If rising finance charges have you shopping for lower rates on your credit cards, here are things to consider in this uncertain, ever-fluctuating financial climate.
On Nov. 21, I opened a letter from Citibank announcing that my credit card interest rate will rise from 9.99 percent to a minimum of 16.99 percent. On Monday, we taxpayers bailed out the struggling financial services giant, which like all credit card issuers, is looking to reduce risk and return to profitability by raising rates and lowering credit limits for the U.S. consumers whom they helped to bury in the first place. And they're getting bailout money, too?
I wasn't the only consumer feeling a little steamed.
"What a time for all of these credit cards to raise their finance charge," said Hanna Hill of Plymouth. "You would think the credit cards would be the ones interested in people going shopping ... at least wait until after the first of the year."
When a credit card changes its terms, cardholders are given the chance to opt out of the changes by phone or in writing. How a credit card treats you after you make that decision varies. In my case, Citibank will let me use the card under the current terms until it expires in June. Then they'll close the account, but I can pay off the balance with my old rate. Be sure to research the specifics of your opt-out.
If opting out, send a certified letter and keep a copy, advises Bill Hardekopf, chief executive officer of LowCards.com. That way, you have proof that you dumped the credit card and not the other way around.
Need another card? It's smart to shop around before giving your card the boot.
Consumers who have blemished credit may find it tough to qualify for a good credit card these days. "Banks are staying away from those high-risk customers," Hardekopf said.
If your credit score is in the 500s or 600s, you may find that the new terms of your existing card is as good as it's going to get. Half of banks reported raising the minimum credit score needed to get a credit card, according to the latest Federal Reserve Senior Loan Opinion Survey.
Those with good-to-excellent credit should find attractive rates, as creditors are still competing for the best customers.
Jim Campen, executive director of Americans for Fairness in Lending, suggests carrying multiple credit cards so if one card changes its terms unfavorably, another card is at the ready. "The best strategy, it seems to me, is to shop [for a card] when you don't need to," he said. Of course, if you are easily tempted by having lots of available credit, this is not the solution for you.
Whether your credit is good or bad, all plastic-wielding consumers must put up with the creditors' right to change card terms at any time for any reason. "It's really hard to shop," Campen said. "Even when you do shop in detail they just change the terms on you."
While there are dozens of card-comparison websites, such as creditcards.com, cardratings.com, indexcreditcards.com and LowCards.com, it isn't easy to compare cards by terms. Cardhub.com allows you to search by fees for foreign transactions and balance transfers. Billshrink.com CEO Peter Pham said he soon expects to launch a feature that takes into account which cards follow all of the recommended Federal Reserve guidelines. To learn more about the Fed guidelines, which may be adopted by year's end, visit www.federalreserve.gov, and search "credit card."
Decide not to shop around? That doesn't mean you're immune to the current credit crisis. "Keep track of what you have in your pocket" because card issuers don't always notify you quickly and clearly of the changes, Pham said.
Card issuers are even raising rates and lowering credit limits for so-called "deadbeats" such as Hill and me, who pay our balances in full and on time each month. Two in 10 banks surveyed in the latest Fed report had lowered credit limits for existing prime customer credit card accounts; six out of 10 did the same for customers who had less than perfect credit. The loan officers cited a lower appetite for risk, lower credit scores and missed payments as the reasons.
Hardekopf said the Federal Reserve's pledge last week of $200 billion to jump-start consumer lending might stave off additional credit limit decreases.
Going over a credit limit will trigger fees. A lower limit could also hurt your credit score because a piece of the score is calculated based on how much of your available credit you're using. Closing an account could similarly harm your credit score.
"Consumers who respond to tighter credit and a down economy by reducing their credit use and paying down their debts will most likely see their credit score improve during such times," said Craig Watts, spokesman for credit score creator Fair Isaac. So be sure to carefully read any mail you receive from creditors and scour your statements for any changes in terms.
Send credit card recommendations to Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.