How Do I Read the Fine Print on My Credit Card Paperwork?

Q: Paperwork from credit card companies always seems to be filled with tiny print that’s hard to read and even harder to understand. How do I read the fine print from my credit card issuer?

A: Fine print is designed to keep you from paying attention, but it often contains important information you can’t afford to miss. Here’s what you need to know about reading and understanding the fine print on credit card applications and billing statements.

What do all those terms mean, anyway?

First, let’s take a look at 12 basic credit card terms that are important to know but are often misunderstood:

  • Accrued interest – The amount of interest incurred on a credit card balance as of a specific date.
  • Annual Percentage Rate (APR) – The rate of interest that is paid on a carried credit card balance each year. The amount of interest charged each month will vary according to the current balance. This number can be determined by dividing the current APR by 12 to get the monthly APR rate, and then multiplying that number by the current balance.
  • Annual fee – The yearly fee a financial institution or credit card company charges the consumer for having the card.
  • Balance – The amount of money owed on the credit card bill.
  • Billing cycle – The amount of time between the last statement closing date and the next.
  • Calculation method – The formula used to calculate the balance. The most common is the daily balance method, where charges are calculated by multiplying the day’s balance by the daily rate, or by 1/365th of the APR.
  • Cash advance – Money withdrawn from a credit card account. Cash advances usually have strict limits, higher interest rates and fees.
  • Credit limit – Also known as a line of credit, this refers to the maximum amount of money that can be charged to your credit card.
  • Default rate – Also called the penalty rate, this refers to an especially high rate of interest that kicks in if the consumer is late in making monthly payments and/or has violated the terms and conditions of the card.
  • Grace period – The time between making a purchase and being charged interest on that purchase.
  • Late payment notice and fee – These will alert the consumer to a missed payment and its associated fee.
  • Minimum payment – The smallest amount of money the consumer can pay each month to keep the account current.

What’s the big deal about all the small print on my credit card application?

Don’t sign on the dotted line (or digital signature pad) just yet! Those microscopic letters on your credit card application actually contain important information. Here are some common claims you might find on an application and what the small print below these claims actually says:

Claim: Sign-up bonus: $950!

Fine print: Must spend $3,000 on the card within the first three months of ownership. Redeemable only at participating airlines.

Claim: Interest-free offer!

Fine print: Expires after 18 months, the same time a 22.5% interest rate kicks in.

Claim: 0% balance transfer!

Fine print: With a $300 balance transfer fee.

Claim: 5% cash back on grocery spending!

Fine print: Capped at $1,000 per quarter and only at participating grocery stores.

Claim: Cash advance of up to $1,500!

Fine print: With 20% interest and a $200 cash-advance fee.

Claim: Generous 25-day grace period!

Fine print: We reserve the right to shorten the grace period at any time.

How do I find the fine print on my credit card application or statement? 

Read the fine print before you sign up for a credit card offer. You can find this information on the credit card’s paper or digital application under a label marked “Pricing and Terms” or “Terms and Conditions.” You can also find this information when researching credit cards online; look for it under the “Apply Now” button where it may be labeled as described above, or as “Interest Rates and Fees” or “Offer Details.”

If you’ve already signed up for the card, you’ll find these conditions on the “Card member Agreement” that generally accompanies a new credit card. The text will be lengthy, but will likely be divided into sections, including a pricing schedule, relevant fees and payment details.

Your credit card statements will also have lots of fine print, though most of it will be on the back of the bill. This information will include all the information from your application, as well as some additional information, including reports to credit bureaus, how your interest rate on the balance is calculated, how you can avoid paying interest on your purchases and how to dispute fraudulent charges on your bill.

You can find the small print on your credit card applications and statements by looking for an asterisk (*) or dagger (†), which indicates small-type footnotes at the end of the page or document.

Do I need to read all the fine print? 

Fine print will appear all over your credit card paperwork, but it’s best to pay attention to the tiny letters near the points you most care about. For example, be sure to read up on the information given on all special promotions, introductory offers, bonuses, rewards and more. In general, you’ll find this rule to be true: “The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.” In modern English, this means that the large print is designed to grab your attention and make you sign up for the card immediately, while the small print contains all the qualifiers, exclusions, justifications for future cancellations and more, about these claims.

Fine print written in financial jargon can be difficult to spot and to understand, but ignoring the small words on your credit card paperwork can have disastrous consequences. Let our guide help you learn how to read the fine print on your credit card applications and statements. Don’t let anything get past you!

Your Turn: Have you ever regretted missing the fine print on your credit card paperwork? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
fool.com
cardratings.com
nerdwallet.com
experian.com
cnbc.com

Understanding The Credit Card Trap

Young couple uses credit card to pay for their stay at a pricey hotelDid you know the average American household carries $6,358 in credit card debt?

If that doesn’t sound too alarming, consider this: A debt of $5,000 with an interest rate of 24.99% (which is the current rate of a typical Capital One or Citibank card), where only the minimum payment is made each month and no additional charges are made to the card, accumulates $4,823 in interest over five years. That means the cardholder would be paying nearly double the amount that was originally spent!

Why do most Americans carry so much credit card debt and find themselves stuck in the debt trap? Let’s take a deeper look at credit card usage, debt and interest rates so we can understand this phenomenon and ensure credit cards are used responsibly.

The minimum payment mindset
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research website, a third of credit card holders make just the minimum payment each month.

Here’s how it usually happens: You use your card for a purchase you can’t really afford, or you want to defer paying for it from your savings. When your credit card bill arrives, you either choose to make just the minimum payment or it is all you can afford to pay at the time. You figure you’ll pay off the rest when your finances improve. Soon, you’re in the trap of pulling out your card whenever you want to purchase something beyond your budget. Since you’re only making the minimum payment, it seems like it doesn’t matter all that much if your credit card debt grows a little larger. From there, the cycle continues as debt climbs and you continue using your card for purchases you’d be better off not making.

This is a quick illustration to show how your “small balance” of just a few thousand dollars can really mean paying more than double that amount over the years because of interest.

Also, when you’re trapped in this mindset, your balance barely budges. With a debt of $5,000 and a minimum monthly payment of $150 (at 3% of the total balance), you’ll only be paying $47.30 each month toward your principal. The rest goes toward your interest accrued.

Take a moment to think about this the next time you decide to use your credit card to pay for something you can’t afford. Is it worth paying $5,000 over the next five years for a $2,500 vacation?

Credit scores and prolonged debt
Another important aspect of prolonged credit card debt is the detrimental effect it can have on your credit score. Your credit score gives potential lenders and employers an idea of how financially responsible you are.

One of the crucial factors used in determining your credit score is your debt ratio, or the percentage of available credit that you’ve already spent. In most credit score formulas, the more credit you’ve used, the lower your score. If you’ve fallen into the habit of using your credit card whenever you’re short on cash, and are only making the minimum payment each month, you likely use a high percentage of your available credit.

Even worse is when your credit card company sees that you’re running low on available credit, and may offer to increase your line — or even do it automatically. If you agree to the upgrade, there’s nothing stopping you from racking up another huge bill, further decreasing your score.

Another important component of your credit score is the trajectory of your debt. If you’re barely making progress on your balance, you won’t score high in this area either.

A low credit score can prevent you from qualifying for a mortgage, auto loan or even an employment opportunity. If you do get approved for such loans with your less than stellar credit score, you’ll likely be saddled with a hefty interest rate, which significantly increases your monthly payments and the overall interest you’ll pay.

Is it really worth racking up that credit card bill?

Should I throw out all of my credit cards?
Hold onto your cards. You need to have some open and active cards for maintaining a healthy credit score; however, it’s important you use your cards responsibly.

First, be careful not to fall prey to the minimum payment mindset. Live within your means and learn to find happiness in what you have instead of chasing the elusive and transient thrill of material possessions. Before using your card for something you can’t afford, imagine this purchase haunting you for years to come. Is it worth paying double the amount it costs in interest payments? Is it worth harming your financial health?

Second, if you’re already carrying a large credit card balance, stop using that card and work on increasing the amount you pay off each month. Even a relatively small monthly increase can make a big difference in the total amount you ultimately pay toward your balance.

Third, to use your cards responsibly and keep your score high, it’s best to use your credit card for non-discretionary payments, like your monthly utility bills. This way, you’ll be keeping your accounts active without running the risk of overspending. Remember to pay your credit card bill on time to avoid paying interest.

Finally, take a long look at your current cards. What’s the interest rate on your cards? As mentioned above, the current interest rate on a typical Capital One card is 24.99%, which can nearly double a balance of a few thousand dollars over the course of five years. Look at alternatives, like an Advantage One Platinum Rewards Visa® credit card that may offer you a substantially lower rate. If the new card rate is substantially lower, you could literally save yourself thousands of dollars over the coming years.

Your Turn:
Have you gotten yourself out of the minimum payment trap? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
nytimes.com
creditkarma.com
genxfinance.com