Poll: 2020 is a great year to negotiate credit card terms

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Chances are that if you asked to have your credit card annual or late fees waived, interest rates lowered or credit limits raised in 2020, you’d get what you wanted.

But a lot of people haven’t asked, according to a new poll from Bankrate.com. Millennials and parents with children under 18—43 percent and 48 percent of whom paid late at least once, respectively—are the groups that asked the most and were the most successful in getting what they wanted.

This year, 33 percent of cardholders were charged a late fee and almost half of them (47 percent) asked for it to be waived. Of those cardholders who asked for late fee waivers, almost all (82 percent) got some relief—almost half (45 percent) got all of them waived and 37 percent got some waived.

Many Americans are culturally disinclined to ask for concessions, said Mike Sullivan, director of education at Take Charge America. Other countries have marketplaces where bargaining is a way of life, but in the U.S. many people seem unable to ask for deals of any kind—and others don’t know they can or don’t care, he added. And, he said, inertia is a huge problem among consumers, especially when it comes to financial matters.

Most consumers were preoccupied with other issues during the pandemic, and they didn’t have the energy or bandwidth to take advantage of some very generous relief options offered by their creditors, said Martin Lynch, compliance manager and director of education at Cambridge Credit Counseling Corp.

Millennials and parents might represent those in the most need

Those with the greatest financial stress are most likely to break tradition, Sullivan pointed out.

Millennials are missing paychecks and parents of school-aged children often miss or lose work to care for those children during these trying times.

They need relief, whereas older consumers are not as concerned with child care and are more likely to have stable jobs and seniority at work, Sullivan said.

Lynch said both standout groups may have been more likely to know that relief was available, and to swallow their pride and ask for help.

“I think this applies, in particular, to parents of young children, who’ve already been forced to adjust their lives in so many ways,” he said. “Whatever reservations they may have felt about asking for help were quickly forgotten after having dealt with the other issues they’re facing.”

Check out some other significant findings from our latest poll:

  • Lower interest rates? Piece of cake. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of cardholders who asked for a lower interest rate this year got some help, but only 14 percent of cardholders even asked.
  • Say hello to fee waivers. Seventy-three percent of cardholders who asked for an annual fee waiver in 2020 got it (43 percent of those got all of their fees waived and 30 percent got some of them waived). But almost half (44 percent) of cardholders have been assessed annual fees and only 26 percent of them asked for at least one fee waiver.
  • Raising the limit. Many cardholders (70 percent) asked for a higher credit limit in 2020 and got at least one (39 percent got a higher limit every time and 31 percent got it some of the time). But only 18 percent asked for a higher limit—and out of those who did ask, 31 percent were millennials and 34 percent were parents with kids under 18.

The survey of 2,802 U.S. adults was conducted online between Nov. 18-20, 2020. See survey methodology.

Creditors want to help struggling consumers

Take Charge America’s Sullivan said creditors are eager to help consumers—they are concerned about write-offs and losses, but must look compassionate.

They also face falling revenues as consumers use credit cards less, and they need to keep customers, he said.

Yet many consumers have not asked for assistance.

Some do not need assistance, Sullivan said, but many are unaware of the current environment for credit relief since creditors have not always been quite so helpful.

Late fees are the price that challenged consumers always pay to keep credit cards when they lack the cash to pay their bills. The only thing that has changed, aside from creditors being more helpful, is that more consumers are income challenged.

“And many consumers don’t like to talk with anyone to whom they owe money, regardless of the likely benefit—much like going to the dentist for many,” Sullivan said.

Lynch pointed out that people are less likely to share information about a break they received from a creditor since the act that precipitated the request was a missed payment, which might be why people don’t know to ask.

“I think this same group will miss additional payments if the next pandemic stimulus bill doesn’t include another round of direct payments to individuals,” Lynch said.

Now is the time to ask for lower interest rates

Some consumers never carry a balance and do not care about interest rates, Sullivan said, while others are unaware of the significance of an 18 percent or 19 percent (or higher) interest rate on a card.

And card companies, like insurance companies, have established a pattern of slowly increasing costs for current customers, but most consumers don’t question it until they get an ad for a 0 percent balance transfer card or some other special offer.

Even then they typically don’t ask their current card issuers to match the offer.

But now is the time to ask for lower APRs because interest rates for banks are close to zero, and they can afford to cut customer rates.

In fact, Sullivan said, some credit card companies are offering low-risk consumers rate reductions without being asked because issuers need to keep every customer.

More people should have asked for annual fee waivers

Consumers who sign up for credit cards with annual fees tend to be wealthy, according to Sullivan.

Wealthy consumers might well ask to have the fee waived since they may not be using the card enough to warrant the cost. (Many fee-based cards involve travel awards and fewer people are traveling.) Other consumers with income challenges may feel the need to ask for relief in this area as well, he said.

Of course, some annual fee cards offer little beyond prestige, but that type of card also attracts consumers who are unlikely to ask for relief.

It’s a buyer’s market for credit card customers

“Again, I think the fact that consumers are getting higher credit limits shows that the banks are willing to help their cardholders through the pandemic,” Lynch said.

Rather than wait and see if credit tightens, some people may choose to access credit in advance by seeking a higher limit on an existing account, or applying for another product such as a home-equity loan. Then, if they lose their jobs, they have a cushion to tide them over.

“If that was, indeed, their rationale, then it was prudent,” Lynch said.

Sullivan finds it a bit surprising that cardholders are getting higher credit limits if they ask.

“Some credit card companies have been reducing credit limits, for even excellent credit risk customers,” Sullivan pointed out.

Although the number of accounts demonstrating distress has decreased since the pandemic began, there is still a lot of uncertainty in the economy. But Sullivan said credit card companies may be willing to take on some risk to retain customers and keep earning fees from highly leveraged cardholders.

“This certainly appears to be a buyer’s market for credit card customers—or at least for some customers,” Sullivan said.

The bottom line

Ted Rossman, industry analyst for Bankrate, said most annual fee card issuers have made smart adjustments during the pandemic, like pivoting away from travel and rewarding everyday expenses such as groceries, food delivery, takeout, streaming services and cellphone plans.

Cardholders appear to have a lot of leverage when it comes to getting their annual fees waived or reduced, Rossman noted.

“I definitely think it makes sense to ask for a break on your annual fees, and not just on the lower fee cards, either,” he said. “I’ve heard of some phenomenal breaks on high-end cards this year.”

Rossman’s attitude toward asking for breaks is, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Card issuers have pulled back on marketing and customer acquisition and are even more concerned than usual about risk.

If you’re a good customer who has been with an issuer for a while and pays on time, chances are they’ll bend over backward to keep you.

“Even less desirable customers – those falling behind on their bills – are often getting relief because it definitely makes sense to ask for a break before canceling a card or paying an extra fee,” Rossman added.

Survey methodology

CreditCards.com commissioned YouGov Plc to conduct the survey. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,802 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken online from Nov. 18-20, 2020.

Written by
Barri Segal
Credit Cards Reporter
Barri has written in the personal finance vertical—including credit cards—for more than 20 years. She currently identifies and reports on news and top trends in the credit card industry and authors in-depth interview pieces with industry experts.