Getting a major credit card may mean building a credit record first

Call it a no-win situation, Catch-22, or whatever. With some credit cards, it's hard to get one if you don't already have one. Many young people discover this when they leave school and start their careers. They want one of the major credit cards, like MasterCard or Visa, but the banks issuing these cards won't approve the application - because the young person doesn't have a credit record. It is then, perhaps, that the young person asks: If many people have too many credit cards, why can't I even get one?

In most cases, a young person can get credit fairly easily. It just takes a little time and strategy. The idea is to convince credit managers that the risk they take in giving you one of their credit cards is fairly small. To do this, you have to build something called a ''credit history.''

One of the best ways to accomplish this, says Geri Schanz, a spokeswoman with TRW Information Services, the credit reporting firm, is to take out a small loan from a local bank or savings-and-loan institution. You should already have a checking and savings account at that bank, so if you don't have one of these yet , start one. The bank may require a cosigner for the first loan, so the young person will have to persuade a parent, other relative, or creditworthy friend to come along. (Because they are making themselves responsible for your financial obligations, the friend should be used as a cosigner only as a last resort. Or, as Polonius might say today: ''Neither a borrower nor a cosigner be.'')

Ms. Schanz says the first loan from a bank or S&L should be small. A few hundred dollars for some clothes, a stereo, or a vacation should be the limit. Whatever, the loan should be small enough that it can be easily repaid out of future earnings or, even better, out of savings.

Once the loan is paid off, she adds, the fact that it required a cosigner will not be a factor on the young person's credit record. If it was paid on time , the good marks go to the person who paid it.

If you are eligible, you can also apply for credit or a loan through a credit union. The loans are usually at cheaper rates than banks charge and often easier to get.

Another step many young people use - particularly if they are altering their wardrobe from college blue jean chic to business pin-stripe somber - is to open a charge account at a local clothing store or chain. Many smaller clothing stores are fairly liberal in granting credit to local customers, anticipating the lucrative business you are apt to give them.

An additional source of credit that is usually easier to get than a major credit card is a charge card from a local department store. Again, for a department store credit cards mean more sales. For a bank, Visa or MasterCard just means income from service fees and interest. While that is important, banks have other ways to make money, with less hassle.

Once you have a charge account at a local shop or department store, try to use it occasionally, even if you have the cash. If you have the money for a sweater, for instance, put it in a savings account or money fund and charge the sweater. When the bill comes, withdraw the money to pay it. You will not only be building a credit record, but the money will have earned a little interest.

It should take six months to a year of this kind of credit record-building, Ms. Schanz says, before a young person can expect to qualify for one of the major credit cards.

Although oil company cards are fairly easy to obtain, they do not do much to help a person's credit record, she says. This is because most gasoline cards are charge cards, as opposed to credit cards. That is, payment is expected on the entire account every month. American Express has the same rule, so that card usually doesn't get counted on a credit record, either.

Once you've had a chance to build a credit record through a small bank loan or a department store, you're ready to apply for the major bank card. Preferably , you can apply through the same bank or savings-and-loan that gave you the loan , or at least through the financial institution where you have your checking and savings account.

When applying for this card, try to include more than just credit history. When you were in school, did you have a part-time job? Did you have a college loan that you are currently paying off? Have you done volunteer work? While there may not be room for answers to all of these questions on the application, you can attach a separate, neatly typed sheet listing them. They can help contribute to the impression of credit worthiness which you need to get the card.

If, after all this, you are still turned down for credit, ask the credit manager why. His reason may be based on false information, or maybe he needed more information, in which case you can supply it. Or the credit manager can tell you what you still need to do to make a successful application next time. When you do reapply, direct the application to the same credit manager, if possible.

If you would like a question considered for publication in this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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