Saturday, February 14, 2009

New Politics: Credit Card Companies are Changing the Game On You

By Dr. Boyce Watkins

In case you weren’t sure, credit card companies are not out to help you. If you are financially illiterate and uninformed, they are going to exploit you. If you are worried about the financial crisis, they are going to prey on your fear to get money out of you. They are also doing exactly what the rest of us are doing: trying to remain protected in a fragile economy.

The stimulus is stymied. The bailout is a failout. The stock market has consistently given a “thumbs down” to every piece of legislation passed in response to this crisis. Our economy is like the sick man who won’t respond to antibiotics. While the results of the latest package are yet to be seen, the truth is that no one is sure what will work. Every company is out to protect their assets and hold on to their cash, which means they no longer have much interest in loaning money to you.

Yes, this is true even if you have a good credit score, which is the ironic part.

Customers are opening their monthly statements to find that credit card companies have started to either ration credit (give less of it) or raise the interest rate being paid on outstanding debt. This doesn’t even count all the dirty tactics used, like using your payments to pay off low interest debt first, quietly getting rid of the grace period or charging interest on your balance from the prior two months vs. the current one. Even when you’ve been making payments on time for years, banks keep raising the bar to maximize shareholder wealth. When liquidity is scarce, those giving out water demand a higher cost per bottle. Additionally, higher default rates have justified the increase in interest rates, but higher interest rates increase the likelihood of default. It’s a nasty cycle, really.

Lawmakers are trying to intervene. Congressional hearings have taken place. Banks are being scolded by senators who keep telling them that this form of business practice is unethical and that they are gouging the American consumer. All this might be true, but what is also true is that you can’t force banks to loan you money. Also, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to legislate a strong economy.

If you have a less than stellar financial history, there is an even greater opportunity for your credit card company to raise your interest rates. If you have defaulted on other loans or are a slow payer in other areas, then they have no problem telling you to pay up or ship out. The days of easy money are long behind us, and companies are dramatically shifting their business practices.

The bottom line is that THEY’VE GOT YOU. They know that you’ve become addicted to the debt they so readily offered in the past, and this debt has become the lifeblood for the lifestyle to which you’ve chosen to become accustomed. They know that they can charge you a higher interest rate because you can’t do anything about it. Like a drug addict who is angry about paying more for his product, you really don’t have any other choice.

Well, maybe you do.

Here is one solution: tighten your economic belt. That means putting together a financial fitness plan today that consists of getting rid of as much debt as possible. I’ve mentioned in prior articles and on our website that paying off debt can be one of the best investments you make with your money. This is especially true if you have a stable job and are paying a high rate of interest to your credit card company.

So, the Dr. Boyce Challenge for this month is simple: Create a budget which includes the steady elimination of credit card debt. That means you should list every single expense you have for the entire month on one piece of paper or a spreadsheet. Don’t leave anything out. Count the money you want to use for getting your hair done, your nails, paying your mortgage, car note, whatever. Count everything. That will be your first step toward obtaining financial fitness.

As you create the budget, allocate at least 10% of your monthly after tax income toward reducing credit card debt. So, if you earn $3,000 per month after taxes,$300 per month should be allocated toward removing credit card debt, not including interest. So, if you owe $5,000 in credit card debt, you can remove this debt in roughly a year and a half. While $300 may seem like a lot of money to find in your budget, it’s there if you look hard enough. In fact, if you spend $10 per day on lunch and/or coffee, you can find the bulk of the money by taking your lunch to work. Make this one of the first bills you pay, not the last. The last bill is the one that only gets paid half the time. It’s easier to negotiate with creditors if you don’t need them so much. Take small steps toward finding your financial freedom.

Next month, we will move to step 2 of the Dr. Boyce Financial Challenge. While I confess that this change won’t be easy, I can promise that it will be worth it in the end. Be strong and remain focused, this is your opportunity to shine.

Dr Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author of “Financial Lipo 101: From financial fat to fitness”, to be released in April, 2009. For more information, please visit

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