STEVE INSKEEP, host:
On Fridays we talk about your money, and here is a statistic that may sober some of us: the average household has credit card debt of $7,753, which is a sharp increase from just a few years ago. And just this week, Bank of America reported a nearly 50 percent increase in profits for the latest quarter, partly due to credit card fees, which are going up again this year.
Which is why we've brought in Joan Goldwasser who writes about credit cards for Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Welcome to the program.
Ms. JOAN GOLDWASSER (Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine): Thank you.
INSKEEP: What's going on here?
Ms. GOLDWASSER: Fees are a really good source of income for banks. So if you've got this money coming in, why not increase it if you possibly can.
INSKEEP: I thought that competition between a growing number of huge financial services companies was supposed to take care of this problem. People would compete and offer me lower fees.
Ms. GOLDWASSER: No. They may compete and offer you many more credit cards. You will still see all of the solicitations in your mailbox but that does not mean that the fees are going down. They have not gone down at all.
INSKEEP: And they're going up this year right now, why?
Ms. GOLDWASSER: Well, part of the reason, I think, is that, you know, other sources of income for the bank are not going up as well. Mortgage rates have stayed flat, CD rates are pretty generous. I mean so their other ways of making money are not quite as easy as they perhaps have been in previous times. And these fees are easy money.
INSKEEP: So what do I do if I discover that I'm paying a lot of fees and paying a lot of these $39 late fees for a check that is an hour late, and I've got a 15 percent interest rate or an 18 percent interest rate or they just raised my interest rate. What are my choices?
Ms. GOLDWASSER: Well, you can hope that into your mailbox will magically appear a balance transfer offer.
INSKEEP: That means that somebody says move the debt over to us and we'll give you better terms.
Ms. GOLDWASSER: Right. That could be 0 percent for even 12 to 15 months. However, there is one caveat: you always have to read the fine print. You have to make sure that either that offer includes 0 percent on purchases or that you don't use that credit card for any new spending.
INSKEEP: Will there be some companies that will offer you this low interest rate to get you to transfer your money over to their card, then you find out there was a fee for transferring the balance over.
Ms. GOLDWASSER: Well, it used to be that the fee was capped. And there's some companies that still do that. But some of them are waiving those caps. So therefore if you're transferring a significant amount of money - and it's usually three percent - you know, it could be several hundred dollars. So you have to pay attention to that too.
INSKEEP: Now and again you do have lawmakers who complain about bank fees or credit card fees. Is there any indication that the new Congress might be attempting to put a little more pressure on banks?
Ms. GOLDWASSER: Well, the Senate Banking Committee held hearings yesterday. They were concerned about all of these fees and how they affect the middle class, particularly. Now the question is whether the Democrats and the Republicans will be able to get together and actually pass the bill with caps or whatever they determine is the best way to attack the problem.
INSKEEP: And I would assume that this is an issue where banks have enough lobbying power that both parties would have to agree for anything to be done.
Ms. GOLDWASSER: Yes, that's definitely the case.
INSKEEP: Joan Goldwasser, thanks very much.
Ms. GOLDWASSER: You're very welcome.
INSKEEP: She's with Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine.