INTERMISSION: LESSER-KNOWN RIGHTS AND ABILITIES
There are a number of things you can request from banks, credit card companies, financial institutions, and businesses in general that aren’t made very public and most people don’t know about. To avoid burnout so I will actuall finish this series of articles, I decided to write an ‘intermission’ article detailing a few of these.
I – STOP BUGGING ME ALREADY
Lots of people know that they can opt-out of marketing telephone calls from businesses in general via the National Do Not Call Registry, but that doesn’t apply to companies you have an existing business relationship with, surveys, charities, and a number of other exceptions. However, most (probably all, but there may be loopholes I am unaware of) businesses are required to allow you to opt out of marketing calls at your request. They will probably not volunteer this information, so if you want to stop telemarketing entirely, you need to register on the National Do Not Call Registry and also contact the companies you do business with (banks and other financial institutions are notorious for this) and tell them not to call you for marketing purposes. While you’re at it, ask them not to market products or services to you on incoming calls, ask them to remove marketing messages and flyers from your monthly bills or statements, and tell them you do not want your information shared with affiliates or other companies for marketing purposes.
II – CELL PHONE WOES
This is really a subset of the above point, but it’s important and specific enough that I thought it deserved its own heading. If you use a cell phone as your primary phone (as a lot of people do these days), make sure the companies you do business with KNOW that it is a cell phone. Since cell phones generally bill by usage instead of a flat-rate that ignores usage, there are more stringent requirements to how companies can contact you via your cell phone. Generally, this means that as soon as a business learns that a given telephone number is a cell phone, they have to ask you if it’s OK for them to call it with automatic dialers, prerecorded or artificial voice messages, or basically anything that isn’t a human-generated call for purposes of maintaining an existing business relationship.
III – CONTROL YOUR CREDIT RATING
Credit ratings are funny things. Your FICO score is based on a number of factors, including amount of available credit, debt-to-income ratio, history of payments, and so on. Luckily, you can easily change many of these factors. For instance, amount of available credit is based on your credit lines with various financial institutions. As your credit lines go up, so does your total available credit, and therefore your FICO score. If you have credit cards, call your provider once every six months or so (more often than this will show as multiple recent inquiries which slightly hurt your score) and ask for a credit line increase. You don’t have to use it, though your credit line might be automatically reduced (or closed entirely) if it’s not used at ALL, so buy a tank of gas once every few months on credit and pay it off in full when the statement arrives.
Utilization is also another factor – if you have $100,000 of total credit lines across several cards, it’s less of a factor in your favor if only $20,000 of that is available due to carrying balances. Pay off credit accounts as swiftly as possible, and if you have to carry a balance, ask your credit card providers about balance consolidation offers. $5,000 of debt spread across five cards is more expensive than $5,000 of debt on one card due to the fact that the cards likely have varying APR’s and you (theoretically!) have all the debt on the card with the lowest APR. Some banks charge usage fees or service fees on top of their finance charges, keep an eye out for those as well, as those fees might outweigh a slightly lower APR.
Payment history is a third big factor. Late payments or delinquent accounts will hurt your credit rating. Luckily, many banks will refrain from reporting late or missed payments to credit reporting agencies as long as you call them in advance and tell them your situation – for instance, the credit provider I work for (which shall remain nameless) offers payment plans which reduce your monthly payments to interest-only for a period of time, which keeps your monthly payments very low and your account from becoming delinquent. In the meantime, provided the interest payments are kept up and on time (or arrangements made for late payments), late fees aren’t charged and the account is not reported negatively to credit reporting agencies. If you’re having trouble, call your bank. They have a vested interest in keeping your account in good standing, and chances are the two of you will be able to work something out.
IV – TAKE COMMAND OF YOUR BILLING CYCLE
Your billing cycle date is the date your statement generates, certain fees or charges are calculated and assessed, the bill is printed, and (usually a day or so later) dropped in the mail. It’s the same day every month, even if your due date shifts a day or so around due to months having different numbers of days. If your due date falls a few days before your usual payday, or if you have a number of bills coming due within a short period of time, it can make keeping your accounts in good standing inconvenient. Most credit card providers will allow you to change your billing cycle date (and therefore your due date, which has to be at least 21 days after your cycle date by law) if you call and ask. You might be restricted to only one cycle date change per year, or you might need to bring an account out of a delinquent or overlimit status to change the cycle date. Policies vary by provider, so call and ask.
V – ASK FOR WAIVERS
If you screw up and send in a payment late, you’re going to get hit with a late fee. If you fat-finger your checking account number on an online payment website, the payment will get rejected a couple days later and you’ll get hit with a returned payment fee (and possibly also a late fee). The upshot is that you can often get these fees reduced or waived entirely just by asking. Don’t worry about trying to make up a good cover story – if you just forgot, admit it, it happens all the time. This won’t work if you’re late EVERY MONTH (in which case you should be following the advice in point IV above and changing your due date to something that works better for you), but generally you can knock out at least one or two fees every year. If the payment you sent late would have paid off the entire balance and therefore you also got hit with a finance charge that wouldn’t have applied if the payment arrived on time, ask for that to be waived too. It won’t cost you anything to ask, and it might save you a few bucks. Your chances of getting fees waived go up the more you use your card, so if you’re in a position to do so, it might be useful to use your card for a category of spending (buying gas or groceries or whatever) that you would normally use cash or debit cards for, then setting that cash (or amount from your debit card) aside to pay the account off in full when the bill arrives. Credit cards have more legally-required consumer protections than debit cards anyway, so that’s also worth considering.