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9 ways to break free from your credit card debt

Jeanie Ahn
Senior Producer/Reporter

Do you know what your credit card’s APR is? APR, or annual percentage rate, is the interest rate you’re charged at the end of each month if you don’t pay your balance in full.

Your APR can range from 0% to upwards of 30%, depending on your credit score. Credit card companies are charging all-time high interest rates, double or triple the rate of a mortgage or auto loan because 1) they’re in the business of making money and 2) they’re taking a risk by giving you an unsecured loan.

In other words, if you default on your mortgage or auto loan, the bank can take your home or repossess your car. But if you default on your credit card payments, the only thing banks can do is take you to court and fight for a judgment against you, which costs money.

“They’re pricing for risk on the front-end because it’s the first debt that gets discharged in a bankruptcy and delinquencies tend to be higher with credit cards” says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate. While consumers with top-notch credit are getting low, single-digit APRs, consumers with a higher potential of default are paying those double-digit penalty rates.

Aside from your credit score, the baseline of your card’s rate is directly tied to the prime rate, or the benchmark interest rate set by the Federal Reserve. So when the Fed decides to increase the prime rate, your card’s rate moves in lock-step with it.

While the Fed can decide to increase the prime loan rate, credit card issuers are not allowed to raise rates on their own without notice, thanks to the passing of 2009’s Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosures Act that protects cardholders from shady tactics.

Prior to the passing of this bill, the credit card market proved to be a deceptive minefield for consumers. “Credit card companies were outrageously unfair to consumers and the Credit Card Act really made a huge difference in getting consumers to be treated more fairly. They could still charge us fees, but they couldn’t trick us anymore,” says Ed Mierzwinski, Consumer Program Director at the US Public Interest Research Group.

While Mierzwinski says the rule could use an upgrade, the best way to stop consumers from being cheated is to have a strong Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the consumer watchdog agency, so it can go after unfair credit card practices. If you’ve been wronged by a bank, Mierzwinski urges all consumers to report it to the CFPB so they can document and track unfair or fraudulent trends.

When it comes to avoiding having to pay those high APRs, the best credit card behavior is, of course, to pay off your balance in full each month. But if you’re unable to do that, there are some ways to minimize the pain of APRs.

One way to do this is to deflate your rate. The better your credit, the better position you’re in to negotiate your rate down. In fact, it took me less than five minutes on the phone with a customer service rep to drop my credit card APR down significantly.

In a survey by CreditCards.com, 84% of cardholders who made such requests were successful, but just 25% of cardholders have asked. Not picking up the phone might mean you’re leaving money on the table.

And while you’re on the phone, ask your credit card company to waive any fees you’ve incurred like late fees, annual membership fees, and even ask them to increase your credit line. In the same survey, 87% of those who asked for a late payment fee waiver were successful, 82% had their annual fee waived, and 89% got a higher credit limit. Those are some great odds!

Another way to break free from your debt could be to transfer your balance to a lower-rate card. Shop around for a card that allows you to pay off your debt with zero interest for several months, but know that most cards charge a balance transfer fee of about 3%. Still, it could be worth it if you’re paying a lot more on your current card.

As you’re shopping around, ignore the big bold promotional wording on the outside of those credit card mail-in offers. Instead, take a look inside at the terms and conditions in tiny font and check for asterisks and footnotes with disclosures about the deal. For example, if you want that 0% APR, it depends on how good your credit score is and there are often criteria you have to meet to stay eligible for that low rate.

If you still feel imprisoned by your debt, credit card expert Beverly Harzog suggests calling the card issuer and ask to speak with the “hardship” department. “It’s not advertised, but if you’re out of work and need time to make your payments, ask to speak to a supervisor for a one-year deal,” says Harzog. “You can also seek credit counseling through a non-profit organization like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. The first hour is free.”

Have any money questions? Connect with me on Twitter @jeanie531 or in the comments below.

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