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5 smart credit-card moves in 2009

4. Rewards programs may be scaled back 

While rewards programs are expected to stick around, issuers may scale back rebates to consumers if legislation passes that would reduce interchange fees collected on transactions. Interchange fees are paid by a merchant's bank to a customer's bank when someone uses a payment card. They help fund the rewards programs of card issuers.

"I do think there's going to be some tinkering around the promotional categories, maybe scaling back on some of the cash-back categories where, say, gasoline or some other purchase has been incented higher," Paterson says.

He says the worst case scenario would be a situation where issuers start devaluing points, just like airline rewards programs have done with miles. Consumers would have to spend more to earn the same rewards. But it's too early to tell whether that will happen with non-airline rewards cards.

Your best money move: If you have points or miles you can cash in, do so sooner rather later. As a consumer you have little recourse if the issuer decides to abolish the rewards program or to change the terms.

5. Fewer direct mail solicitations 

Consumers are expected to receive 1 billion fewer credit card solicitations this year than in 2007, according to projections from Mail Monitor, a credit-card acquisition tracking service from Synovate, the market research arm of Aegis Group plc.

Happily for consumers who find themselves annoyed or tempted by credit card offers, economist Leggett expects the downward trend to continue. "This is not the right time to be going out aggressively pursuing customers," he says.

As many as 70 percent of issuers are scaling back efforts to acquire cardholders, according to a July 2008 report from Javelin Strategy & Research in Pleasanton, Calif.

Consumers might still get offers from banks where they already have accounts.

Paterson speculates that banking relationships may take "a more important role in securing credit cards." Banks have more information on existing customers and may be more willing to extend credit to them.

Banks are already stepping up efforts to communicate with their customer base, albeit for other reasons. They sent 42 percent more direct-mail solicitations to their customers in the third quarter of 2008 versus the second quarter, according to a report from Chicago-based Mintel Comperemedia.

Your best money move: If you don't want to receive credit card offers, opt out of them at OptOutPrescreen.com. You can opt out for five years, or permanently if you mail in a form.

Other smart moves
  • Build a savings cushion. Financial crises happen. Don't let a job loss or vehicular breakdown send you reaching for your credit cards. They're an expensive way to finance emergencies and issuers may penalize you for piling on thousands of dollars in debt all of a sudden.

    Pad your safety net by saving three to six months' worth of living expenses in a liquid savings account. If that goal sounds unrealistic, try this suggestion: "Start by socking away 10 percent of each paycheck. You'll really never miss it and yet at the end of a year you'll have a little more than one month's income in the bank," says Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, or NFCC, in Silver Spring, Md.
  • Don't wait to get help. If you are falling behind on your payments, get help sooner rather than later.

A temporary financial problem, such as a job loss, is a good reason to contact your issuer if you're struggling to make payments. Most have in-house help programs that can lower your interest rate or waive fees for a short period of time -- usually three to six months.

Cunningham says if consumers are experiencing a long-term financial problem, such as a divorce or major medical expense, then consumers might want to contact a credit counseling agency for help. Visit the NFCC's Web site to find a counselor.

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