What is a finance charge? How about a purchase charge? The jargon used to describe credit card late fees is enough to make anyone’s head spin. Unfortunately, a survey by CreditCards.com of 100 common credit cards found that while fees have remained stable (or even gone down a bit) thanks to recent annual percentage rate (APR) hikes, these charges are still pretty universal—and potentially very costly.
Of the 100 credit cards surveyed, for example, 98 charged a late fee for missed payments. And credit card companies made $104 billion from the fees and interest we all pay on our credit card debt. Any interest and fees we pay are collectively called “finance charges.”
Finance charges might sound like another complicated fee, but they’re really just a way of referring to the interest charges that accumulate on your credit card balance. The amount you pay in interest is determined by the credit card’s APR.
In an ideal world, we would all pay off our credit card balance in full at the end of each billing cycle. If you’re doing that, then you don’t have to worry as much about your interest rate or racking up finance charges. But in reality, nearly 45% of credit card accounts are considered “revolvers,” meaning they carry a balance from month to month.
And any time you have an unpaid balance, you’re probably going to be paying a finance charge on that money. Because most credit cards have sky-high interest rates (the average for new accounts was 17.01% in October, 2018), the amount of interest you’re paying can add up quickly.
What is a Finance Charge?
A credit card finance charge refers to all fees and interest you pay on credit card debt. You’re essentially paying the credit card company a fee in exchange for them financing your debt. Again, finance charges only come into play if you carry a credit card balance.
If you pay off your credit card balance in full when it’s due, or you’re paying your balance during a 0% interest rate promotion, then you won’t accrue any finance charges. Typically, there is a grace period between the end of a billing cycle and when the payment is due. After that due date, a finance charge is typically calculated based on the amount you owe, how long you’ve owed it for, and your APR at the time your bill is due.
Even if you make the minimum payment when it’s due, you can still accrue a finance charge if you don’t pay the full statement balance. The finance charge will simply be levied on the amount of debt you still owe, and a late fee can be additionally assessed if you don’t make at least the minimum payment by the due date.
Using the Finance Charge Formula
The finance charge formula is based on your annual percentage rate and credit card balance—which means the exact amount can vary from billing cycle to billing cycle.
The APR is used to calculate a daily interest rate, which you can figure out by dividing your APR by 365. You then multiply your daily interest rate by how much debt you carry on your credit card, and how many days you’ve carried that debt, to determine the total finance charge. This is added to what you already owe on your credit card.
For example, if your credit card has a 16% APR, then your daily interest rate is .16 divided by 365 days, which equals .0004383. That means you accumulate .04383% of interest per day. (Remember that when converting numbers into percentages, you need to divide by 100. That’s why 16% became .16 instead.)
That daily credit card interest rate of .04383% is then multiplied by the balance you’re carrying and by the number of days you’ve had this balance.
So if you carried an unpaid $1,000 balance for 28 days after it was due, then $1000 x .0004383 x 28 days = $12.27 in finance charges.
Using our example, you’re adding $12.27 to your credit card if you’ve been carrying a $1,000 balance on your card for 28 days with a 16% APR. That may not seem like a lot up front, but it can add up quickly, because if your balance isn’t paid off in full by the next billing cycle, you can incur another finance charge.
The Credit CARD Act of 2009 did put some limits on fees credit card companies can charge, but once finance charges start piling up, it can get a bit overwhelming. And P.S., if this math gave you a headache, you can always consult a finance charge calculator .
How Can I Get Rid of a Finance Charge on My Credit Card?
The only way to completely avoid paying a finance charge is to pay your credit card in full by the due date. If you’re already paying a finance charge, the only way to get rid of it is to pay off the existing credit card debt that’s incurring the charges. This can get you back to a clean, finance charge-free slate.
It should be noted that some credit cards offer a promotional 0% APR for a certain amount of time. During the promotional period, finance charges do not accrue. It is possible to use a 0% APR credit card to pay off existing debt.
These are usually called balance transfer credit cards. While there is usually a balance transfer fee, the promotional 0% interest rate can allow you to pay off your debt without incurring finance charges. However, promotional 0% interest rates are typically temporary, so if you aren’t able to pay off the new credit card within the promotional period, you could end up back in the same place you started.
Can a Personal Loan Help?
If you need to get out from under your credit card debt and stop incurring finance charges, one way to do that is to pay off the credit card debt with an unsecured personal loan. If you’re considering a personal loan to get out of debt, look for a loan with a lower interest rate than you are paying on your credit card.
With some credit card interest rates hovering around 20%, using a personal loan can be a simpler way to pay off your debt without dealing with exorbitant interest rates.
When taking out a personal loan, you can decide whether your interest rate is fixed or variable. And because personal loans have set terms, you’ll know exactly when you’re going to be out of debt, as opposed to chipping away at your credit card balance indefinitely.
If you’re considering paying off your credit card debt with a personal loan, keep in mind that some personal loans charge origination fees and prepayment penalties. Fortunately, SoFi personal loans don’t have origination, application, or prepayment fees.
The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.
Disclaimer: Many factors affect your credit scores and the interest rates you may receive. SoFi is not a Credit Repair Organization as defined under federal or state law, including the Credit Repair Organizations Act. SoFi does not provide “credit repair” services or advice or assistance regarding “rebuilding” or “improving” your credit record, credit history, or credit rating. For details, see the FTC’s website on credit.