Applying for credit cards without reading the card’s terms and condition, is like selling your soul to the devil for a mystery bag. Not a smart thing to do.

In a quest to save more souls, here’s the kick-ass guide to understanding credit card terms & condition, all for your benefit. Let’s use the Best Credit Card Offer Ever as our reference!

FACT: Under federal law, all credit card solicitation or applications must contain certain key information. This key information is usually inserted in a disclosure box, as seen below:

Best Credit Card Offer, Ever! The awesome Terms!

I. A Closer Look at the Disclosure Box

To get a better understanding of the disclosure box, or, the actual credit card offer, you’ll need to better understand the actual terms involved. Before we go further, it may help if you click on picture above and leave it open, so you can refer to it as we go over each of the terms and condition.

Mandatory Disclosure Box Annual Percentage Rate (APR) for Purchases: This is the annual rate you’ll be charged if you carry a balance from month to month. In a credit card offer with an introductory rate, this is where you’ll also see it listed. For our example, the APR for purchases is 9.99%.

Other APRs: This is where other annual percentage rates for other types of transaction are listed. Take our example, it’s balance transfer APR is 9.99% and it’s special opening cash advance is also 9.99%; however, it’s regular cash advance is 19.99%–a hefty interest rate. The delinquency APR is an even higher 23.99%.

Variable-Rate Information: In this box, you’ll see how your variable rate is determined. Generally, the purchases APR will be a variable rate, such as 3% + the Prime Rate, while the balance transfer APR will be a fixed rate. There’s generally also a footnote with an explanation on how prime rate is determined—usually by the highest prime rate published in The Wall Street Journal on the last business day of the month.

In our “Best Credit Card Offer” example, ALL the rates (purchase, cash advance, and balance transfer) are variable! Through your February 2007 cycle, the rates are 1.99% + prime rate, but it will never be lower than 9.99%, even if the prime rate is at a miraculous 1.00%. After 2/07, the rates will increase to a 4.99% + prime rate. Yay! The Prime Rate for our example is also determined a bit differently, but it is still based upon the WSJ.

Grace Period for Purchases: This is the amount of days you have to pay your bill in full before incurring finance charges. It’s 25 days in our example, which means if you start the current billing cycle without a balance, and you bought a brand new Ionic Breeze Air Purifier (for the awesome price of $399) you’ll have 25 days to pay off the charge before interest starts to accrue. Grace period rocks! You should also note that grace period usually applies only to purchases, and not to balance transfer or cash advance, which accumulates interest right away!

Balance Calculation Method: This box will determine how you get screwed over. Specifically, this is the method in which interest on balance are calculated. Similar to our example, most cards these days are calculated by the average daily balance method including new purchases. There are other types of method, such as the funky two-cycle average daily balance method; the better (but rarely seen) average daily balance method excluding new purchases; the adjusted balance method and the previous balance method.

Annual Fees: Straight forward enough. The annual fees associated with the card. They can either be none, like our example and many other credit cards, or $75 to $100, like many airline mileage credit cards. For your benefit, you should probably go with a card without an annual fee, unless you really do take advantage of a card’s benefit.

Minimum Finance Charge: This is the funny box, where they state the minimum amount of finance charge you’ll receive if you carry over a balance. Example, if you carry over a balance of $0.20, you’ll receive the finance charge of $1.00, even though actual interest on that balance is only about $0.02.

Specific Transaction Fees: Most credit cards will have a section that explains the fees associated with a certain type of transaction (e.g., cash advance, balance transfer). In our lovely example, the fees for cash advance and balance transfer is 3% of the amount of each cash advance, but not less than $5 nor more than $50 (fee waived for transaction in connection with accounting opening). This means that if you initiate a balance transfer of $5,000 after you opened the account, the balance transfer fees would be $50. 3% of $5,000 = $150, but fees won’t exceed $50 as stated in the terms. Watch out for credit card offers with high maximum fees, or NO maximum fees!

Late Payment Fee & Overlimit Fee: This is rather self explanatory. According to our example, if you pay late because you’re busy watching Battlestar Galactica, you get a nice $35 late fee. If you went over your limit because you’re horrible at arithmetic, you also get an awesome $35 overlimit fee.

II. Footnotes That You Really Should Read

Seriously, You're Pre-Approved!

What’s a credit card offer without asterisk and footnotes? Some of the most important terms and condition are within the vary footnotes of the card’s terms and condition. The very solicitation itself requires a footnote, as many Pre-approved offers are rather like a craps shot. Example of footnotes below:

Okay we lied, you're not.

Here are some more important terms that you should look out for:

Other Fees: Yes, more of them. Return Check Fee, Returned Payment Fee, Stop Payment Fee, Copy Fee, you name it, they probably have it. For our specific “Best Credit Card Offer,” if you pay off your balance transfer early, there’s a cool Early Pay-Down Fee of $600! Before you apply for a credit card, you should always check for all types of possible fees associated with the usage of the card.

Pre-Qualified Status: In these explanation footnotes, the terms spell out exactly what it means to be Pre-qualified for an offer. Usually, a credit card company receives information about you from a credit reporting agency—based on that information, the card company has determined that you may qualify for the credit card offered. Problem is, the information they received from the credit reporting agency may be out of date, or your credit history may have changed since, which might result in your credit application being denied. Just because they say you’re Pre-approved or Pre-qualified, doesn’t really mean you are!

Cash Advance Definition: Some credit card offers will specifically lay out what a cash advance is. Cash advance is the most expensive type of credit card transaction, as most cash advance have no grace period—the interest starts accumulating the second you initiate the transaction! In our example, cash advance is basically any transactions that are directly converted to cash. This includes purchase of gaming chip and gaming transaction! So the next time you’re thinking of using your credit card to pay for your chips at the casino, you better make sure your credit card doesn’t consider that as a cash advance.

Delinquency/Default APR: This is the fixed, foobar rate. It is usually the highest rate within a credit card terms. If you pay your credit card late too many times, you may be in danger of having your rates changed to the default (penalty) rate. Most credit cards offer will explain the default APR more clearly when you’re actually approved, however our pre-qualified offer here actually spells it out quite nicely. Basically, if you pay in two consecutive months, or two times in any six months period, you get hit with the default APR. To get out of the high APR, you simply need to make six consecutive timely payments.

III. Other Things That You Really Should Know

Credit Limit: Although usually not mentioned specifically in a credit card offer, the credit limit of a credit card determines the maximum amount you may charge on your credit card. This includes regular purchases, balance transfers, cash advance, fees and finance charges. If you go over this limit, well, you know what happens.

Cash Limit: The cash limit is the maximum amount you can utilize of cash advance. This is generally a specific dollar amount (such as $1,000) or a percentage of your total credit limit (e.g., 50% of your credit limit).

Type of Credit Card: Are you applying for a secured credit card or a regular, non-secured credit card? There’s a big difference here. Secured credit cards are generally for those with poor or no-credit, requiring a security deposit to open an account. Generally, the larger the security deposit you make, the larger your credit limit. Non-secure credit cards are of course the ones that do not require a security deposit; these are the regular cards that you see most of the time.

IV. Is That All You’ll Need To Know?

You wish. This is a brief glimpse into the basic terms and condition that you’ll find on a credit card offer. When you actually apply for the card and you’re approved, the real terms and condition sent to you can be an even more confusing read.

Still, the gist of things and the important terms you should know about are all above. Because credit card terms and condition are always changing (and usually not in your favor), you should definitely pay attention to the modified terms and condition sent to you by your credit card companies. After all, it would be awfully silly to pay for fees that you didn’t even know existed.

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