THE HELP DESK The Help Desk: Top Tips

Pay off the plastic

With credit limits dropping and rates rising, Gerri Willis helps you manage your credit card debt.

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By Gerri Willis, CNN personal finance editor

For more information on managing your largest investment, check out Gerri Willis' 'Home Rich,' now in bookstores.

NEW YORK ( -- Americans are cutting back on their use of credit cards by a record amount according to the Federal Reserve -- and, maybe for good reason. There are some big changes that are happening to that plastic in your wallet.

You may have noticed that your credit limit was slashed or your interest rate shot up, even for those cardholders with a decent credit score. And it's happening more frequently according to a recent study from Synergistics Research Corp. That study indicates that 21% of consumers had an interest rate hike; 17% reported an increase in minimum payment due, and 9% had a decrease in credit limit.

All of this can happen rather suddenly.

What's happening here is that issuers are reducing the risk in their credit-card portfolios. Just like any other business squeezed by the economy, they're seeing reduced profits, rising unemployment ... plus the specter of change as new credit card regulations take effect in July, 2010.

The first step in managing your debt is to be sure to read your mail carefully. You may get updated terms/conditions in a separate mailing, but it may just look like junk mail.

Here are the words and phrases to look out for: As of X date, X is changing. Some other words or phrases to look for: modifying, dates going forward, or altering.

Don't close old accounts. It might seem counterintuitive, but closing old accounts can hurt your score since it makes your debt look bigger by comparison.

Look into hardship programs offered by credit card companies.

Now, to qualify you generally have to be delinquent, although not always. And you usually have to have a sizeable debt -- like a minimum of $2,500 or more, according to Curtis Arnold of Be sure to call your issuer and ask about these programs since issuers don't always advertise them. You may get your rate lowered or you can get on a payment plan. And the best part is, you shouldn't have to pay a fee.

And finally, change your mindset.

Your credit cards aren't an extension of your paycheck. It's not free cash. If you carry a balance that you keep adding to every month, you're digging yourself deeper into debt.

On $10,000 at an interest rate of 15% -- if you make payments of $250 a month (WITHOUT adding more debt onto your card) it will take you close to 5 years to pay that off. And $4,000 of that will be used just for interest alone. To top of page

Gerri's Mailbox: Got questions about your money? We want to hear them! Send an e-mail,we'll answer questions on CNN, Headline News and

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