2015 credit card fee survey: Average card carries 6 fees
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Editor's note: For the latest credit card fee study, see "2017 Credit Card Fee Survey: Consumers catch a break."
Credit card issuers are showing an ever-increasing appetite for fees, a new survey from CreditCards.com shows, with the average card carrying six different fees.
Most of them are the usual, familiar fees, such as a fee for paying late or transferring a balance. But some are surprising and can trip up unwary consumers.
To tally the fees, CreditCards.com surveyed a representative sample of 100 of the most widely held general-purpose cards on the United States. We found:
- Fees are nearly universal. Of the 100 cards we surveyed, the average number of fees is six. One card, the PenFed Promise Visa, had zero. At the other end of the scale, two cards from the subprime lender First Premier Bank come with 12 fees.
- The most-common fee is the late fee, charged by 99 of 100 cards. The fees range from $10 to $49, and the most common charge is $38, the maximum allowed for consumer cards under federal law. The $49 late fees are charged by Bank of America on its business cards, which are exempt from the protections consumers have under the act.
- After the late fee, the other most-common fees are cash advance fees (charged by 98 cards), balance transfer fees (charged by 89 cards) and returned payment fees (81 cards).
- Then there are the oddball fees. They include account re-opening fees, returned check fees, overdraft protection fees, statement hard-copy fees, pay-by-phone fees, replacement card fees, expedited card shipping fees and stop-payment fees. First Premier even imposes an automatic $25 fee on its customers when they qualify for and receive increased credit limits.
Banks' fee income
As the credit card industry has evolved, many issuers have increasingly relied on fees, a trend that accelerated after the federal Credit CARD Act of 2009 and the recession changed how consumers use credit.
"Fees have become much more important as cardholder repayments are up and APRs have been down -- a trend that began several years ago," said Robert Hammer, founder and CEO of bank card advisory firm R.K Hammer. "Many turned to new fees to supplement their income post-regulations. They look and see, 'What can we charge that we don't charge for presently? What is permissible?' What they can charge, they will charge."
The data Hammer compiles show fee income took a big jump in 2014. U.S. credit card issuers earned $90.3 billion of income from card fees in 2014, up sharply from the $79.9 billion in 2013. The card issuers' income from interest charges was flat -- $65.4 billion in both years, Hammer's research shows.
In CreditCards.com's survey, the most-common fees include:
Late fees: The late fee is the most-universal fee, charged by 99 of 100 cards. Late fees used to average $39, until the CARD Act capped them. The current caps are $27 for a first offense and $38 for repeat late pays,
Only three cards from the survey (Discover It, Discover It for Students and Discover It Chrome for Students) let a cardholder's first late payment slide, fee-free.
Annual fees: Twenty-six percent of the cards surveyed by CreditCards.com charge annual fees, which range from $25 to $195. Annual fee payments added $10.8 billion to issuers' income in 2014, according to the R.K. Hammer industry data, up from $9.4 billion in 2012 and 2013.
Balance transfers fees: Of the 90 cards that offer balance transfers, 80 charge a fee for the feature, typically 3 percent of the transfer amount. This is a significant increase since 2011, when a similar CreditCards.com fee survey found only 42 percent of cards charged balance transfer fees.
Foreign transaction fees: It has become easier in recent years to find travel-oriented cards with no foreign transaction fee, but the fee remains common for general-purpose cards. Of the 100 surveyed cards, 77 had the foreign transaction fee, most commonly 3 percent of each transaction in U.S. dollars.
Cash advance fees: 98 out of the 100 cards surveyed charge a fee for cash advances, typically $10 or 5 percent of the amount advanced, whichever is greater. Pentagon Federal Credit Union's Platinum Cash Rewards Visa Card Standard and the PenFed Promise Visa Card were the only two cards in the survey that don't charge this fee.
Cash advance fees are also the most lucrative fee for card issuers, having generated $25 billion of income for issuers in 2014, according to R.K. Hammer's most recent industry income report.
future of fees: more coming
Card fees are expected to stick around, if not increase and expand to other areas, as time goes on.
|CARDS WITH THE MOST, FEWEST FEES|
Cards with the most fees:
Cards with the fewest fees:
"I think it's definitely a trend that will continue," said Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for consumer education and advocacy group Consumer Action. "Will there eventually be fees for redeeming your rewards? We haven't seen them yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if they showed up."
Issuers should proceed with caution, though, so as not to inspire consumer backlash, according to Mark Flamme, partner and financial industry services expert for PwC Strategy& consulting firm.
"The space is so competitive now," he said. "There is much more transparency in respect to what other card issuers offer. Consumers can see much of what they are doing, so I think there's a risk to raising those fees. There is a balance they will have to strike when looking for additional revenue streams."
Get in trouble?
Thanks to the CARD Act, many "gotcha" fees and fee charging tactics -- such as unrestricted late fees and automatic over-limit charges -- that card issuers once used have been significantly reduced or eliminated entirely.
"Over-limit fees are the best example," said Hammer. Issuers used to automatically include customers in over-limit programs, which let them borrow more than their credit limit -- for a heavy fee. The CARD Act required it to be an opt-in program, and set limits on fees. The card industry reacted by doing some opting out itself, largely dropping the fee. "The positive opt-in requirement drowned those almost entirely," Hammer said. CreditCards.com found only five out of 100 cards surveyed charge over-limit fees. All are business credit cards.
Nevertheless, penalty fees for negative cardholder behavior, such as late payments, still earned card issuers $11.7 billion in 2014.
Some cards, such as The First Premier Bank credit card and the First Premier Bank Secured MasterCard, may charge up to seven additional fees on top of the transaction and penalty fees listed in the federally mandated disclosure of the card's terms and conditions, depending on the situation. These can include replacement card and monthly service fees.
If you're in a tough spot and don't think the fees you're facing are fair, take action.
"I would remind people that if they do feel like they get into trouble with a card and they feel their fee treatment is unfair, go to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and file a complaint," Sherry said. "Check the box for the public narrative, which will allow your story to be shared with other consumers minus the personal details. It can pay to let others know what's going on."
Most fees are
If you use credit wisely, you can dodge many fees, even if a card's chock-full of them.
To do so, carefully read all terms and conditions before applying for a new card. You'll want to find a card with the fewest (or lowest) transaction and penalty fees.
"For example, there are cards out there with no annual fee or even no annual fee for the first year," Sherry said. "You can easily look for a card that doesn't have one."
|THE COST OF A FEE-LADEN CREDIT CARD|
To get an idea of how much extra card fees can cost you, here's a hypothetical example of two cards -- one with more fees than the other -- making the same transactions over a three-month period, assuming both card balances were paid in full at the end of each month.
Assume a cardholder had the following transactions:
Features of card No. 1:
$60 annual fee
Features of card No. 2:
No annual fee
|TOTAL COST: $169||TOTAL COST: $59|
If don't like the card options before you, consider exploring other financing options.
"There are other unsecured lending products that are emerging that consumers can take advantage of," Flamme said. "Instead of putting a major purchase on your credit card, these may offer better perks, like 0 percent interest for a longer period of time. I think consumers have a lot more options today and should explore what those options are if they're not happy with card fees."
Existing cardholders can also avoid many of the smaller, oddball fees issuers pass along. Avoid paper statement copies and over-the-phone payments by planning ahead. Save electronic statements as they become available for reference later or pay early so there's no rush to make an on-time payment when your account due date rolls around.
Issuers "are targeting people who are asleep at the wheel, so to speak," Sherry said. "Don't just wait month to month to see what's going on. Know your payment due date and make an online account. You can watch and monitor accounts between statements."
Request another copy of your card's terms and conditions and cardholder agreement if you're still not sure what fees your card's issuer may charge.
"Good credit card companies should be able to provide you with a list of those fees," Sherry said. "The CARD Act made it mandatory that when you request a copy of your terms and conditions, you must be sent it. If you don't know what your card fees are, ask."
The Credit Card Fee Survey of 100 U.S. credit cards was conducted in June 2015 by CreditCards.com. The 100-card survey pool is the same group of cards used to calculate CreditCards.com's Weekly Rate Report, and is a representative sampling of cards from all major U.S. card issuers. Fee information was gathered from the cards' terms and conditions documents, any publicly available cardholder agreements and phone calls to issuers.
Card APRs mentioned in this story may have been updated since publication. See the card issuer’s site for the most current offering.
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