On Tuesday, the Senate passed the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act of 2009, an act that will quickly be passed into law with the signature of President Obama, likely within the week. This bill has a huge number of ramifications for credit cards – for users who are late on their payments, for those who pay their bills on time, and perhaps even for the ability to use credit cards in stores.
Existing balances: Issuers cannot retroactively change the rate on an existing balance unless the account is 60 days delinquent.
Payments: A consumer payment above the minimum applies first to the balance with the highest rate.
Teaser rates: Issuers cannot raise rates for the first year after an account opened. Promotional rates must last at least six months.
Bills: Issuers must send a bill 21 days before the due date.
Over limit: Issuers cannot charge over-limit fees on credit cards unless the consumer has signed up to allow such transactions.
Minors: For consumers under 21 years old, a company must get the signature of a parent or another to take responsibility for the debt, or it must obtain proof that the under-21 consumer can repay credit.
Disclosure: Cardholders must get 45 days notice of change in terms.
Fees: Issuers cannot charge fees to pay by mail, phone, and electronic transfer or online, except for expedited service.
Gift cards: All gift cards must have at least a five-year life.
“We’re in uncharted territory here,” says Curtis Arnold, head of CardRatings.com, a credit-card comparison site. Mr. Arnold says consumers can expect issuers to work overtime to lure high-end, high-volume clientele while adding fees and rate hikes for customers with less-than-stellar credit profiles.
The rationale is that credit-card issuers make money off interchange fees (fees merchants pay to card issuers). So customers who charge everything and pay off their balances are seen as less risky and still profitable by card issuers.
The future of rewards programs is also up in the air. Mr. Arnold advises cashing in reward and airline mile points, as their purchasing power has been on the decline in the last year or so. However, he points to new cards from brokerages like Charles Schwab and Fidelity, which offer higher cash-back rewards that lure customers to their brokerage products.
Mr. Arnold also advises those customers with existing balances to pay them off as soon as possible and consider transferring them to smaller banks and credit unions, which may be able to offer more generous rates and repayment terms. He, and others in the industry, expect interest rates on existing balances to keep climbing before the proposed legislation kicks in. (An optimistic guess would be that card issuers would have to comply nine months or a year from now.)
Something else to keep an eye on: Annual fees. The era of reward cards, or even non-reward cards, with no annual fees may be at an end. Stay tuned to notices from your card issuers and the changing fine print of your statement
So what does this mean for you?
First of all, these rules do help people avoid getting into trouble with credit cards. I applaud the change that requires minors to get parental approval or to prove they have the ability to repay before getting a card. I also like that all extra payments always go to the portion of the balance with the highest interest rate – no more shenanigans with companies applying overpayments to 0% balance transfers. Eliminating fees for different types of payment is also a plus.
But what else will change? It’s important to remember that the full ramifications of this bill won’t be seen immediately. Obviously, the credit card companies will try to keep their level of profits the same, which means that, inevitably, they’ll have to change their business in some ways. However, as Arnold noted above, they don’t want to kill the golden goose – the interchange fees that they rake in as a result of wide credit card use.
So, beyond the immediate impact for credit card users noted above, I’m going to make a few predictions about how this bill will affect things over the long term.
Interest rates will keep climbing. The days of easy low-interest credit are ending. That means the role of the credit card will begin to change as smart consumers begin to use credit cards more like charge cards – they pay off the balance in full at the end of each month.
What this might mean for you: Paying down your credit card balances as soon as possible is more important than ever! If you’re carrying a credit card balance, now is the time to start buckling down and wiping out that debt. If you aren’t carrying a debt on your cards, don’t start one – stick to spending less than you earn and keep using the credit card as an intelligent tool.
The credit card syndicates (Visa, Mastercard, etc.) will seek to raise interchange fees as a first line of attack. Credit cards work most effectively when lots of consumers have them and then expect this service from merchants. Think about it from Target’s perspective, for example – if half of their customers use credit cards to pay, they’re somewhat tied to offering that service to customers. Thus, I predict credit card companies will use that to their advantage and raise interchange fees, particularly on large retailers.
What this might mean for you: Many merchants will attempt to recoup this increase in interchange fees by passing the cost along to the consumer, so I would expect a slight bump in prices – 1% or so, spread out over many purchases and items. For most people, this will largely go unnoticed and will be seen as normal inflation.
Credit card issuers will get clever with fees, but annual fees won’t return. Most consumers have come to expect that their credit card will have no annual fees, so I don’t believe these will return in wide use. Instead, the companies will see other avenues for fees – cards that require a minimum number of uses per month, cards that have fees to enroll in particular rewards programs, and so on.
What this might mean for you: You’ll have to be more careful with credit card offers in the future. Also, when there are updates to your terms, you’ll need to read them carefully. Again, if you keep your balance paid, your credit will be good, so you can walk away from any cards that try to slip sneaky fees in on you.
I don’t believe rewards programs will go away. I would expect, though, that rewards programs will become more tied to specific “partner” retailers, like Target and Amazon, and away from more general programs like Drivers’ Edge. Why? Merchant-specific cards encourage loyalty to those merchants, and that has quite a bit of value to the merchants – those aren’t programs they will want to see go away.
What this might mean for you: Don’t be surprised if you find some of your rewards programs changing, particularly when your current card expires. For now, though, stick with what works for you.
Any thoughts or predictions on this new world of credit card rules?