Lifestyles Report…Maximize the minimum

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    How closely do you read your credit card bills? A few years ago minimum payment warnings started appearing on your credit card bill. Pay only the minimum, and it will take you years and years to pay back what you borrowed.

    Credit card issuers have been required by law since 2010 to post such warnings on your credit card statements. They estimate how much time it’ll take you to pay off your current balance—and how much hefty interest you’ll have to pay—if you only pay the minimum amount due. Card issuers must also disclose how much more you’d need to pay each month to pay off your balance in three years.

    Initial research showed the law was working as intended—the idea of being in debt for a decade or more was prompting people to boost payments. But new research published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing found that the second part of the required disclosure—the three-year payoff amount—could have an unintended side effect. That three-year monthly payment amount listed on most credit card statements may be prompting some consumers to pay less than they would otherwise.

    “Some people, once they realize the dollar amount that will get them paid off in three years, think, ‘Oh, I’m paying more than I need to get paid off in three years. Three years seems like a pretty reasonable amount,’ and that might decrease their payment,” said study author Linda Salisbury in a press release.

    Some consumers may also be misinterpreting the dollar amount as a suggestion rather than a warning, speculates Salisbury, and using it to guide their payments. “Sometimes these nudges can be perceived by consumers as implicit recommendations like, ‘Oh, they’re telling me this three-year amount. Three years must be a good target range for me to pay it off so I think maybe that’s a good idea and I’ll pay it off in that time frame.’”

    The problem is that the three-year payment amount listed on people’s credit card statements is only accurate if they don’t charge any more debt to their card. If you keep using your card regularly, then the three-year payoff amount will continue to grow with each bill. Additional charging without additional payments means it could take you a lot longer than three years to clear your balance if you only pay that amount. Not everyone reacts the same way to the minimum payment warnings they see listed on their credit card statements. In some cases, the three-year repayment amount may actually inspire chronically low payers to fork over a larger amount.

    You’ll also pay off your debt quicker if you pay more than the minimum amount due. To get a sense of how much faster you can pay off your debt if you substantially increase your credit card payments, check out the CreditCards.com payoff calculator, which allows you to input different amounts and see how long it’ll take you to clear your balances for good. As we get closer to retirement this is a very good idea.

    (Email the columnist at debbienorrell@aol.com)

     

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