Credit Card Fees and Interest Rates

You open your credit card bill and you see that the bank has increased your finance charge. You're concerned, but you're not even clear on how the charge is calculated. How do they do it? This article reveals the secrets behind credit card finance charges.

Today in the United States 640 million credit cards are in circulation. That's two for every man, woman, and child. The average American adult has four credit cards, representing an increase from 3.2 cards each in 2004. On average, 40% of Americans pay their bill each month while 60% carry a balance. Based upon Federal Reserve figures, total U.S. credit card balances are $800 billion.

A credit card is basically a short-term loan from a bank to the card user. Banks are in business to make a profit, and credit cards have traditionally been very profitable. Aside from membership or annual fees, banks make money on cards by charging interest. The interest rate is represented by a percentage of the principal owed, and is calculated periodically. The result is the finance charge that appears on the cardholder's monthly bill.

The Annual Percentage Rate (APR) can vary greatly among different cards. Currently, APRs average 14.41% for cards with rewards, and can go as low as 8.9% and as high as 36%. There is no federal limit on the interest rate a bank can charge.

How do lenders calculate finance charges? Finance charges are calculated by applying a Periodic Interest Rate to the outstanding balance of the account. Because the balance changes every time a customer makes a purchase or sends in a payment, there are many methods that banks use to calculate average balances. The periodic rate is calculated by dividing the annual percentage rate (APR) by the number of billing periods in a year, which are generally twelve. An APR of 21% would convert to a periodic rate of 1.75% (21 divided by 12 = 1.75) per billing period when finance charges are calculated monthly. The periodic interest rate is then multiplied by the balance to determine the dollar amount of the finance charge.

The balance can be computed in a variety of ways. Say a customer has a balance of $3,000 at the end of the month on a card with an APR of 22.5%. If the bank used a simple end-of-month calculation the interest charge would be $3,000 x 1.875% = $56.25. This means that aside from other charges and fees, the customer will pay the bank $56.25 on the $3,000 that he or she has borrowed during the month.

How can you lower your interest rate? The best way is to be a good credit risk. Card issuers have recently begun to calculate a customer's interest rate not only on the customer's history with the company, but also the customer's overall credit rating. This practice is called the "universal default" clause, and it's becoming a standard clause in credit card contracts. Even if you make your payments on time, the card issuer can raise your interest rate if you're late on payments elsewhere. If your payments are late with another credit card company or  with your phone, car, or house payment, the bank can raise your rate.

Your credit score--known as a FICO score-is critical to determining how much you can borrow. It is a major factor in determining the interest rate you pay on a credit card. Your bank can hit you with expensive fees, too. In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court in Smiley vs. Citibank lifted restrictions on late penalty fees. Consequently, there is virtually no limit on the amount a card issuer can charge a cardholder for being even an hour late with a payment. You have nothing to lose if you call your bank and ask for a lower rate. Always read the fine print on your credit card agreement. Above all, whatever rate you have, never charge more than you can pay off in full each month.