Thanks to recent congressional pressure, some credit card issuers have become a little more consumer-friendly. Citigroup, the world's largest card company, has quit using "universal default," which permitted it to raise users' interest rates even if they slipped up on payments to other creditors. Chase has decided to stop using "two-cycle billing," a practice that enabled the company to charge interest even for periods in which cardholders didn't carry a balance. But don't think for a minute that creditors have become altruistic. They can still make plenty of money off your account if you aren't paying attention. Here's how a little effort can help:
Request a lower interest rate. If you've been a reliable client with a solid credit profile, there's no reason to settle for a card with a rate of 15 percent or more. Call customer service and be polite but firm: "Given my strong credit history and the fact that I pay my bills on time, I think the interest rate on my card should be reduced to 8 percent. If you can't do that, I intend to take my business to a lower-rate card and cancel this account." (You can shop for a better deal at Bankrate.com, but don't actually cancel the card. It's best to get the balance down to zero by transferring it to a new card or paying it off. Then don't use the card again.)
Pay on time. According to a study by the Government Accountability Office, 35 percent of cardholders paid at least one late fee in 2005 and the average cost was $34, compared with $13 a decade earlier. This is too expensive a slipup to make. Even if you can't cover the bill in full, send in the minimum payment by the due date.
Eliminate your highest-rate balance first. To deal with multiple credit card balances, always pay the minimum due on each, and add more than the minimum onto the one with the highest interest rate. Concentrate on getting rid of the debt on that card, then move on to the card with the next highest interest rate, and so on, until you're in the clear.