Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted on and passed the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009, the Senate’s alternative to the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights. Here are some of the provisions, taking effect in February 2010:
Credit card companies must give 45 days notice before raising interest rates. Under current rules, a credit card company can raise interest rates on a customer for any reason at any time with no notice. Normally, the cardholder can refuse the rate increase and close the account, and the issuer will provide a chance for the customer to pay down the balance. The new bill, once signed into law and put into effect, will require advance notice.
Credit card companies must apply your payments to your highest interest rate balance first. Let’s say you took advantage of a 0% balance transfer offer for $10,000 but ended up needing to use the credit card for an emergency and made a $2,000 purchase at an interest rate of 10.99%. Currently, any payment you make is likely to be applied to your balance transfer until you pay off the $10,000, forcing you to be charged interest on your $2,000 balance. The new rules would change this practice.
Minors will not be able to own their own credit cards. Anyone under the age of 21 requires a parent or legal guardian to be the main account holder. The child or student could then be an authorized user on the account. There is an exception for students who have income and can prove they can be responsible for the charges on their own. Currently, my cat could get a credit card. He’s only twelve years old.
Consumers will need to “opt in” to charge above their credit limit. In the “good old days” of credit cards, if you charged more than the level of credit the issuer decided to grant you, your purchase would be declined, the waiter would return to your table, embarrass you in front of your friends, and cut your card in half with a pair of scissors. These days, you are allowed to go over your limit, but you will be charged a fee for doing so.
Credit card issuers claim this is a service; they would be mortified if one of their customers would be forced to live without air conditioning in the dark because the payment via credit card for the electric bill didn’t go through. Under the new law, consumers would have to “opt in” to receive the benefit of being charged a fee. In any situation, it helps to monitor your usage so you know when you are approaching the limit.
Your existing balance will not be subject to “universal default.” Today, it’s common practice for many credit card issuers to automatically raise interest rates if you are over 30 days late, or default, on a debt payment to anyone else who reports to agencies like Equifax and Experian. If this happens to you, you may find your interest rate to be increased on your full balance. The new law does not outlaw universal default, but it does prevent old balances from being affected. Only new charges will be able to be assigned a default rate.
Anticipating and fearing the future expense of these changes, some credit card issuers have already begun raising interest rates, lowering limits, and reducing rewards across the board. Many people I’ve spoken to, and some who have commented on Consumerism Commentary, are concerned that well-behaved credit card users who pay their bills in full each month and reap the rewards will have trouble finding amazing credit card deals in the future. I’m not too concerned.
The glut of rewards in the past decade is an anomaly. The game of credit card arbitrage, moving balances around from one card to another to take advantage of 0% interest rates while your borrowed money is earning high interest in a bank account, has always been dangerous, and in the end, a losing proposition. The ubiquity of these deals has significantly decreased over the past few years, anyway.
Credit is flowing better than it was six months ago. Yes, there are still people out there having difficulty obtaining loans, but for the well-qualified, like those who pay in full and are responsible, won’t find much trouble with credit card offers.
Credit card companies will still be competitive. They’re not going to drop their rewards programs. Even if they’re not making money on interest fees and late charges, they are making up to 3%, sometimes more, on every regular transaction through merchant fees, and the value of rewards that come back to the consumer is usually less than 1%. Credit card users who seek rewards, like me, charge more on their credit cards, so the issuers make more money on us than we’d like to believe.
Personal responsibility is an important lesson that should be learned prior to opening a credit card account. Paying attention to your own finances may alleviate 80% of the headaches pertaining to credit cards. But as customers get savvier, the industry finds ways to make dealing with them more difficult for the issuer, hiding rules deep in the twenty-page pamphlet of fine print and changing those rules on a whim.
I expect that credit card issuers will continue finding new ways to make money off of customers who either don’t pay attention to their finances or find themselves in financial distress due to external or unforeseen circumstances, and I expect that responsible users will continue to find moderate and reasonable rewards for good credit behavior.
Updated May 26, 2009 and originally published May 21, 2009.