If you’re facing a pile of bills you can’t pay, the buzz about credit card reform may seem like a lot of hot air. But in fact, the new laws give you some leverage that could help you manage―and conquer―your debt. Here are some common scenarios people with less-than-stellar credit might face in the coming months, and ways to capitalize on the new, more consumer-friendly regulations.
Credit conundrum #1: The bank hiked your interest
What you need to know: After years of declining, average rates have started to climb again. This is especially true for variable-rate cards. As the economy improves, these indexes will rise―and so will your interest.
What changes with the new law: Banks are now required to give 45 days’ notice of any interest increase. In addition, if they bump up your rate because you paid late, they must revert to your former rate if you make on-time payments six months in a row afterward.
Take action: The new law buys you some time. If you’re notified that your rate will increase, look in your wallet. You may have other cards with lower interest See if it makes sense to transfer your balance to one of those. But watch out: most balance transfers come with a 3 to 5 percent surcharge. It won’t make sense to transfer a balance to save 2 percent on interest. Alternatively shop for a new card. Try Bankrate.com, Cardtrack.com and CreditCards.com. Each lets you search according to what type of card you want, such as low-interest or rewards cards. At Bankrate, you can also search by how good your credit is (excellent, good, average or poor) to find the best card. Another site, BillShrink.com, ask for info about your spending habits and then recommends cards suited to your needs.
Credit conundrum #2: Your credit limit got cut.
What you need to know: The fallout may not be as bad as you think. Your total amount of outstanding debt is only one factor used to determine your credit rating. If you pay on time, have a long credit history and haven’t opened a slew of new accounts recently, that all counts in your favor.
What changes with the new law: Banks will still be able to cut your limit. But if you’re close to being maxed out, the new law offers extra protection. If you try to charge something that will put you past your limit, you’ll get an “over limit” notification. You can then cancel the purchase and avoid getting dinged by an over-limit fee.
Take action: It’s unlikely you’ll get your limit raised again just by complaining. Work to pay off your balance. If you feel you need more credit for a rainy day, apply for another card. But be sure to tuck it away and, if you do rack up a balance, pay it off as soon as possible.
Credit conundrum #3: You paid late and got whacked with a fee.
What you need to know: Even if you’re a day overdue, you can get dinged with a late fee, which averages $25.90 and can run as high as $39
What changes with the new law: Late fees are still allowed, but new regulations help you avoid them. Banks are no longer allowed to bump up your rate if you’re late on another bill, such as a mortgage or utility bill. And the payment due date must be at least 21 days from the date the bill is sent (previously, it could be as little as two weeks).
Take action: If you missed a payment and were charged a late fee, call customer service. Chances are good that if you’ve always been on time, you can get the charge removed simply by asking. But if you’ve been late before, the fee will likely stand. Prevent it from happening again by noting the due date on your calendar when your bill arrives. And, if you pay bills through your online checking account, see if your bank offers a bill reminder service.