Saturday, November 28, 2009

How to escape the credit card fee cycle

Being buried with fees? Get out now!

By Sally Herigstad

To Her Credit
To Her Credit, Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006).

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Question for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
Can a credit card company continue to charge you late fees, over-limit fees and maintenance fees after your account has been closed by the bank?

I missed one payment with my credit card company for the first time in three years. I called and asked if I could make reduced payments until my financial situation improves, but they refused to work with me. I've been making less than the minimum payment because I can't afford to make the total due with the fees. The more fees and interest they tack on, the more impossible it becomes for me to make the minimum, let alone make any progress on it.

I have sent in letters and made numerous calls to the company to try and work out my account. I called today and was told my account was closed, but they plan to continue to charge my account over-limit fees and late fees.

Can they do that? What can I do to stop it? -- Quana

Answer for the expert

Dear Quana,
Once you get behind on payments, the fees can start coming like a barrage of snowballs. It makes it hard to get back on your feet! A few years ago, a friend of mine owed about $1,000 that, for one reason or another, got away from her. The late fees and over-limit fees started piling up, the interest rate went up to 33 percent, and before she knew it, she owed $3,000. Ouch!

Unfortunately, yes, they can do that. If you owe money on an account, even though the bank has closed the account and you can no longer make charges on it, you are still subject to late fees, over-limit fees and continuing interest expense on all of the above.

Every time your payment is late or is less than the minimum, you pay a fee. And every month your balance remains over your credit limit, you pay another fee.

The exception is the annual fee. If the account is closed, you should not have to pay the annual maintenance fee.

The Credit CARD Act of 2009 contains provisions to regulate fees, including over-limit fees. Under the section of the law dealing with over-limit charges, consumers can choose whether they want to pay over-limit fees if they buy something that puts them over their credit limit, or if they want the transaction to be rejected instead.

The new law also limits the over-limit fee to once every billing cycle. This portion of the law goes in effect Feb. 22, 2010.

On Aug. 22, 2010, additional provisions go into effect. One of them states that over-limit fees, late fees and other fees must be reasonable and proportional to the violation. As of this moment, exactly what that means hasn't been spelled out.

Contacting your credit card company was a good first step. However, the banks are inundated right now with people asking for help, many of whom are in worse shape financially than you are.

The next step is to get help from a nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency. A credit counselor can help you explore all the options for your situation. In addition, the counseling agencies have negotiated guidelines with credit card issuers for setting up debt management plans or forbearance programs. Under these programs, the bank may reduce your interest rate, waive fees and let you make lower minimum payments, giving you a chance to start making payments on time again.

Laws and regulations can only do so much to protect you from high fees and interest charges, but you can find the help you need to get back on your feet again. Once you get relief from high fees and interest expense, you can take control of your finances and start working your way out of debt once and for all.

BofA rate hikes push national average credit card APR higher

Higher rates, economic struggles likely to dampen holiday spending

By Jeremy M. Simon

Interest rates on new credit card offers rose slightly this week, according to the Weekly Credit Card Rate Report, as Bank of America increased rates on two of its cards.'s weekly rate chart
Avg. APR Last week 6 months ago
National average 12.71% 12.68% 12.24%
Business 9.74% 9.49% 16.74%
Low interest 11.65% 11.65% 12.22%
Cash back 12.08% 12.08% 12.06%
Balance transfer 12.13% 12.07% 10.99%
Reward 13.29% 13.29% 13.01%
Instant approval
13.32% 13.32% 10.74%
Airline 13.60% 13.60% 12.96%
Bad credit 13.74% 13.74% 11.37%
Student 14.89% 14.89% 14.52%
Methodology: The national average credit card APR is comprised of 95 of the most popular credit cards in the country, including cards from dozens of leading U.S. issuers and representing every card category listed above. (Introductory, or teaser, rates are not included in the calculation.)
Updated: 11-25-2009

The national average credit card annual percentage rate rose to 12.71 percent, up from 12.68 percent the previous week and 12.24 percent six months ago. The average is calculated from about 95 of the most popular credit cards in the country, including cards from dozens of leading U.S. issuers and representing nine major categories of credit cards. Introductory (teaser) rates are not included in the calculation. Among the average APRs in the nine categories, two jumped higher and seven were unchanged.

This week's increase in the average was due to Bank of America hiking the interest rates on some of its cards. It's far from alone: Two months ago, the average stood at 12.32 percent; six months ago, it was 12.24 percent.

With BofA and many other banks continuing to raise APRs, some experts say cardholders will remain hesitant to charge purchases, limiting the economic recovery. On Tuesday, data showed third-quarter gross domestic product growth was weaker than previously estimated, due to restrained consumer spending.

That trend is likely to continue: A survey released Monday by the Consumer Federation of America and the Credit Union National Association showed that 43 percent of consumers plan to cut back on holiday spending this year, with nearly a quarter of poll respondents expressing concern about meeting monthly credit card payments.

Those numbers represent an improvement over last year's holiday survey, but they still display far more consumer pessimism than the numbers seen before the economic recession began.

"During these recessionary times, more people have been seeking to pay down debt and build up their savings," CUNA Chief Economist Bill Hampel said in a press release."We certainly have seen that behavior among the nation's 92 million credit union members. Our survey indicates the pattern is continuing into the holiday season."