For years cheap credit-card offers filled American mailboxes, promising to finance our every consumer whim. Not anymore. The ill effects of the subprime mortgage mess and the global credit crunch are trickling their way down to consumers' wallets. Card issuers aren't as solicitous as they used to be, says Credit.com communication director Emily Davidson. "They're tightening standards for accepting new customers and lowering credit limits."
Maintaining a decent credit history is more crucial than ever. Unfortunately, that's hard to do if you're saddled with a high-interest-rate card. Rates as high as 19.9 percent are not uncommon these days, especially for people with a few blemishes on the credit report. With rates like that, it's easy to fall further down the debt spiral: overborrowing or missing a payment can lower your credit score, triggering your interest rate to rise and forcing you to chip away at interest and principal that may take a lifetime to eliminate.
How do you avoid that trap? The obvious answer: live within your means. "If you're late with payments or run up your cards to their limits, your score falls," says Craig Watts, a spokesman for Fair Isaac, the company that measures credit scores. And before you start cutting up your cards, think for a minute about how you'll rent your next car, reserve your next hotel room or book your next flight. It's not easy to do any of those things without a credit card.
But what if you've already started to slip behind? Don't worry. Securing affordable credit is possible. While the median credit score is 725, according to Fair Isaac, about 15 percent of cardholders in the United States score between 650 and 700. In that range credit bureaus consider you a moderate risk, a person with a "fair" credit history—not "bad" but not exactly "good." Below 650 you're best off with a secured card, in which case you put up the cash beforehand, says Davidson.
But there are still attractive deals for people with only fair credit. To find them take a look at sites like Credit.com, which groups card offers for those with blemishes on their credit history. Credit.com showcases six cards that can keep you charging without making you pay through the nose:
Capital One Platinum Max
If you're worried about missing a payment and getting jacked up to a default rate, this card is your shining knight. Your 16.9 percent APR is locked for three years—"no matter what." There is no balance transfer fee and a low $19 annual membership fee.
Citi Platinum Select MasterCard
This card has features of more prestigious plastic but can be easier to get. You'll enjoy a relatively low 14.74 percent APR, and a zero-percent introductory rate on transfers for six months, plus no annual fee.
Capital One Platinum
This card has a $29 annual fee, but it may be well worth the price for travelers or if you plan to transfer a balance. It offers a zero-percent introductory rate until April, no balance transfer fees, no foreign transaction fees and a low 8.9 percent APR.
Citi Bronze AAdvantage MasterCard
Here's an option If you're keen to earn American Airlines miles with your purchases, though the current offer is a steep 17.74 percent APR.
AT&T Universal Savings & Rewards Card
Consider this new card if you use AT&T. You'll get points and a low 13.74 percent APR on purchases, and a zero-percent APR on transfers for 12 months with no annual fee.
Orchard Bank Prime Platinum Master Card
Bank is known for its roster of cards for people with bad histories. But if your credit is fair you can wangle a reasonable 15.99 percent APR, zero percent on transfers for six months and no annual fee. If you apply and don't qualify, you'll get a subprime card offer.