Beware of deferred interest credit cards & deferred financing plans

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The holiday shopping season officially begins with Black Friday. Retailers are not only ready with sparkly merchandise and door buster deals but also with a certain kind of credit card offer. These offers, promising no interest payments for months or even years, can be enticing, especially for shoppers making big-ticket purchases for the holidays and retailers are busily rolling them out.

Deferred interest programs are a popular choice for consumers who need to purchase expensive items like refrigerators and dishwashers but don’t have the money or savings. They allow them to make the purchase when they need to and spread the payments over time without having to pay any interest. The overwhelming majority repay within the deferred interest period and benefit from a free loan.

But as with many promising deals, there is a catch. A single late payment or a failure to pay a balance by a certain deadline can trigger sizable financial penalties. If a balance remains, consumers will owe full interest from the purchase date on the original purchase amount.

“These offers are traps for the unwary,” said Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. The terms are “confusing to the point of, we think, being a trap.”

“Consumers may believe when they take out these cards that they will pay off their balance in the time allotted, but that is not always the case, said Wu. Retailers issuing deferred interest cards “prey on this tendency in human beings to be optimistic about these things,” she said, but “life happens.”

Amazon, for example, offers six months of interest deferral on some purchases with fairly similar terms. Users will pay no interest if the balance is paid within six months, but those who do not pay the balance in full will owe interest from the purchase date. In addition, the annual average percentage rate (APR) is 25.99 percent.

Dell charges even higher rates. It has a 12-month deferred interest financing plan on certain products where interest, as high as 29.99 percent, is charged from the purchase date if a balance remains at the end of the deferral period.

According to rules and regulations enacted since the financial crisis, “any retailer offering deferred interest plans has to say the interest will be assessed from the purchase date. They have to have the APR in there,” said Jill Gonzalez, an analyst at WalletHub. “But there is no stipulation on where or how that is told to the consumer.”

Shoppers standing in a long line on Black Friday may feel pressure to sign up for a deferred interest deal without reading the fine print. Many retailers’ standard cards offer a so-called first purchase discount. Some discounts can be as high as 20% on purchases made the day a card is approved and the following day.

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Deferred interest cards and deferred financing plans may look like a great way to keep down the final tally. Remember, there is no such thing as free interest! Some shoppers who are not careful will end up paying interest for everyone else. Make sure that it isn’t YOU!

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers!

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