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3 Reasons Your Credit Card APR Is Crazy High

Credit card aprREUTERS/ Kai Pfaffenbach

For most of this year, interest rates have been historically low -- on everything but credit cards.

The back story on these low rates traces back to 2008, when the Federal Reserve enacted several policy measures specifically designed to drive down interest rates. While rates on other loan products during that time fell, as the Fed expected, credit card APRs have risen, and continue to rise.

Since the first week of January, the annual percentage rate, or APR, for variable-rate credit cards -- the most commonly available -- has increased to 15.31 percent from 14.56 percent.

In contrast, rates on home equity loans, home equity lines of credit and new-car loans carved out record lows earlier this year; and the 30-year fixed mortgage rate, while above its record low of 3.5 percent, is now hovering around 4.6 percent, still low by historical standards.

It's not like credit card holders are behaving badly, justifying higher APRs. The opposite is true. The percentage of credit card accounts that are at least 30 days past due are at almost 23-year lows, according to the American Bankers Association. The average outstanding credit card debt is well below levels seen in 2008.

So, what gives? Three are three main reasons for the high rates -- the type of debt, government legislation and you.

Generally, credit card rates will always be higher than those of other loan types because credit card debt is unsecured, says Robert Hammer, founder and CEO of R.K. Hammer, a bank card advisory firm in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Mortgages are backed by houses, and auto loans are secured by cars. That means a lender can take the house or the car if the borrower fails to make payments. Credit card issuers don't have that recourse. Defaults and charge-offs are typically higher on credit cards than on secured loans, too, he says. So, the risk that the issuer could lose out is higher than for a mortgage lender or auto lender.

That explains the difference in rates between loan types, but not why credit card rates are moving in the opposite direction from other loan rates. For that, the real culprit is a little piece of legislation called the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009.

"The biggest rout in credit card rates occurred in 2009 and 2010 around the implementation of the CARD Act," says Mike Masasi, senior analyst at Mercator Advisory Group. "Issuers had revenue avenues restricted."

The profit-killers in the CARD Act included:

  • No interest rate increases in the first year.
  • Increased rates don't apply to new charges.
  • Caps on penalty fees.
  • Elimination or limitation of other fees.
  • Restrictions on billing and payment practices.

To recoup the lost income, companies started raising interest rates and annual fees, says Roy Persson, director of competitive tracking services at Ipsos Loyalty, a research services company. The average annual fee last year was $113, compared with $80 in 2010.

"Legislation has created a less profitable unit of the bank, and they have to search for ways to recover that," he says.

Consumers can't affect the APRs companies assign to their credit cards, but they can influence whether they receive a rate that's on the higher or lower end of a card's APR range. Many credit cards come with a range of APRs. Which one you get depends largely on your credit score, says Bill McCracken, president of financial services research firm Synergistics Research Corp. in Atlanta.

"You and your neighbor may have the same credit card, but I bet you both have very different interest rates on them," he says.

If you have a great FICO credit score, generally above 720, then you should get an interest rate between 10 percent and 15 percent, he says. Those with credit scores between 680 and 720 will receive an APR between 15 percent and 20 percent. Credit scores between 620 and 680 will probably get you an APR in the 20s.

If you feel like your APR is too high, McCracken recommends requesting a decrease from your issuer if you have a good payment track record. Customer service representatives often have some authority to reduce rates by between 1 percent and 3 percent, he says. If your issuer refuses, politely tell the issuer that you plan to transfer your balance to a new card that sent an offer for a lower rate.

"If the issuer still doesn't budge, then you have to vote with your feet and activate that balance transfer," McCracken says.

Of course, the only time the APR matters for a credit card is if you don't pay off your balance every month, says John Ulzheimer, credit expert at CreditSesame.com. For mortgages and auto loans, interest rates are always material because consumer will always pay the interest on the loan.

"It's well within your control to pay no interest on your credit card," he says. "But there's no such thing as an interest-free mortgage."

How to Use a o APR Credit Card

A 0 APR credit card is a good tool for transferring your current credit cards balance or consolidating your credit card debts into one payment only. This way can save you interest charges at least during the introductory rate period, which usually lasts for 6-12 months.

But 0% APR credit cards are not at all beneficial to everybody. If you always pay the outstanding balance in full you would probably disregard the interest rate and wouldn’t be interested in no interest credit card offers. If you belong to this group you may be more interested in credit cards that offer rewards and cash backs instead of lower rates.

Now, do you think you have maximized the benefits of your credit cards? Are you satisfied with the rewards you get and the low-interest you have? What if you have the chance of seeing promotions like zero APR? But the question is, is it true? Is there a great chance that credit card companies can actually offer a 0 percent APR?

Both a very low and a 0 APR credit card are promotional programs offered by credit card companies so to get the new consumers on the hook. These offers are usually expressed during the introductory rate to entice new credit card holders to sign up to them. And once they are all hooked up, the companies would start changing and increasing their credit card interest rates.

The question is how come they can offer something so good just like that? Normally you can’t extend the 0% annual percentage rate or APR. It lasts only for 6 months. The countdown starts from the day the credit card is claimed.

In many cases, zero percent APR credit cards are attractive to people who would want to have a balance transfer. This is because they would want to consolidate all of their debts into one payment only. And because they have a huge pile of debt, they would rather go to a credit company that can offer them lower interest rates.

Using a 0% balance transfer credit card those consumers will have the chance of paying off their credit card debts with no interest for a whole introductory period. In theory, that would be a lot of savings.

Tips for Using 0 APR Credit Card

To get the most benefits of the low or no interest offers you may need to know what makes a low credit card really low and the best option for retaining that low APR even if the introductory offer is over.

First, understand that APR has two faces: the fixed and the variable. The fixed APR has more stable interest rates than variable rates. Variable rates, however, can start really low but it all depends on the prime rate of the Federal Reserve. This means that at any time, it may increase.

Needless to say, there are really a few credit cards that have low APR. The reason behind it is that APR is actually where the credit card companies get to earn a living. If they continue to give people the low APR that they used to claim, chances are they wouldn’t be in the business for so long.

All of these boil down to one point, that you must be aware on how these offers can give you the benefit that you want. Of course, there are lots of rewards with 0 APR credit card. But if you don’t really need the cards because of the mentioned situations, then it’s best not to have them at all.