Hidden credit card fees and charges to watch for

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Most people know that overspending can get them into debt.  And many people have experienced how much harder it is to climb out of debt, especially when you tack on high credit card interest and hidden fees. If you don’t pay careful attention to your credit card’s fine print, you could find yourself stuck with fees you didn’t even know you were signing up for.

How do you keep hidden credit card fees from hiking up your debt? Let’s look at some uncommon and the most common fees associated with credit cards and how you can avoid paying them. We’ll also offer advice on when you should consider closing a credit card that charges an annual fee — and provide an option that might not hurt your credit score.

What hidden fees are associated with credit cards?

Each credit card issuer is allowed to set their own fees, as long as they don’t violate any of the terms laid out in the Credit CARD Act of 2009 and other consumer protection laws.

Two examples of issuer-centric credit card fees include:

American Express charges cardholders $35 per billing cycle to reinstate forfeited Membership Rewards® points.

Chase cardholders who participate in My Chase PlanSM, a program that allows you to pay off your purchases in installments, will pay 1.72% of each purchase transaction in fees.

While these fees are less common than some standard fees relating to late payments and cash advances, they’re significant enough when you’re trying to manage and pay off debt. Here are some of the more common fees associated with credit card agreements:

Annual fee

In some instances, people may not know that several of the top rewards credit cards come with annual fees. While many credit card annual fees are less than $100 per year, some annual fees can be much higher than people expect. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® card and The Platinum Card® from American Express, for example, both charge $550 annual fees — but these luxury travel credit cards offer some of the best travel rewards in the industry.

Late fee

If you make a late payment on your credit card, expect to pay a late payment fee. If it’s your first late payment, you can call your credit card issuer and ask to have the fee removed — but if you have a history of late payments, you’re going to have to pay the fees. Typical late payment fee amounts range from $25 to $40, though there are a small number of credit cards that don’t charge late payment fees.

Returned payment fee

In addition to charging late payment fees, credit card issuers also often charge fees for returned payments. If your credit card payment can’t be processed due to insufficient funds or similar issues, expect to pay a returned payment fee. Like late fees, returned payment fees typically range from $25 to $40.

Balance transfer fee

Even the best balance transfer credit cards charge balance transfer fees. Every time you transfer a balance, expect to pay between 3 and 5 percent of the transferred amount in fees. On the plus side, most balance transfer credit cards give you several months in which to pay off your transferred balance interest-free — so you could save money in the long run.

Cash advance fee

There are a lot of good reasons to avoid taking out a cash advance on your credit card. You’ll begin paying interest on your cash advance immediately (with no grace period), and interest rates on cash advances are often much higher than interest rates on purchases. You’ll also pay a cash advance fee — typically, 5 percent of the balance — which is just one more factor that contributes to the high cost of a cash advance.

Foreign transaction fee

Some credit cards charge foreign transaction fees if you make purchases outside of the United States. If you travel frequently, consider one of the best credit cards for international travel — these cards rarely charge foreign transaction fees, since they’re designed for people who spend a lot of time all over the world.

Paper statement fee

Some banks charge paper statement fees to disincentivize consumers from receiving statements via mail. All you have to do to avoid paper statement fees is to sign up to receive credit card statements and other communications via email.

How do I avoid hidden credit card fees?

If you want to avoid hidden credit card fees, start by reading the credit card’s fine print. Any fees associated with the use of the card, including annual fees, balance transfer fees, cash advance fees and late fees, will be clearly stated — so if you’re thinking about applying for a credit card that has a lot of fees buried in the fine print, you might want to look for another option.

If you want to avoid paying hidden fees on a credit card you already have, learn how and why those fees are charged and then do what you can to avoid them. If your credit card charges a late fee, for example, you can avoid that fee by making your credit card payments on time. If you don’t want to pay for the privilege of receiving a paper statement, sign up to receive your credit card statements electronically. If your card charges a foreign transaction fee, make sure you only use the card for domestic purchases.

The more you know about credit card fees, the more you’ll be able to avoid them.

Do I have to pay an annual fee on a credit card if I don’t use it?

If your credit card charges an annual fee, you are still responsible for paying the annual fee even if you do not use the credit card.

In most cases, you should think twice before closing a credit card you no longer use. Closing a credit account reduces your available credit, which could hurt your debt-to-credit ratio and lower your credit score. Your credit score might also drop if you decide to close your oldest credit account, since 15 percent of your credit score is based on the length of your credit history.

However, if you’re no longer using a credit card that charges an annual fee, it might be a good move to close the credit card and apply for a no-annual-fee card instead. If you open a new credit account after closing an old one, you might be able to maintain your current debt-to-credit ratio (assuming you do not use the account to take on new debt). Your credit score will drop slightly due to the hard credit inquiry associated with the credit application, but it should bounce back fairly quickly.

You might also be able to downgrade your credit card directly with the card issuer and switch to a card that does not charge an annual fee. If you have the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, which charges a $95 annual fee, you could request to downgrade to the no-annual-fee Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card. You’ll still earn travel rewards with each purchase (though you’ll go from 2x miles per dollar to 1.25x miles per dollar), and since you’re downgrading a credit account instead of opening a new credit account, there probably won’t be a hard credit inquiry involved. This means you can ditch your annual fee without damaging your credit — and that’s a win-win.