be selective,'' she warns.

What exactly is it that a retailer looks for in an applicant?

''They look for patterns, for stability . . . income is marginal in comparison,'' says Robert Gibson, president of the National Foundation for Consumer Credit. If you're punctual in paying your bills, if you've been at a job for two years, if you've lived in one place for a while - then you're credit material.

A spokeswoman for Sears, Roebuck & Co. says the retailer's criteria for credit applicants ''varies according to geographical location. An applicant from Chicago's North Shore will be evaluated under different criteria than an applicant from a poorer area. It also varies from one city to the next, according to a city's average income.''

In some states usury laws put a ceiling on the interest rate that can be charged on consumer loans. These laws may make credit hard to get since consumer loans may be unprofitable in periods of high interest rates.

Establishing credit with a retailer, rather than with a bank where you don't have any account, involves less of a risk to the lender, Mr. Gibson points out. ''A retailer has an automatic profit in merchandise, not the risk of total loss a bank might have on a cash loan.''

Stability is a major concern for banks issuing bank cards like Visa or MasterCard. ''Time at one job is important,'' Ms. Thelen says. ''Banks have their highest losses with people on the job for less than two years.'' After you've established credit with a bank or local merchant, then is the time to ''sit down, examine what you earn and what you owe. After that try for a bank card.''

Not all banks are going to have the same criteria for bank cards. ''So if a person can't get a card from one bank he should keep trying,'' says Mel Stiller, executive director for Consumer Credit Counseling Service in Boston.

If an applicant is rejected for any kind of credit, it's important to find out why. The person should check back with the creditor, find out which credit bureau the creditor used, go to the bureau, present identification, and ask for their file. It may even be that the file is incorrect or outdated.

''There is no regular, uniform way that information is reported to credit bureaus. Just because you have a loan it's not automatically known across the country.'' says Ms. Thelen. ''Once I checked with a local credit bureau and they listed me as having two student loans outstanding, even though I had already paid them off. I also had a car loan, which didn't show up on the bureau's records.''

Creditors have a few more tips when it comes to beating the Catch 22 of ''you've got to have credit in order to get it.''

* Have someone with a good credit rating cosign your loan. In case of default , this gives the creditor someone to collect from.

* If you are seeking a bank card, try applying for a minimum amount - somewhere around $300.

* In any kind of application, always list any other loans, most likely student loans, as proof of your ability to pay back.

* Pay phone and utility bills promptly. If you're consistently late, it may show up in a credit bureau file.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.