Finding the best credit card is mostly a matter of comparison shopping, but before you accept a credit card offer, make sure you understand the card’s credit terms. For instance, what is the annual percentage rate? Is there a grace period? How much is the annual fee? Once you have the answers to these and other answers, then you can compare several cards at once and figure out which card meets your particular needs and which one offers you a better deal.
Tip: Figuring out which card is best for you is not always obvious because it really depends on how you plan to use the card. For example, if you plan to pay your bills in full each month, fees and the length of the grace period may be more important than the periodic and annual percentage rate. If you anticipate using your credit cards to pay for purchases over a period of time, then the annual percentage rate (APR) and the balance computation method are important terms to consider. In either case, keep in mind that your costs will be affected by whether or not there is a grace period.
When it comes to shopping around for a credit card there are a few terms you should know and understand. These include:
Annual percentage rate. The annual percentage rate or APR is a measure of the cost of credit expressed as a yearly rate.
Periodic rate. The card issuer also must disclose the periodic rate applied to your outstanding account balance to figure the finance charge for each billing period.
Variable rate. If the credit card you are considering has a variable rate feature, the card issuer must tell you that the rate may vary and how the rate is determined. You also must be told how much and how often your rate may change.
Grace period. The grace period allows you to avoid the finance charge by paying your current balance in full before the due date shown on your statement. Knowing whether a credit card plan gives you a grace period is especially important if you plan to pay your account in full each month. And, thanks to the Credit CARD Act of 2009, if the credit card has a grace period finance charges for the month cannot be assessed unless you receive the monthly statement 21 days before the financing charges begin.
If there is no grace period, the card issuer will impose a finance charge from the date you use your credit card or from the date each transaction is posted to your account.
Annual membership. Most credit card issuers used to charge annual membership fees, but this is no longer the case. There are plenty of cards out there with no annual or other participation fees. For those card issuers that do impose annual fees, they typically range from $18 to $95. The annual fee for an American Express Platinum Card is $450.
Other costs. A credit card also may involve other types of costs such as balance transfer fees and fees for cash advances, or late fees.
Under the Truth in Lending Act, if your credit card is used without your authorization, you are only held liable for up to $50 per card. If you report the loss before the card is used, federal law says the card issuer cannot hold you responsible for any unauthorized charges.
If a thief uses your card before you report it missing, the most you will owe for unauthorized charges is $50. This is true even if a thief is able to use your credit card at an automated teller machine (ATM) to access your credit card account.
To minimize your liability, report the loss of your card as soon as possible. Most companies have toll-free numbers printed on their statements and 24-hour service to report lost or stolen cards.
The use of rebate and rewards cards has grown rapidly. Costco for example sponsors a credit card (Costco Cash Rebate card) that give rebates on the cost of merchandise you buy with the card once you spend a certain amount. You usually get larger rebates on the sponsoring company’s products and lower rebates on other card charges. Credit card solicitations promise cash, frequent-flier miles or points that will buy everything from hotel rooms to gas.
Tip: You’ll get a good deal from a rebate card if you spend a lot, and if you pay your bill in full each month. If you carry a balance on the card, what you gain in rebates you will lose in the excessive interest charged by credit cards.
Average Daily Balance (including or excluding new purchases). The average daily balance method gives you credit for your payment from the day the card issuer receives it. To compute the balance due, the card issuer totals the beginning balance for each day in the billing period and deducts any payments credited to your account that day. New purchases may or may not be added to the balance, depending on the plan, but cash advances typically are added. The resulting daily balances are added up for the billing cycle and the total is then divided by the number of days in the billing period to arrive at the “average daily balance.” This is the most common method used by credit card issuers.
Adjusted Balance. This balance is computed by subtracting the payments you made and any credits you received during the present billing period from the balance you owed at the end of the previous billing period. New purchases that you made during the billing period are not included. Under the adjusted balance method, you have until the end of the billing cycle to pay part of your balance and you avoid the interest charges on that portion. Some creditors exclude prior, unpaid finance charges from the previous balance. The adjusted balance method usually is the most advantageous to card users.
Previous Balance. As the name suggests, this balance is simply the amount you owed at the end of the previous billing period. Payments, credits, or new purchases made during the current billing period are not taken into account. Some creditors also exclude unpaid finance charges in computing this balance.
If you have a problem with merchandise or services that you charged to a credit card, and you have made a good faith effort to work out the problem with the seller, you have the right to withhold from the card issuer payment for the merchandise or services. Check with your credit card company regarding their policies.
If you do not achieve satisfaction through the seller or credit card company, you can file a small claims court action-an informal legal proceeding that can be used to settle disputes. Check your local telephone book under your municipal, county, or state government headings for small claims court listings.
In addition, you have the following rights:
You have the right to have mail and phone order purchases shipped when promised, or to cancel for a full and prompt refund. If no shipping date is stated, your right to cancel begins 30 days after your order and payment are received by the merchant. If you cancel, the seller has one billing cycle to tell the card issuer to credit your account.
There are two exceptions to the 30-day shipment rule: (1) If a company doesn’t promise a shipping time, and you are applying for credit to pay for your purchase, the company has 50 days after receiving your order to ship. (2) Spaced deliveries, such as magazine subscriptions (except for the first shipment); items that continue until you cancel (e.g. book or record clubs, etc.); C.O.D. (cash on delivery) orders; services; and seeds or growing plants are not covered.
You have the right to a full refund–because of shipping delay–within seven working days (or one billing cycle) after the seller receives your request to cancel.
You may refuse a delivery of damaged or spoiled items.
Tip: If there is obvious damage to a package you receive in the mail, and if you decide not to accept the package, write “REFUSED” on the wrapper (at time of delivery) and return it unopened to the seller. No new postage is needed, unless the package came by insured, registered, certified or C.O.D. mail and you signed for it.
Tip: If you are ordering something to be delivered by C.O.D., make your check out to the seller, not the post office. That way, you may contact your bank and stop the check if there is an immediate problem with merchandise.
When you return merchandise or pay more than you owe, you have the option of keeping the credit balance on your account or requesting a refund (if the amount exceeds $1.00). To obtain a refund, write the card issuer. The card issuer must send you the refund within seven business days of receiving your request.
The Fair Credit Billing Act provides specific rules that the card issuer must follow for promptly correcting billing errors. The card issuer will give you a statement describing these rules when you open the credit card account and, after that, at least once a year. Many card issuers print a summary of your rights on each bill they send you.
Billing errors include:
- a charge for something you didn’t buy
- a purchase by someone not authorized to use your card
- an amount on your bill that is different from the actual amount you paid
- a charge for something that you did not accept on delivery
- a charge for something that was not delivered according to the agreement
- arithmetic errors
- payments not credited to your account
When you find an error you must notify the card issuer in writing within 60 days after the first bill containing the error was mailed to you. Some companies may accept e-mail; others will require that you put your dispute in writing. Be sure to include your name and account number, a description of the billing error and the date and amount of the charge you dispute.
The card issuer, in turn, must look into the problem and either correct the error or explain to you why the bill is correct. If there is an error, you will not have to pay interest charges on the disputed amount. Your account must be corrected. If there is no error, the credit card company must send you an explanation and a statement of what you owe.
During the period that the card issuer is investigating the error, you do not have to pay the amount in question. For further information visit Consumer Information.
Here are some suggestions for the use of credit cards:
- Pay bills promptly to keep finance charges as low as possible.
Tip: Keep copies of sales slips and promptly compare charges when your bills arrive
- Keep a list of your credit card account numbers and the telephone numbers of each card issuer in a safe place in case your cards are lost or stolen.
- Protect your credit cards and account numbers to prevent unauthorized use.
Tip: Draw a line through blank spaces above the total when you sign receipts. Rip up or retain carbons.
- Deal only with reliable firms. Check with your local consumer protection agency or the Better Business Bureau (BBB) closest to where the business is located. Study the advertising offer carefully and always ask the company about its refund and exchange policies as well as product warranties offered.
Tip: Pay by money order, check, charge or credit card so you have a record of your purchase.
- Never send cash. Keep the ad you responded to and a copy of the order form. If there is no order form, make your own notes with the company’s name, address, phone number, date, amount, the item you purchased, and any delivery date that may have been promised.
- Never give out your credit, debit, charge card or bank account numbers unless you’ve checked out the company or have done business with it before.
Some merchant practices violate your privacy and expose you to potential credit fraud, and are therefore illegal in many states.
To protect your privacy, say “no” to a merchant who engages in these impermissible credit card practices:
- Writes your credit card number on your personal check
- Writes your personal information on a bank credit card sales slip
- Imposes a minimum sales amount for credit card purchases
- Charges extra for payment by credit card.
Note: Giving a discount for cash payments is allowed.
You have the right to tell commercial telephone and direct mail marketers to stop calling you. If you wish to have your name removed from telephone lists of marketing companies contact the federal Do Not Call Registry:
National Do Not Call Registry
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580
Consumers who do not wish to receive promotional mail at home should contact:
Direct Marketing Association
1120 Avenue of the Americas
NY, NY New York, NY 10036-6700
If companies you now do business with also removes your name, you can contact them directly to have your name reinstated. If the marketer violates the do-not-call list, the first step is to file a complaint with the FTC (Federal Trade Commission). You can also file a lawsuit against the telemarketer, but only if there is a “pattern and practice” of violations. You also have to have suffered actual damages of more than $50,000 and be able to prove both of these things.
Tip: If you receive unordered merchandise in the mail, consider it a gift and don’t feel pressure to pay for it.