1. Do not apply for a credit card until you are ready. It is a really bad idea to apply for new credit before you can afford it. Use the information, skills and insight you picked up in your consumer counseling sessions and make wise decisions.
2. Avoid accepting too many offers. There is very rarely a good reason to have more than one or two credit cards. Having too much credit can lead to bad decisions and unmanageable debts, and it will lower your credit rating. This can make it harder for you to get other lower interest rate loans. Avoid accepting a credit card just to get a discount at a store or a ‘‘free’’ gift.
3. Interest rate is important in choosing a card but not the only consideration. You should always try to get a card with an interest rate as low as possible. But it is rarely a good idea to take a new card just because of a low rate. The rate only matters if you carry a balance from month to month. Also, the rate can easily change, with or without a reason. Remember that even the best credit cards are expensive unless you pay your balance in full every month. And other credit terms can add to your cost, like annual fees, late charges, over-the-limit fees, account set-up fees, cash advance fees, and the method of calculating balances. Sometimes a credit card that appears cheaper is actually more expensive.
4. Remember that lenders are looking for people who run up big balances, because those consumers pay the most interest. You may find that credit card companies are pursuing you aggressively by mail and phone even though you filed bankruptcy. Do not view this as a sign that you can afford more credit. The lender may have a marketing profile telling them you are someone who is likely to carry a big credit card balance and pay a good deal of interest. Or they may see you as a good credit risk because you cannot file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy again for quite a few years.
5. Beware of temporary ‘‘teaser’’ rates. A teaser rate is an artificially low initial rate that applies only for a limited time. Most teaser rates are good only for six months or less. After that, the rate automatically goes up. Remember that, if you build up a balance under the teaser rate, the much higher permanent rate will apply when you repay the bill. This means that the permanent long-term rate on the card is much more important than the temporary rate.
6. If your rate is variable, understand how it may change. Variable interest rates can be very confusing. Some variable rate terms can make your rate go up steeply over time. Read the credit contract to understand how and when your rate may change. And don’t be misled by advertisements that claim ‘‘fixed rate,’’ as this may mean the rate is fixed only until the lender decides to change it again.
7. Check terms related to late payment charges and penalty rates of interest. Most credit card contracts have terms in the small print for late charges or penalty interest rates that increase if you make even a single late payment. Try to avoid cards with late fees as high as $25–$35 or penalty interest rates of 21–24 percent or higher. Even if you are not having financial problems, these terms may become important, because they apply equally to accidental late payments.
8. Get a card with a grace period and learn the billing method. It is important to understand how you will be billed. Look for a card with a grace period that lets you pay off the balance each month without interest. If the card does not have a grace period and interest will apply from the date of your purchase, a low interest rate may actually be higher than it looks. The terms of the grace period are also important, as it may not apply to balance transfers and cash advances. And look out for different interest rates that may apply depending upon the type of charge: these usually include a higher rate for cash advances.
9. Don’t accept a card just because you qualify for a high credit limit. It is easy to assume that because a card offer includes a high credit limit, this means the lender thinks you can afford more credit. In fact, the opposite may be true. Lenders often give high credit limits to consumers hoping that they think will carry a bigger balance and pay more interest. You must evaluate whether you can afford more credit based on your individual circumstances.
10. Always read both the disclosures and the credit contract. You will find disclosures about the terms of a credit card offer, usually in small print on the reverse or at the bottom of the offer. Review these carefully. However, the law does not require that all relevant information be disclosed. For this reason, you must also read your credit contract, which comes with the card. This will include terms such as late payment fees, default rates of interest, and a description of the billing method. Since these terms are not easy to understand, you may want to call the lender for an explanation. Or better yet, refuse credit with too many complex provisions, because those terms are likely to work to your disadvantage.
Ten Things to Think About Before Using Your Credit Card
1. Establish a realistic budget. Before using a credit card after bankruptcy, try paying cash for a while. This will help you learn how much money you need each month to pay the basic necessities. Don’t forget to budget for the payments on any debts you reaffirmed in your bankruptcy.
2. It is important not to use credit cards to make up for a budget shortfall. Credit card debt is expensive. Sometimes credit cards are so easy to use that people forget they are loans. Be sure to charge only things you really need and plan to pay the balance off in full each month. If you find you are constantly using your card without being able to pay the bill in full each month, you need to consider that you are using cards to finance an unaffordable lifestyle.
3. If you get into financial trouble, do not make it worse by using credit cards to make ends meet. If you find that you are using credit cards to get through a period of financial difficulty, it is likely that additional credit will only make things worse. For example, if you use cash advances on your credit card to pay bills, the interest due will only add to your debt burden sooner rather than later.
4. Don’t get hooked on minimum payments. Credit card lenders usually offer an optional ‘‘minimum payment’’ in their monthly billing. These are usually set very low (usually 2 percent of the balance), barely covering the monthly interest charge. If you pay only the minimum, chances are that you will be paying your debt very slowly or not at all, and you may think you are managing the debt when you are really getting in over your head. For example, if you make only the monthly minimum payments to pay off a $1000 balance at a 17 percent interest rate, it will take over 7 years to pay your debt! If you are also making new purchases every month while making minimum payments, your debt will grow and take even longer to pay off. This means that your monthly interest obligations will increase and you will have less money in the monthly budget for necessities.
5. Don’t run up the balance based on a temporary ‘‘teaser’’ interest rate. Money borrowed during a temporary rate period of 6 percent is likely to be paid back at a much higher permanent rate of 15 percent or more. Also be careful about juggling cards to take advantage of teaser rates and balance transfer options. It takes a great deal of time and effort to take advantage of terms designed to be temporary. Remember that all teaser rate offers are designed to get you locked into the higher rate for the long term, because that is how the lender makes the most money.
6. Avoid the special services and programs credit card lenders offer to bill to your card. You are likely to get many mail offers and telemarketer calls from your credit card lender about special services such as credit card fraud protection plans, credit report protection, travel clubs, life and unemployment insurance, and other similar offers. These products are generally overpriced. It is best to throw out and refuse these offers, or at a minimum, treat them with a high degree of caution. And avoid ‘‘free trial’’ offers as you will be billed automatically if you forget to cancel the service.
7. If you can afford to do so, always make your credit card payments on time. Be careful to avoid late payment charges and penalty rates if you can do so while still paying higher priority debts. Bad problems get worse fast when you have a new higher interest rate and late charge to pay during a time of financial difficulty. Most lenders will waive a late charge or default interest rate one time only. It is worth calling to ask for a waiver if you make a late payment accidentally or with a good excuse.
8. Know exactly when the grace period ends. The grace period usually ends on the payment ‘‘due date,’’ which may change every month. Many lenders do not mail bills until late in the grace period, so your payment may be due quite soon after you receive the bill. This also means that the grace period may be less than a full month, usually about 20-25 days. Some lenders are slow in posting payments or have strange rules about deadlines (like payments received after 10:00 a.m. on the due date are considered late). Try to mail your payment well before the due date so there will be no question it gets there on time. Paying credit cards on time not only saves you interest and late fees but is a good way to improve your credit rating after bankruptcy.
9. Beware of unsolicited increases by a credit card lender to your credit card limit. Some lenders increase your credit limit even when you have not asked for more credit. Avoid using the full credit line as your debt can easily spiral out of control. And going over the credit limit even by a few dollars can be very costly as you will likely be charged an over-the-limit fee and a higher penalty interest rate.
10. If you do take a credit card and discover terms you do not like: Cancel! You can always cancel any credit card at any time. Although you will be responsible for any balance due at the time of cancellation, you should not keep using a card after you discover that its terms are unfavorable.