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Why Store-Brand Credit Cards May Not Be Such a Good Idea

You may be tempted this season to give in to the plea from that persistent sales clerk at one of the big retailers — “Are you sure you don’t want to save 15 percent today?” — and open up a couple of store-brand credit cards.

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After all, a 15 percent discount, or no interest payments for 18 months, sounds enticing when you are buying gifts by the armful.

But before you start filling out the application, there are some things you need to know.

If you carry a balance on store-brand cards, known in the industry as private-label cards, or if you miss a payment on your no-interest purchase, you can end up wiping out those initial savings, and then some.

And when you open a new credit card, your credit score can suffer, too.

As one expert put it, if you strip away the store discounts and brand names that come with these cards, many are essentially the same products marketed to subprime borrowers, or individuals with tarnished or fairly new credit histories.

Would you really chose a card with an interest rate of say, 25 percent, or about 9 percentage points higher on average than many other credit cards? “You are typically not getting the card because it has a lower interest rate or the financing is attractive,” said John Grund, a partner at First Annapolis, an advisory firm focused on the payments industry.

“The first-purchase discount or, in the case of big-ticket items, promotional financing, is attractive to consumers.

Consumer Nation Holiday Central Edition
Consumer Nation Holiday Central Edition

Then, it’s a function of ongoing benefits.” Congress was aware of the lure of easy credit, so the credit card legislation it passed this year asked regulators to come up with a way to evaluate consumers’ ability to pay their credit card bills before they get the cards.

Indeed, the Federal Reserve’s proposed new rules, set to take effect in February, require consumers to list more information on their card applications, like their income and assets.

But while that sounds like the new rules will make it tougher to get that store credit card, don’t bet on it.

Retailers are not required to verify that information, and they have told the Fed that the quick check of credit scores they now do is adequate.

Besides, they said, customers standing at the checkout may not be comfortable giving clerks sensitive information like a pay stub.

Chi Chi Wu, a staff lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center, said the proposed rules did not go far enough.

“The Fed explicitly cited the fact that it didn’t want to hinder retailers from being able to instantly open credit card accounts at point of sale as the reason for not requiring verification,” she said.

“We think that is not a good reason, since the current financial crisis was caused in part by the failure of lenders to ensure consumers could afford the loans they are given.” In all the bustle of holiday shopping, the retailers will be counting on you to focus on all the benefits of these cards — and the benefits can be valuable, if you know how to use them.

But you should also be considering the card’s terms along with the possible effect on your credit score.

If you are looking to refinance your home, buy a new one or take out an auto loan, you may need every last point to buoy your score.

“If it costs you 5 or 10 points and it drops your score to 790, it’s a nonissue,” John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at Credit.com, said.

“But if takes your score from 700 to 690, that is a problem.” There are several reasons opening one or more cards may drag down your credit score.

First, the credit-scoring companies do not look fondly on new applications for credit.

Inquiries stay on your credit report for two years, though they only count toward your score for the first 12 months.

Once you get the new card, the new account itself also weighs on your credit standing for several months, in part because it reduces the average age of your credit history, which accounts for about 15 percent of your score.

Of course, if you have a pristine credit history and thousands of dollars in available credit on general-purpose cards (the type issued by MasterCard, Visa or American Express), you don’t have to be overly concerned about opening a store-only card, which tends to carry much lower credit lines.

You are also more likely to qualify for what is known as a co-branded card, where a retailer like Toys “R” Us partners with a bank that issues a MasterCard, which can be used anywhere and carries somewhat lower interest rates.

“If I am someone who has the optimum mix of six or seven cards, it’s probably not terribly material as opposed to someone who is new to credit or who has a lower score,” said Shon Dellinger, vice president of myFico.com, which provides consumer information and credit products.

“But if you’re shopping around and open up four cards to save 20 percent on each, that’s really not the right mind-set.” In fact, people with less-than-perfect credit can be more harmed by opening a private-label card and carrying a balance than if they opened a general-purpose card.

That’s because the credit limits are typically much lower — say, around $500 — than those of a traditional credit card.

“So what happens is even modest purchases, a suit or some boots, can cause that card to be highly utilized because of the fact that it has a low limit,” Mr. Ulzheimer said.

“The purchase might be negligible on a regular MasterCard or Visa.” And your so-called credit utilization rate factors into your credit standing.

When computing your FICO score, Fair Isaac, the company that developed the score, considers how maxed out each of your individual cards is, as well as your total amount of debt — and how that compares with your total available credit.

There are other reasons to read the fine print before getting these cards.

Some retailers offer promotions where you do not pay interest for a certain period, as long as you pay off the balance by the time the promotional period ends.

But if you do not pay off the balance, you will owe interest on your average balance during the promotional period — but interest will accrue starting on the date you bought the item.

So if you bought a $1,000 television and you have paid off $800 by the end of the promotional period, you will still owe interest on your average balance, dating back to the day you bought the TV.

Sears and Best Buy are now running no-interest promotions. But if you participate in one of these plans, you need to pay attention to the date the promotion ends.

At Sears, promotions begin on the date you make your purchase, said Chris Brathwaite, a Sears spokesman.

That means if you bought the TV on Dec. 12, 2009, the bill must be paid off by the same date a year later — even if your statement happens to arrive on the 14th of each month, Mr.Brathwaite said.

Since most store cards have higher rates than most general-purpose cards, you do not want to fall behind. And if you do, you can do major damage to your credit score.

Those with a FICO score of 780 — the scale ranges from 300 to 850 — who are 30 days or more overdue can lose 90 to 100 points from their scores, Mr. Dellinger said.

“Only get credit if you need it, and if you do get it, make sure you aren’t overextending yourself so you can do some of the basics like paying your bills on time,” he added.

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