Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Credit-Card Mail May Be Boring, But Ignoring It Could Cost You
Here's some friendly year-end advice: Read those disclosure letters that banks and credit-card companies are sending you in coming months—or at least try really hard.
The text of these mailings may seem like gobbledygook. But they may require you to make important choices soon. Ignoring them could mean paying a lot more money to your credit-card company, having a credit card rejected or getting an unpleasant surprise at the ATM.
In the Fine Print
Some changes to bank and credit-card accounts may require your response. Look for:
* Changes in credit-card interest rates or annual fees. You can opt out, canceling your credit card for new purchases.
* An end to the practice of automatically allowing you to exceed your credit limit. You can "opt in" to run over your limit but will pay fees if you do.
* An end to automatic enrollment in overdraft programs for debit cards. You can enroll and pay the fees—but there are cheaper options.
New legislation and Federal Reserve rules that go into effect in February and next summer will force banks and credit-card companies to give more notice of significant changes in card terms, limit some interest-rate hikes and require more detailed billing statements. But the rules will also require us to decide whether to opt in or out of rate increases and programs such as "overdraft protection" that we may have been automatically enrolled in previously.
The letters may be easy to miss, since some of them look like junk mail. And don't expect reader-friendly prose. The banks' approach is: "It's not our job to teach you the law; it's our job to comply with the law," says Adam Levin, co-founder and chairman of Credit.com, a credit-information Web site.
When you open the envelopes, here are some details to look for and moves you may want to consider:
• Is the credit-card's interest rate or annual fee changing? Many companies have been aggressively raising rates as high as 29.99%. But you now have the right to "opt out" of these changes before they become effective, essentially canceling the card for new purchases, though you can continue to pay off the balance at the old interest rate.
If you have an outstanding balance, this option especially matters right now because credit-card companies have a narrow window to hit you with higher interest rates. After the second round of the Credit Card Act goes into effect Feb. 22, the companies can raise rates on future transactions but not on your current balances unless you are at least 60 days behind in your payments. But until Feb. 22, any interest-rate increase can apply to both future purchases and current balances—which could mean substantially higher costs.
You may worry that canceling a credit card will hurt your credit score. Those fears are not unfounded. But let's do the math: Say you owe $5,000 on the card and you're paying $250 a month. If the original rate was 11.99% and you canceled the card, you'd pay off the balance in 23 months and pay about $600 in interest. If the rate spikes up to 19.99%, however, and you don't make additional purchases, you would pay off the balance in 25 months, along with more than $1,100 in interest—a $500 difference.
So here's another way to look at it: If you cancel the card and your credit score falls, your score likely will rebound in a year or two if you pay your bills on time and keep your debt levels in check. But if you keep the card and pay the higher rate, your $500 will be gone forever.
Of course, if you truly need the credit and fear you won't be able to get a card somewhere else, it may be worth the money to keep the card. And if you pay your bill in full every month, the higher rate may be irrelevant.
• Has your credit limit been lowered? And do you borrow close to your limit? Starting in February, the new law will bar credit-card companies from charging fees (typically up to $39) for exceeding a credit cap unless the customer "opts in," or agrees to pay fees for the convenience of busting the limit. If you don't opt in, you run the risk that your credit card will be rejected when you near your limit. That could put those with small credit limits or high balances in an awkward position at the cash register. It also makes travel trickier since hotels and rental-car companies often put a hold on your card as a precaution, reducing your available credit.