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6

Call Your Lender and Strike a Deal

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The Motley Fool's Fiscal Fitness Boot Camp is in session! Every weekday this month, we'll walk you through a fresh money-saving/money-making tip as we work toward finding $2,000 in savings you didn't know you had.

Got credit card debt? Relief might be just one phone call away.

This money-saving strategy is pretty straightforward: Call your credit card company and sweet-talk the customer service rep into lowering your interest rate. (Don't worry, we'll tell you how to play your cards right during your call in a moment.)

What's a few squirmy minutes on the horn worth in cold, hard cash savings? Plenty: On a $6,000 balance, at a 19% APR that you want to pay off in one year, negotiating a rate reduction to 12% will save you $198 in interest. (Monkey with this debt reduction planner calculator to see what it's worth on your own balance.)

Dealing with the new lending reality
Clearly, anyone who carries a balance on their credit card should start dialing for dollars right now. However, unlike the good ol' days of credit card debt (yes, there were some good things about unabashed competition and rate wars), this strategy isn't the slam-dunk that it used to be.

A survey several years ago found that more than half of people who asked were able to lower their interest rate by more than one-third. I don't know what the success rate is today, but anecdotal evidence suggests that as lenders have tightened their standards and reduced their exposure to consumers' indebtedness, they are more willing to lose your business to a competitor than in the past.

So what's a gal with a credit card balance to do? Give it the old college try, that's what.

Will this work for you?
Talking your credit card company into lowering the interest rate on your account has more hurdles than yesterday's dialing-for-dollars exercise to get a break on your cable TV bill.

The customers most successful at getting a break generally have these things going for them:

  • A stellar on-time payment history. If you've been late paying your bill (or have skipped a month or so altogether) in the past six to 12 months, your bank probably won't be as amenable to negotiations.
  • A relatively blemish-free credit reputation. Lenders are constantly checking your credit file to see how you're handling your other debts. So if you've been a disaster customer with another card company or have outstanding collections marring your credit file, you don't have a lot going for you when you make that call.
  • A long-standing relationship with your lender. Being a longtime customer can work in your favor. Being a longtime customer who regularly carries a balance (thanks for the interest payments!), uses your card frequently (thanks for the transaction fees!), or takes the bait for special offers (thanks for signing up for our overpriced credit insurance!), you are considered a "good" (aka "profitable") customer and one worthy of keeping on your lender's books.
  • Have a handful of competitors' offers to refer to during your call. Credit card competition has ramped up in recent years, as card companies like JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) and American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) now must contend with retailers such as Target (NYSE: TGT  ) and Home Depot (NYSE: HD  ) offering their own branded credit cards. (We'll show you where to find competitors' rates in a second.)

So if you have a relatively blemish-free credit record, you've been a longtime customer, and you have the patience to work your way up the phone tree (or call back multiple times until you get a bank representative who will play ball), the deck is stacked in your favor.

How much of a break should you request?
If you don't already have the details of your debt, use the "Get to Know Your Debt" worksheet (.pdf file) to track how much you owe, to whom, at what interest rate, and when it will be paid off.

Next, you want to see what your bank's competitors are offering. LowCards.com, IndexCreditCards.com, and Cardhub.com are a few places to do some research, and you'll find information both on traditional bank cards like Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) , Capital One (NYSE: COF  ) , and Discover Financial (NYSE: DFS  ) as well as retailer-specific cards.

Keep in mind that low, low rates that many issuers offer typically expire after an introductory period. If you can pay off your balance during that time frame, ask your lender to institute a low rate like that for a fixed period. If it's going to take you longer to pay off your balance, shoot for a more realistic ongoing rate reduction.

Start dialing!
Now that you're armed with information about your current debt, and you know what kinds of deals are out there, psych up to make that important phone call.

Feeling tongue-tied? Use our sample debt negotiation script to guide your conversation to its fruitful end. If you need more moral support, call in the reinforcements! Tap into the collective wisdom of the longtime Fools who frequent our active Credit Cards and Consumer Debt discussion board. Check out the helpful FAQ, too.

If it doesn't work ...
Keep trying. If you don't get what you want the first time, try to get another customer service rep or supervisor on the line. Still won't budge? Mark your calendar and call back in a few months.

More ways to save ...
Here are two other money-saving strategies you can employ:

1. Move your balances to your lowest-rate card. Simply call your lender and ask how to transfer funds. And be sure to find out what fees -- if any -- you'll be charged. (If you're maxed out on those cards, then forget it.) Weigh those against any interest savings before making the move.

2. Sign up for a new card with a low balance-transfer deal. The websites mentioned above keep a list of current balance-transfer deals. One very important thing to note before opening a new card and moving what you owe onto it: The balance-transfer strategy is rife with "gotchas" that can wipe out any savings. Read -- no, memorize -- "How to Win the Balance-Transfer Game" before you do it so you can avoid the land mines.

Tune in for the rest of the month for the latest installment of our Fiscal Fitness Boot Camp, as we stay on course to produce at least $2,000 of savings for you.

Whenever Dayana Yochim has to make an uncomfortable phone call to a customer service rep, she cops a British accent, just to make it seem more civilized. Discover Financial Services and Home Depot are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. The Fool has a disclosure policy that would be much classier if it were read aloud by Sir Ian McKellen.


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