Credit cards all look more or less the same -- slim pieces of plastic with a few numbers and a little hologram on each. (And, OK, maybe a picture of kittens, if that's your thing.) But depending on which card you've chosen, that placid plastic exterior could hide an awful, needlessly expensive ripoff.
Even if you don't carry any of the following lousy examples, as cited by the folks at CNNMoney, this rogue's gallery of credit card creeps can provide helpful reminders about what to look for when choosing a card.
Just imagine the admiring stares you'll get when you whip out Barclays' attention-grabbing Visa Black Card. Then again, imagine your shock when you get the bill: Even if you don't charge a penny on it, the Black Card will ding you for a $495 annual fee! In exchange, you'll get back 1% of your airfare purchases, access to many airport VIP lounges, and a few other perks. Unless you happen to be Bruce Wayne or James Bond, the expense may still outweigh the rewards for you.
Elsewhere, the Applied Bank Unsecured Visa Gold Card charges you $125 in your first year and $180 after that. In addition, it imposes steep interest rates, and it doesn't even offer a grace period before interest starts accruing.
These lousy cards may cause the people who carry them grief, but they also give shareholders a reason to smile. By providing its credit network to issuers like Barclays and Applied Bank, Visa
On rare occasions, a card that charges an annual fee does offer benefit that merit the expense. But with many cards charging no annual fee, why pay up if you get little or nothing in return? And if you currently pay no annual fee, keep a close eye on any changes to your credit agreement. Many issuers have begun to institute fees, angling to recoup revenue lost from recent reforms.
Interest rates matter
You might think you're getting a bargain by paying $75 to $100 or more in annual fees and processing charges just to get the First Premier Bank MasterCard. Well, you're not. The card, aimed at folks with poor credit records, charges an annual percentage rate (APR) that ranges from an already high 23.9% to almost 60%! Consumer Reports also counts it among the worst cards around, citing its high fees and user-unfriendly terms. Unfortunately, most of its holders carry a revolving balance, meaning that on $5,000 of debt, they're paying $1,200 to $3,000 in interest -- each year! That's no way to dig out of debt.
Retailer reward cards may not be much better. In the past, many retailers managed their own credit card businesses; Nordstrom and a few others still maintain in-house management. But today, many have shifted the administration, the risk, and much of the profit from their cards, to banks. That might explain some of the staggering fees this slice of the credit card market now contains.
If you pay off your bills in full each month, it can make sense to have a low- or no-fee card that pays you rewards based on purchases. But perks like these vary widely. HSBC's Household Bank Premium Platinum MasterCard and its 1% cash back offer may look good at first. However, the card charges an APR of 19.9% after an introductory 0% period, and an annual fee of up to $39.
If you seek your rewards in the form of discounts at the gas pump, be choosy. Royal Dutch Shell's
Don't dismiss the Shell card out of hand, though -- as with all cards, consider your particular needs and weigh the costs and benefits. It offers 5% off gas, which can really add up these days. If you spend $200 per month on gas, the card will save you $120 per year -- or $95 after the annual fee.
If you're carrying $3,000 in debt, though, that 25% APR will cost you $750. A lower-rate card would be the smarter choice. Also, some cards give you 1% to 5% off gas without tying you to a particular brand. I've got a Discover card like that in my own wallet.
To make sure you're not paying more than you need to, you need to be demanding when choosing a card, and vigilant in monitoring it. Credit cards are helping many financial companies make billions of dollars off people like you. The retailers they often partner with are making millions, too. Be smart -- don't let yourself get ripped off.
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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. Discover Financial is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Fool owns shares of JPMorgan Chase and RadioShack. Try any of our investing newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.