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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the new federal agency set up after the financial crisis, reported on Feb. 22 that card users have enjoyed substantial savings in the 12 months since provisions of the 2009 Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act started to take effect.

In addition to banning practices like raising rates on existing balances, the act required issuers to make charges easier for consumers to see and understand. The bureau’s study found that:

  • The long-standing practice of hiking interest rates on existing cardholder accounts has been dramatically curtailed.
  • The amount of late fees consumers are paying has been substantially reduced.
  • Over-limit fees have virtually disappeared in the credit card industry.
  • Consumers report that their credit card costs are clearer, but significant confusion remains.

A week earlier the non-profit Center for Responsible Investing reported that consumers had saved billions because clearer card disclosures made it easier to avoid fees that come on top of basic interest rate charges. The bottom line: While card use can be expensive, it doesn’t have to be, and disclosure rules mean it’s up to the consumer to avoid the missteps that can drive costs through the ceiling.

Obviously, it makes sense to shop for the best possible credit card deal. A disciplined card user who pays off the full balance during the grace period every month can avoid interest charges altogether. To minimize costs, this user should avoid cards with high annual fees.

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The card user who does tend to carry a balance month to month should look for the lowest interest rate offered, and it may be worthwhile to pay an annual fee to cut the rate.

All card users should be wary of overvaluing reward programs like airline miles and cash-back bonuses. Those are typically worth 1%-2% of the transaction amount and can be quickly offset by interest charges if one carries a balance. It makes no sense to carry a larger balance to get more rewards.

Also consider buying a smartphone, which can alert you when your account is getting near the credit limit or a payment is due. That can help to curb extra charges for going over the limit or paying late.

Also, many card issuers now offer smartphone apps that not only let you look at account details but make it possible to move money from one account to another. That can be invaluable, for instance, if you are running up a lot of card charges while traveling.

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.