What Are Terms And Conditions?
I applied for my first credit card in 2007. On that fateful day, I was approved for a cash back card, a small signup bonus, and given a starting credit score – all with no annual fee. The glory days were here! I was finally an adult, with a credit card.
But it wasn’t until I received the credit card in the mail that I finally spent some time reviewing all the fine print – the terms and conditions. Printed on fine, tissue-like paper was a series of rules – all in small, black font – that extolled the consequences of misuse and the agreements that I must follow. What had I signed up for?!
Now, as a frugal, thrifty, and penny-pinching maverick I’m here to tell you a simple truth: You need to read the terms and conditions before you signup for a credit card. Isn’t that simple? When you signup for a credit card, you’re entering a formal contract with a bank to repay all debts – no matter what. As a member of this contract, it’s important to spend some time reviewing these documents to make sure it’s a fair deal.
The Schumer Box
In 1988, Senator Charles Schumer from New York introduced the concept of a box (“The Schumer Box“) that would graphically outline the details of credit card agreements and accompanying materials. The Senator’s idea became a law and took effect in 1989. Essentially, the Senator was pioneering what education and literacy experts were arguing for: An easier way to read financial documents.
Included in the Schumer Box:
- Any annual fees
- Annual percentage rate (APR)
- Other APRs (i.e., balance transfers, cash advances, default APRs)
- Grace period
- Other transactions fees
Jargon and complicated contract law had largely prevented people without excessive degrees – or letters behind their name – from understanding what the heck was being said. The Schumer Box was an easy interface for everyday people, and it increased comprehension across socio-economic divides.
But in 2007, as I applied for my first credit card, the Schumer Box didn’t help me. I wasn’t paying attention, and was just too “grateful” to realize I need to critically evaluate the documents in front of me. These days it’s easier to find out more information online. For example, you can read a review of the Chase Sapphire Reserved card and get some critical details at a glance. This is key: Better to prepare than react when it comes to finances and debt. Actually, it’s better to prepare in every facet of life – finances should be no different.
The Credit Card Act Of 2009
In 2009, the Credit Card Act was signed into law. The goal of the legislation was to
“…establish fair and transparent practices relating to the extension of credit under an open end consumer credit plan, and for other purposes.”
With the lofty desire to enhance the transparency of credit card terms and conditions, the CARD act encouraged companies to create shorter documents that were easier than ever to understand. A variety of stipulations such as overlimit fees and distress-inducing repricing actions were nearly eliminated. These fees normally hit low-income and lower-middle-class households. They were being nickel and dimed by a variety of these increases and fees – with a seemingly unregulated market for swift changes that targeted consumers trying to pay off credit card debt.
Isn’t it ironic that a law aiming to increase transparency used direct financial jargon to explain the purpose? Nonetheless, “open end consumer credit” is a credit card and/or revolving line of credit that is issued by a bank to a consumer (you). The Act told credit card issuers to find ways to explain their products, terms, and liabilities in plain English. But like so much legislation in Congress, it didn’t have teeth.
“One of the expressed goals of the CARD Act was to improve transparency in the credit card market, but the Act did not explicitly mandate any changes in the length and form of credit card agreements.”
Despite the cautious recommendation to streamline and enhance comprehension, credit card companies actually conformed to these new standards and tended to aid in the presentation of credit card terms and conditions. Between 2008 and 2012, the average word count of agreements fell 24.4% (see picture below).
Along with shorter agreements, the banks issued terms and conditions that were easier to read. In 1948, Rudolf Flesch introduced a simple mathematical formula that suggested a grade level equivalent for the amount of text, sentence structure, and word choice. Using this method of analysis, the credit card companies have lowered the average reading level from 11.5 to 9.8 from 2008 to 2012. By doing so, the banks made agreements more accessible and easier to understand; frankly, they became fairer instruments, as both parties could better understand what they were agreeing to.
What Does This All Mean For You?
Next time you’re thinking about signing up for an awesome rewards credit card, think about the terms and conditions you’re ultimately agreeing to. Scientifically speaking, it’s easier than ever to understand and comprehend what a credit issuer is offering. By taking some time to critically evaluate what’s being shared, you can save yourself lots of heartache down the road. Use the Schumer Box to check for ancillary fees and exorbitant annual percentage. Use the CARD Act’s regulations to read carefully through the agreement and don’t hesitate to ask the issuer questions before you sign the dotted line.
Do you read the terms and conditions before you signup for a new credit card?