Take control of your credit cards

Last reviewed: November 2009
Illustration of man holding a chair and a whip keeping credit cards away
Illustration by Andrew Baker

You have to wonder whether credit-card companies really want to keep their customers. Card issuers have slapped more than half of Americans with higher interest rates, lower borrowing limits, unexpected fees, and late-payment penalties, according to a new nationwide survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. If you're in that group—and if you're not yet, you might be soon—you don't have to stand still and take it. We'll show you how to take the offensive against costly and abusive credit-card changes.

Your best strategy depends on whether you pay off your balances in full each month or rely on your credit cards to meet your monthly expenses. If you regularly carry a balance, you can beat the card issuers at their game by keeping your debt as low as possible and perhaps switching to a card from a credit union or a regional or community bank, which tend to charge lower interest rates and have more pro-consumer policies. If you don't carry a balance and your card issuer recently scaled back its rewards programs or imposed an annual fee, you can switch to another company that still wants your business and will pay good rewards to get it. Our advice and table can guide you to good credit cards that are appropriate for your circumstances.

How much credit-card debt?

A third of Americans do not own a credit card, according to our survey. Of those who use them, here's how much money they owe:

Credit card debt pie chart