A reader wants to know if she can haggle to reduce her credit card debt
Question: So I read your book. It was OK, I guess. You keep talking about negotiating for almost every major purchase. But can I negotiate my credit card bills? You guys keep writing about debt settlement as a negotiating tactic, but it has pros and cons. I don’t need that right now (and I hope ever). I just want to know if I have any leverage with these credit card companies. Do I?
— Kiki in Seattle
Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…
First of all, if you read my book — either one — I’m pleased. I’ll also take “OK” as a compliment, since writing (and reading) about saving money isn’t always a fascinating pursuit. However, it’s a crucial one.
I’m also pleased you’re willing to call your credit card companies and negotiate with them. This is definitely something you can do. Sadly, many people don’t know this, and the few who do make serious mistakes.
Here’s how to do it correctly…
1. Be knowledgeable
You mentioned debt settlement, Kiki. This is something you can do on your own, although when a knowledgeable Debt.com writer tried it herself, it quickly became a morass. (Read more at The DIY Credit Repair Nightmare.)
What I’ll discuss here is much simpler, with more modest results: You can ask your credit card issuer to lower your interest rate and forgive late payments.
This can still save you a lot of money, but you’re not going to convince the issuer to write off what you owe. That goes back to debt settlement, which you expressly want to avoid.
The first step is to call the number on the back of your credit card. Problem is, the person who answers can’t help you. Ask for the “retention department,” whose sole job is keeping its customers happy.
3. Be nice
Remember, the credit card companies don’t have to negotiate with you. Why will they? Because being nice is good business.
In the 1990s, when I first became a financial counselor and educator, customers didn’t have many credit cards to choose from. These days, it seems there are credit cards issued by every business, whether it’s from a discount chain or a military credit union.
Your credit card company wants to keep your business, so they’ll be nice if you are.
4. Be reasonable
If you blew the deadline to pay your bill and now face a hefty late fee, you can ask to have that removed once. Calling every other month won’t get you much sympathy — or any fee forgiveness.
You can also move the date your bill is due. This is the easiest request to make. One of the more difficult is getting your interest rate lowered.
To do so, you need to do 10 minutes of homework. Go to a website like Bankrate and look up the interest rate other cards are charging. If you find a card similar to yours that charges slightly less, ask that your APR be lowered. Mention that you’ve been a longtime customer who’s found a better rate elsewhere — but you prefer to stay with the card you have.
You may get a point shaved off, but it doesn’t hurt to gently ask, “Can you go a little lower?” If the answer is no, thank the representative for the savings you earned for nothing more than a phone call.
Worth the effort
I’m amazed at how many people I’ve counseled who will spend an hour clipping coupons but won’t spend 20 minutes on the phone to rack up some credit card savings. Perhaps they’re nervous about calling and negotiating, but they shouldn’t be — that’s why credit card companies have “retention departments.” Think of it this way: You’re keeping people employed by making that call!
Have a debt question?
Email your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and Howard Dvorkin will review it. Dvorkin is a CPA, chairman of Debt.com, and author of two personal finance books, Credit Hell: How to Dig Yourself Out of Debt and Power Up: Taking Charge of Your Financial Destiny.