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Americans wising up about credit cards

ARA Content | 11/3/2010, 5 p.m.

Americans seem to be learning their lesson when it comes to using credit cards wisely, two new studies indicate. The average American has fewer credit cards, is relying on them less, and is trying to pay down their debt - which, in many metropolitan areas, still exceeds the national average.

In about 65 percent of the top 20 major metropolitan areas, average debt per consumer exceeds the national average of $24, 775 , according to a study by Experian, the global information services company. But while many urbanites may have more debt than average, they're also making strides toward using their credit wisely, a second Experian study reveals.

"As expected with the current financial environment, we can see that the average person has fewer cards in his or her wallet and is using credit differently than in the past," says Michele Raneri, senior director of analytics for Experian. "This implies that many Americans are relying less on credit cards and are potentially trying to pay down debt."

Nationally, consumers are opening 26 percent fewer credit cards than they did three years ago, the studies found. The number of open cards one has, as well as the amount of unused credit available on those cards, directly affects your credit score. Even in areas where people had more open cards, such as New York, the data showed they aren't using those cards as much.

"It's important to look at the whole picture when evaluating how consumers are actually managing their credit," says Maxine Sweet, Experian's vice president of public education. "For example, according to one of our studies, Seattle ranks the highest in terms of average debt per consumer. However, additional data shows that Seattle's consumers have very few late payments and are not maxing out their credit cards, so they are using their credit wisely and maintaining higher credit scores."


Here are some tips to help manage your credit:

* Pay bills on time. If you have an overdue bill, an unpaid debt or a tax lien, pay it off.

* Set up a budget and live within it. In the age of self-help and empowerment, managing your finances should top your list.

* Use your credit cards responsibly to demonstrate that you can manage credit well, but keep balances low on all your cards and maintain reasonable revolving credit amounts.

* Review your credit report 60 to 90 days before making a major purchase. Do not open or close accounts, but concentrate on paying down balances.

* Pay off debt rather than moving it around. Also, do not close unused cards as a short-term strategy to improve your credit score. Owing the same amount but having fewer open accounts may lower your utilization ratios and your credit scores.

* Shop around for credit. Lower interest rates, lower or no annual fees, cheaper service charges and additional benefits such as frequent flier miles or special insurance rates are available. Find the credit that is right for you.

* Once you have signed a credit agreement, you are responsible for it unless the creditor agrees to release you from the agreement.