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Credit card minimum payments rising

Another way increased minimums may cut debt is by forcing buyers who think in terms of monthly installments to take a second look at what they can afford. The new minimums will effectively double the monthly price of a purchase, turning a $40-a-month payment for a new sofa into an $80-a-month one. "People charge up to the point that they feel they have room within their budget to afford those payments," Peterson explains. "If I'm trying to figure my budget based around what my credit card payment is going to be, I'll be able to carry less debt."

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Bad news for big debtors
Of course, if your finances are already squeezed to the breaking point, the rate hike is a bitter pill to swallow -- good for you in the long run, but hard to take right now.

"If you're living paycheck to paycheck and your minimum payment goes from $200 to $275, spread over five cards, that's an extra $375 a month," says Brauer. "A lot of families can't come up with that." The banks already know that and are planning for it. Bank of America, one of the first to raise minimum payment requirements, worked an extra $130 million into its 2005 budget to cover projected losses from defaulting cardholders.

But default isn't your only option if your new payment seems out of reach.

"I always tell people there are two sins: not paying, and not paying as agreed," says Cate Williams, vice president of financial literacy for Money Management International, in Chicago. Most creditors would rather opt for the latter, so give your credit card company a call to see if you can either negotiate a reasonable payment arrangement or reduce your interest rate. Otherwise, missing a payment can quickly have you fielding calls from collections agencies -- and at that point, no one will be willing to listen to you, says Williams.

Coming up with the cash
If you've been carrying a big credit card balance and suddenly need an extra $300 a month to make your minimum payments, now's a good time to re-examine your finances. With some smart spending shifts and careful planning, virtually anyone can dig an extra 10 to 15 percent out of their budget.

Here are some ways to get started:

  • Pay less to Uncle Sam. In 2004, 80 percent of taxpayers got a refund -- on average, $2,400 a pop. By adjusting your withholdings, you can keep that money in your own pocket and put an extra $200 a month toward your debt.
  • Curb your spending. Even small changes, like brown-bagging lunch or renting one DVD a week instead of three, can free up to 10 to 15 percent of your income, says Peterson. To find expenses you can shave, track your spending for seven days. You may be surprised at how relatively small expenses -- like 75 cents for a Diet Coke from the vending machine -- add up over time.
  • See a credit counselor. The new bankruptcy law mandates at least two financial counseling sessions during the bankruptcy process, but if you see a counselor now you may be able to avoid reaching that point altogether. For help finding one, visit the Web site of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies or the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
  • Control your cards. Paying down a big debt is hard enough without adding more fuel to the fire. To avoid the temptation to spend, "Take every credit card except one out of your wallet," recommends Williams. "Lock them away. People have frozen them in bowls of ice or given them to a trusted friend. I'm concerned about people walking around without some means of emergency cash. But we all agree what an emergency is, and a shoe sale at Nordstrom is not it."

Melody Warnick is a freelance writer based in Iowa.

-- Posted: May 3, 2005




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