CREDIT CARDS are hitting the lowest interest rates they've charged in years. That's great news for holiday shoppers, who threw around plastic this year as if they were millionaires.
When the final tally is in, shoppers are expected to have charged $375,000 per second in each of the holiday's peak buying days, says Robert McKinley of CardWeb in Gettysburg, Pa., which tracks the card industry. (Those special days: Nov. 27, Nov. 28 and Dec. 24.)
Most of the new card mailings offer 15 percent or less on unpaid balances, according to Credit Card News, a Chicago trade magazine.
Of the largest 39 credit-card solicitations mailed in mid-December, 15 carried fixed rates of 9.9 percent. The offering banks: Bank One, Capital One, First Chicago and First USA. One bank, Providian, offered 7.9 percent.
With some cards, you might pay just 3.9 percent for the first three months. Providian gives you three months interest-free.
There may even be free gifts, such as a $50 U.S. Savings Bond (Bank One) or a cash rebate worth up to 1 percent of what you charge each year (Capital One).
Low-rate banks, however, may not want your balance transfers. Providian, for example, charges 12.9 percent or 21.9 percent, depending on your credit record, for balances carried over from other cards.
A few variable-rate cards also fall into the 9 percent range, but most charge double-digit rates.
Low fixed-rate cards made their first appearance last spring, but only for higher-income people with good credit ratings who carried balances on their cards, says Pete Heisey, editor of Credit Card News. Now, they're being democratized. The average good credit risk can get low-rate cards, too.
One warning: Fixed rates aren't truly fixed. Card issuers can raise them, generally on 15 to 30 days' notice.
A second warning: What you gain in lower interest rates you may lose in higher fees. If you don't read the fine-print "Change in Terms" notices stuffed in your credit card bill, you may be hit with a charge you didn't expect.
Here's what card issuers are doing, according to a recent survey of 117 cards by Consumer Action in San Francisco:
Shortening the grace period you're allowed for making payments. The standard grace period is 25 days, but some cards are down to 20 days or less. That's measured from the end TTC of the billing cycle. By the time you actually get the bill, you may have only a few days to pay.
Reducing or ending "leniency periods." These are extra days you may be allowed to get your payment in. Some banks give you five to 15 days after the due date, before interest is charged, but their number is slipping.
Raising the late fees. These are being assessed more often, because of the curtailed grace and leniency periods. Today, you're charged an average of nearly $22 if a payment is late, compared with $12.53 in 1995, Consumer Action says. CardWeb puts the average at $25.
Raising, or adding, over-the-limit fees. These fees run as high as $20 to $29. They're levied not only when you charge more than your credit limit, but also for every month that those extra charges stay on your bill.
Slapping penalty rates on cardholders who send in a payment late. A 16 percent card might suddenly cost 21 percent or more. Some cards charge 25 percent. You might be stuck with that high rate for a full year.
Reducing the payment you're obliged to make each month. Formerly, you had to send 4 percent of what you owed. Now, half the banks require just 2 percent, Consumer Action says. If you send that little, you'll owe much more interest and take far longer to repay the debt.
Charging inactivity fees to customers who always pay their bills in full.
Starting "two-cycle" billing, which also catches people who often pay off their cards in full. If you carry a balance the month after you've paid in full, you'll be charged for two months' interest.
How should you handle your card today? First, pay your bills as soon as they come in, so you don't risk triggering a late fee.
Then, reduce your card debt. Cancel all but two or three cards. Choose a no-fee card, if you pay in full each month. If you carry balances and your credit is good, find a card charging 10 percent or less. You can.
Pub Date: 12/28/98