Fiscal Fitness ’09: One Phone Call, $198 in Debt Savings

Today's tip is part of our Fiscal Fitness '09 series. Every weekday this month, you'll get help getting fiscally fit as we work toward our goal of saving $2,000 to invest in 3 stocks!

Got credit card debt? Relief is just a phone call away.

The strategy is simple: Call your credit card company and sweet-talk the customer service rep into lowering your interest rate. 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.

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.)

Whom this works best for
Unlike yesterday's dialing-for-dollars exercise to get a break on your cable TV bill, negotiating with your lender has some hurdles.

The customers most successful at getting a break generally have an 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.

Having a longstanding relationship with your lender can work in your favor, as can a handful of competitors' offers to refer to during your call. (We'll show you where to find those in a second.) 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.

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 and IndexCreditCards.com are two places to do your research. Some recent deals found at LowCards.com include a 4% APR on Nordstrom (NYSE: JWN  ) Platinum Visa, 4.5% for Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) Prime Rate Visa Credit Card and 5% for Fifth Third Bank (Nasdaq: FITB  ) Platinum Prime Mastercard.

Low, low rates like those typically expire after an introductory period. If you can pay off your balance during that timeframe, 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.

Average APRs (annual percentage rate) lately have been hovering around 11.75%, according to the weekly survey of 1,260 cards tracked by LowCards.com. IndexCreditCards.com reports that the lowest rates for customers with the very best credit average 9.38% for a non-reward card and 11.81% for consumer cards that offer rewards.

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.

  1. Start with a card that you've had for a while, and for which you've never been late with payments.
  2. Flip over your card and dial the customer service number.
  3. Start negotiating. Tongue-tied? Refer to our sample debt negotiation script in our Credit & Debt center for ideas on what to say.
  4. Call in the reinforcements! For more moral support and more tips on how to deal with your card dealer, tap into the collective wisdom of the long-time Fools who frequent our active Credit Cards and Consumer Debt discussion board. Here's the discussion board's FAQ.

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.

Here are two other money-saving strategies you can employ:

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.

Sign up for a new card with a low balance-transfer deal. Both websites mentioned above keep a list of current balance-transfer deals. Try the one at LowCards and the one compiled at IndexCreditCards. We'd be remiss if we did not wave a huge red flag here. The balance-transfer strategy is rife with "gotchas" that can wipe out any savings. See "How to Win the Balance-Transfer Game" for help avoiding the landmines.

More ways to save:

  • Get the most from your rewards card: According to Consumer Reports, 75% of airline miles go unused each year. Don't let yours go to waste. Use these tips (from a free-travel pro) to rack up rewards the right way.
  • Don't pay dearly for goofing up. Did you totally space out and miss the due date on your credit card bill? Accidentally go over your credit limit just this once? Ask nicely, and ye shall receive. If you're not a frequent offender, then most lenders will let the occasional slip-up slide. But you have to call and ask first. Be deferential, apologetic, and friendly, and that $35 late-payment fee will become but a distant memory. The same can work with your bank account. If you’ve dipped below the zero balance and received an insufficient-funds fee, your bank may offer a courtesy credit to the account if you politely request.   

Read the latest from Fiscal Fitness '09: 1 Month, 2 Grand, 3 Stocks to get our other money-saving tips. We're warming up your budget by cutting back on everyday expenses. You can also keep up with our daily tips through our daily Foolwatch email. Share your frugal insights and experiences through our "Fiscal Fitness '09" discussion board, or leave a comment below.

Fiscal Fitness boot camp instructor Dayana Yochim owns none of the companies mentioned in this article. JPMorgan Chase is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. Home Depot and American Express are Inside Value selections. The Fool owns shares of American Express. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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