Financial Literacy - Credit savvy
A cartoon chef with a large plate in one hand with "900" on it and the top of the plate in his other hand with a red background
High credit scores get top loans

"A lot of those incentive programs with the zero-percent offers are probably going to be around the 720 or 740 (credit score) mark to qualify, although the industry averages around 680," she says.

Zabritski breaks out automotive credit-scoring tiers into four categories, with prime being 680 and above, nonprime between 620 and 679 and subprime between 550 and 619. Scores under 550 land in a basement category -- below subprime.

You can compare rates from a wide range of lenders using Bankrate's auto-loan search tool.

Auto dealers use a number of financial institutions and credit scoring tiers to originate car loans. Some of their lenders have lower credit-scoring floors than others, which gives dealers more flexibility in offering loans to buyers in less-than-prime tiers.

The downside is consumers pay a much higher interest rate on a loan if they are in a subprime tier, and they may have to make a larger down payment.

Auto loans remain available to buyers in subterranean credit tiers, although they are more scarce.

"There are fewer loans being originated in those really high-risk tiers" than there were in the third quarter of 2008, Zabritski says, "but there's definitely still lending taking place and still auto financing taking place in other, less riskier, tiers."

Although buyers with blemished credit or thin credit files still may be able to get an auto loan, dealers are less likely to offer the flexible lending terms they once did.

For example, if you're thinking about trading in your vehicle for a new one but you're upside down on your loan, most dealers will be reluctant to roll that extra debt into a new loan.

Credit cards

It seems that not long ago, anyone with a home address was getting credit card balance-transfer offers in the mail.

"It almost got to the point where if you had a heartbeat -- any kind of credit history -- you got a $5,000 credit line instantly, unsecured," says Curtis Arnold, founder of

"Those days, I think, are gone."

On the one hand, the industry seems to be preparing consumers for widespread cuts in credit limits, account closures and other nasty measures resulting from years of loose lending standards.

On the other hand, 41 percent of consumers said their credit line on at least one credit card had been increased during the past 12 months, and 44 percent said their card limits remained unchanged, according to Bankrate's December 2008 poll on credit card usage.

Many major card issuers still tout zero-percent and low-interest balance transfer offers on their Web sites, with introductory terms ranging from six to 12 months.

You can look through a wide variety of cards and lenders using Bankrate's free credit card search.


The quest for well-qualified customers among the larger national card issuers such as Citibank, Chase and Capital One is highly competitive, according to industry analyst Tim Kolk, a managing partner at Brookwood Capital in Peterborough, N.H.

"The minimum threshold for credit scores to get a (zero-percent balance transfer) card, and certainly the best possible rate has escalated to maybe a 730 or 740," he says.

Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

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