The more we write about consumer credit habits, the more we start to realize that the average U.S. consumer has no idea what to do with a credit card.

Did you know that you can get a late fee waived just by asking. According to a survey by CreditCards.com, 89% of credit card holders who asked for a late fee to be waived got what they were looking for. Meanwhile, 78% of cardholders who asked for a lower interest rate received one. Granted, very few of you would realize that, since only one in five cardholders ever asks.

Sure, only 65% of cardholders were able to get a lower interest rate by asking in 2014, but a whopping 86% still had late fees waived by request. Your annual household income doesn't matter, but age certainly does. Millennials, or cardholders younger than 35, have an 84% success rate for requesting late fee waivers, but only 36% aren't outright laughed at when they ask for a lower interest rate.

“People have way more negotiating power with their credit card issuer than they think they do,” said Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com’s senior industry analyst. “The worst that can happen is they say no, but most of the time, they say yes. The credit card market is incredibly competitive right now and consumers should use that to their advantage.”

What they don't have is a firm grasp on how to handle those terms once they get them. A CapitalOne survey indicated that 52% of cardholders are concerned about mistaken or unwanted charges, but only 47% believe they should keep a more watchful eye on transactions. As a result free trial that turned into reoccurring charges stunned 36% of cardholders.

A recent online survey from NerdWallet conducted by Harris Poll, meanwhile, found that 54% of cardholders think that carrying a credit card balance helps their credit score. On top of that, 55% don’t know when they start being charged interest on credit card purchases. Not only is that first notion incorrect, but the second makes clear that U.S. cardholders aren't following the simplest rule to staying out of trouble with a credit card: pay it off each month.

“The only thing carrying a balance will do is cost you money,” says Sean McQuay, NerdWallet’s resident credit card expert and a former Visa strategy analyst. “Consumers who don’t pay their card off each month are charged interest on the average daily balance of said card. Sometimes interest charges are unavoidable, but you can’t pay for good credit via interest charges.”

This is all part of the reason that we as a nation are having major issues with credit card debt again. By the third quarter of 2015, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, total U.S. credit card debt hit $714 billion (up $34 billion from a year earlier). The Federal Reserve put total revolving debt at $935.6 billion in December, up 5.1% from a year earlier.

Credit card statistics and analysis site CardHub notes that the average household with credit card debt now owes $7,879 -- or just $500 less than CardHub considers unsustainable for a median household income of little less than $52,000. Also, as CardHub points out, we haven't hit $900 billion in credit card debt since 2007 during the ramp up to the financial system’s 2008 collapse.

Meanwhile, NerdWallet's American Household Credit Card Debt Statistics Study found that the average household is paying $6,274 in interest alone year, which means that 9% of average household income ($72,641) is being spent just on interest. That means that the average American household with credit card debt is facing 44 years of payments if they make only the minimum payment on their debt each month.

Even when cardholders think they're doing the right thing to address that debt, they aren't. Roughly 80% of cardholders told NerdWallet that they didn't think closing an older, paid-off credit card would hurt their credit score, even though it knocks down your available credit and skews your credit utilization -- the ratio of debt you're holding to credit available. Meanwhile, while 82% of cardholders know that paying a bill late hurts their credit score, only 8% realize that only certain degrees of lateness will affect their credit.

If you pay within 30 days of your due date, the blunder most likely will not be reported to the credit agencies,” McQuay says. “While you don’t have to pay your bill on time for a healthy credit score, you still should. Even if there isn’t a credit impact, most credit cards charge a late fee.”

Though CreditCards.com found that more than one in five Americans with credit card debt (21%) believe they will never pay all their cards off -- up from just 9% in 2013 -- most consumers still believe that the best solution to credit card debt is to shut cards completely. As a result, the percentage of U.S. households with credit cards carrying revolving debt has decreased from 44% in 2009 to just 34% today, according to the National Foundation For Credit Counseling.


Though budgeting, transferring big balances to 0% interest cards and paying down debt with the highest interest rates first all can dig you out of debt and give you better credit than shunning cards entirely, U.S. cardholders are loath to do so. That isn't great, as their inaction now may have consequences for cardholders far into the future.

“With the global economy showing signs of extreme volatility and debate raging over both the timing and frequency of Federal Reserve rate hikes, data that speaks to the financial health of the average American household can be quite telling,” says Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of CardHub. “Credit card debt statistics, in particular, reflect consumer sentiment and can foretell overleveraging bubbles that may trigger constriction in credit markets.”

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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