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Be in Charge of Your Credit
by Mia Cronan

It's scary to realize how savvy one needs to be now just to carry a credit card without getting hit too hard in the wallet. It used to be as simple as finding the card with the lowest rate, and you would do well to avoid the annual fee.

And, if you paid off your balance, there were no fees, interest, or fines. Now, we need to look for things like grace periods, methods by which finance charges are calculated, and other hidden features. Beware the hype when you receive something in your mailbox that boasts "no annual fees" or "low interest rates" or even "rebates on your purchases." Somewhere in there, chances are very good that you'll be spending money needlessly on sneaky fees, where that money would serve you better in paying off your card, or at least paying down the balance. Additionally, it is now necessary to watch your interest rate monthly to make sure it's not creeping up, based on some "small print" stipulation that no human in today's world has the time to read during the application process. I understand that legally, credit card companies are responsible for posting your payment immediately. However, some will find any excuse possible to post your check late, so that a penalty is invoked, or a fee is tacked on to your next bill. Sometimes this means that your interest rate will skyrocket (as much as 20%!), and you may be none the wiser until you closely scrutinize your statement.

Here are some things to watch for:

High interest rate from the get go - This means anything over 12 percent for purchases and/or cash advances.

Annual fee - Most credit card companies will waive these if you simply ask.

Large fees for paying your statement late or going over your limit - More than $10 is unnecessary.

Fees that are uncapped - Over $10 or 2 percent of the amount of the cash advance would be inappropriate.

Short grace periods - Less than 25 days on new purchases. A shorter grace period might mean that you'll pay finance charges even if your bill is paid in full. Method of computing the balance - Watch out for "two-cycle" billing, or "new purchases included." If you must pay finance charges, you'll pay less on a card that excludes new purchases.

Also, beware the issuing company that charges for inactivity. Yes, it can happen. With the credit card market saturated, companies will find nifty new ways to charge you for carrying their card in your wallet. Or they may simply cancel your card, potentially leaving you in an embarrassing situation (like taking your new in-laws to dinner, and finding out then that your card no longer works.)

The moral of the story is, read the fine print. And if you do not find the answers you need, contact the issuer and ask specific questions, rather than assuming that you'll be cared for gently and fairly if you carry their card!

If you are in the market for a lower-interest credit card, you may want to have an idea what your overall credit looks like, because that will be scrutinized by whomever you approach. To do so, contact: Equifax at (800) 685-1111 or (800) 997-2493, or go to www.equifax.com.



Mia Cronan is the mother of three girls, ages 4, 3, and 10 months, living in Pennsylvania. She runs the Main Street Mom web site at www.mainstreetmom.com and writes for her church newsletters.


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