What the New Credit Card Laws Mean to YOU

This is a guest post from Adam Jusko, founder of IndexCreditCards.com, an information and comparison site for credit cards that maintains a list of over 1200 cards. You can follow Adam on Twitter for quick credit tips and opinions. I've mentioned Index Credit Cards many times before, most notably in my post from 2006 called “The Only Credit Card Guide You'll Ever Need”.

Last May President Obama signed into law a sweeping set of rules and regulations concerning the business practices of credit card issuers. Known as the Credit Card Act, the new laws promised a level playing field where consumers would be treated more fairly and credit card terms would be easier to understand.

But, much like your favorite credit card agreement, the law had something nasty buried in the fine print — no part of the law would take effect immediately. Instead, certain pieces of the law didn't take effect until August, and many others have an effective date of February 2010. Credit card issuers used the window between the law's signing and its actual enforcement to raise rates, slash credit limits, or even completely take your card away.

Card issuers claim the new rules restrict their ability to price cards based on risk, and will lead to higher prices for everyone. Politicians might call the card issuers' reactions to the new law “unintended consequences,” and tell you that leveling the playing field unfortunately means that some people get leveled on the way toward a fairer marketplace. (Actually, no politician would ever say that.)

What's the truth? What exactly do these new laws do? And, what can you expect in the coming years when you use your credit cards or attempt to get new ones?

Let's start with what the law actually says. It's long, so I'll bullet point it as much as possible. (Go here if you want to read it in all its glory.)

Now playing
Here's what went into effect in August of 2009:

  • Credit card issuers must give you 45 days notice if they intend to raise your rates. Further, they must allow you to “opt out” of the rate increase and pay your existing balance under the old rate terms.
  • Credit card issuers must send bills at least 21 days before the due date.

What it means: Credit card issuers can no longer jack up your rates with little warning, and you now have the option to decline the rate increase. However, declining an increase means you can no longer use the card and it gives the issuer the freedom to increase your minimum payment to either twice its previous level or to a level that guarantees the card will be paid off within five years. So, if you decline, be sure you have a better card option going forward.

Coming soon
Next up are the regulations due to kick in next month. I'll take them in chunks, based on rules that naturally go together:

  • Credit card rates can't be increased on outstanding balances — except for the increase that happens when a 0% or other low interest introductory rate expires on newly-issued cards or when a customer is 60 days late on a payment.
  • If a customer is 60 days late on a payment and an interest rate is increased, the issuer must dial the rate back to the original level if the customer pays the past-due payments and makes 6 straight months of on-time minimum payments.
  • Card rates can not be increased in the first year of a card agreement (unless there is a limited-time low-interest introductory rate as part of the original card offer).
  • Low-interest introductory rate offers must last at least 6 months.
  • Customer payments must be applied to higher-interest balances first.
  • If a card is marketed as “fixed rate,” the card issuer must reveal exactly how long the rate is guaranteed to remain the same.
  • Credit card issuers can not use “double-cycle billing,” a practice that allowed issuers to charge interest based on the average balance from the past two months, even if last month's balance was paid.

What it means: Out of all the new rules, the ones above are probably the greatest victory for consumers, and probably the most harmful to card issuers' profits. In general, they say that any purchase you make must be charged interest only at the card's interest rate when the purchase was made. Even if the issuer hikes your rate, the higher rate only would apply to new purchases going forward. Credit card issuers are really screaming about this — they believe it stops them from penalizing bad customers who turn into bigger credit risks, and they threaten that it will stop them from accepting many consumers altogether.

From my perspective, it's simple fairness — even if a person becomes a bigger credit risk, I see no reason issuers should be able to “bait and switch” by increasing the rates on previous purchases made under different terms. This practice has forced many credit card customers to get into desperate financial straits. What card issuers may be missing in their anger is the possibility that fewer cardholders will default on their cards under these regulations, because they won't suddenly be saddled with payments that are double those required previously.

Here's the next set of rules:

  • Payment due dates must be the same each month. If a due date falls on a weekend or holiday, the due date must change to the following business day.
  • Issuers can't charge fees for payments by certain methods. For example, issuers can not charge customers more if they pay by phone than if they pay online.
  • Issuers can't allow customers to go over their credit limits and then charge “over the limit fees” unless the customer has first “opted in” — specifically asking for the service.
  • Issuers must include a place on the bill that shows customers how long it would take to pay off their balances if only the minimum required payment was paid each month. (Other similar disclosure rules are still being developed.)

What it means: Most of these fall under the “sneaky tricks” portion of the rules, in order to stop issuers from charging you fees for things that seem quite reasonable. For example, you shouldn't be charged a late fee if your payment can't be delivered on a due date that happens to be a Sunday, and card issuers shouldn't be giving you a credit limit and then allowing you to go over that limit as a “service” that charges you an extra fee.

The last two rules are targeted at specific cardholder groups:

  • Issuers may not charge upfront fees that are greater than 25% of a card's credit limit.
  • Issuers may not issue cards to people under 21, unless the customer has proof of income or has a co-signer who accepts responsibility for the card.

What it means: The first point is targeted at “subprime” cards for those with poor credit. A common industry practice when targeting bad credit customers has been to offer a low credit limit and then charge upfront fees that eat up most of the limit. For example, you sign up for a card with a $500 limit, but there are $450 in fees in order to get the card, so you start off with a $450 balance and only $50 in actual spending power. Desperate customers have been willing to take this deal, but no more.

The second point may kill the college student credit card market. Card issuers have long targeted college students, trying to “get them early” in hopes of creating brand loyalty. Lawmakers felt too many students were getting cards they couldn't pay for, leaving college with thousands of dollars in debt.

What the future holds
While the Credit Card Act has thankfully rid us of many unfair practices going forward, the card issuers' frenzied attempt to either hike rates or kick out unprofitable customers has left many between a rock and a hard place. In the past, a customer who was treated poorly by one credit card company could simply turn to another, with the likelihood being they'd be welcomed with open arms. Today, and at least for the next year or so, I believe consumers will have difficulty obtaining new credit cards, especially consumers with average credit or worse. This is bad news for those stuck in a high-rate situation.

What comes later is likely to be a good-news/bad-news situation. Credit will become more accessible again, but in the future it will more likely come with an annual fee, or with fewer if any rewards on purchases, or with new fees that have yet to be devised. The credit card industry has proven to very adaptable, and while it's a sure thing that they'll play nice legally, that doesn't mean future credit card agreements will be written with your best interests at heart.

J.D.'s note: Don't forget that you can opt out of this madness by simply refusing to use credit cards in the first place. I have one personal card, but there are times I'm tempted to go back to my “no credit needed” ways.

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Chickybeth
Chickybeth

I continue to be disgusted by the credit card companies’ threats of “no or lower rewards” on cards. An article that J.D. tweeted about last week explained how those rewards are actually paid for, and it has nothing to do with the consumer. The money for rewards comes from fees that VISA and Mastercard charge to merchants who accept the cards and to banks who issue them (taking it from both sides). I think that maybe credit card companies will take away rewards and other goodies for a little while, but then they will realize that without consumers actually using… Read more »

Kyle
Kyle

I personally see all of these changes as being fantastic. I especially like that the CC companies won’t be able to charge ‘over limit fees’ as a service. I always wondered how that could possibly be considered a service. I was, however, shocked that they actually made the 21+ rule. Though, I agree with it.

Mrs. Money
Mrs. Money

I use my credit card just for gas because I get 4% back. If they start charging an annual fee, I’m out. I can do cash only. I just like having a credit card for things I don’t want pending on my checking account.

This is the card we have: http://bit.ly/6hh8Z1

I really do think it is a good credit card now, considering everything. I’ve gotten a few rebate checks over $100 each from it.

Trisha
Trisha

I think these changes are terrible. People are irresponsible with their money and choices. Choices have consequences. Why remove the consequences for irresponsible behavior? Last time I checked we lived in a capitalistic society. In such a society, there’s little need for the federal government to step in and interfere in the marketplace. It causes problems. And this, too, while looking good for the consumer, will only cause problems long term. We will end up paying for this with our collective money. Now all of us will pay, instead of those who are irresponsible with their money, like before. Now… Read more »

Jane
Jane

I’m just happy to read an article that distinguishes between “credit card issuers” (i.e. banks) and the actual credit card companies. It drives me crazy how many people don’t understand how the system of credit that they use works. Even Dave Ramsey and those supposedly well-versed in finance just always blame the credit card companies directly and don’t implicate the banks in the shady practices.

Holly
Holly

I really dislike the 21 y/o rule. I had a credit card in my name in college and it really helped me to build and to learn how to manage credit. I also held a card with my mom’s name to use for specific college expenses (art major – I used it for needed supplies/books); she felt better that I wasn’t putting large expenses on my own card that I might not be able to pay back in one billing period. I was responsible with both cards. But what if your college-aged child isn’t. Now your credit is tied in… Read more »

Chris
Chris

I dislike the 21yr old rule too. Credit cards at 18 are a great way to build credit early on, which is what I did, and currently have a credit score around 730 at age 22. This is especially the case when the credit agencies weight length of time your accounts have been open on average very highly. Not to mention college kids frequently rely on credit cards for expenses to…keep them in college! Books etc. Disclosure rules = good, they allow people to see how long it would take to pay something off by minimum payment. I know I’d… Read more »

Shane Brady
Shane Brady

I think this bill was a complete waste of time. The problem isn’t credit card companies, it’s people who don’t know how to use credit properly. Nothing in this bill addresses that issue. I predict there will be more defaults as people think they can get away with more now.

Also, what credit card company has been making money the last year? I thought all divisions were losing.

Lilblueyes
Lilblueyes

I personally LIKE the 21 year old rule. Although I had a credit card in the middle of my college years … it was actually a bit tough to get in the ’80’s, when some issuers still required proof of income. I can’t tell you how many of my college acquaintences who got cards charged up a storm and then couldn’t pay, ruining their credit before they even got out on their own. My daughter is 13 and already has her own check card from our credit union, tied to her own account. Once she has a job in a… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa

I am so pleased that all of these regulations are about to go through. Thank you for posting all of them in a clear manner on your blog.

Unlike other readers, I am glad that the age for credit cards is being changed to 21. While I was reponsible with my credit in college, I had many friends who went into debt or were allured by the sneaky deals offered. Even though people are considered adults at age 18, it’s important that people have more life experience and work experience before given such a huge responsibility.

Suzanne
Suzanne

I’m all for capitalism and the free market. Heck, I have an MBA. On the other hand, I’m also for full information (ie forcing companies to explain what the fine print means). And I’m also mystified as to why credit card companies have been able to break the law for so long with no consequences. If they say that they are offering a “fixed rate” card then the rate should be fixed. There’s a difference between “unkind” practices and deceptive practices. The companies can be unkind and make someone pay 2%, 5%, or even 10% as a minimum payment for… Read more »

Lizabeeth
Lizabeeth

I got rid of all my credit cards Dave Ramsey style. Now, if I have a true emergency, instead of using a credit card, I can use savings.

ami | 40daystochange
ami | 40daystochange

Thanks for this clear explanation of the upcoming changes Adam. I like most of the changes, especially the ones that will increase the transparency of credit card agreements, terms, conditions and fees. As to the squawking from credit card companies, I doubt that most credit card companies are hurting. When I worked for a large financial institution, the credit card division was always the most profitable – even during economic downturns. There are a lot of tools available to the companies to reduce their risk, even when this regulation becomes effective. They will use them – or build new ones.

AD
AD

I love my credit card. I’ve been very happy with the level of customer service when we’ve had issues (husband’s credit card was stolen last year) and they actually offered to lower my rate the last time I called, even though I didn’t ask about it. I don’t care what our rate is because we pay it off every month.

If they took away rewards, I might consider going to cash-only, but until then, I come out ahead by using my card.

Trini
Trini

Adam, thanks for breaking down the new regs. JD, thanks for posting this! I’m always interested in how our credit cards work, and the up and coming developments. I’m one of those people who charges everything, to be honest, because all of my cards give cash rewards and I pay my balances in full every month. Also, I like the 30-day interest free loan. Plus, having a regular cc payment due date and having advance notice of what that payment amount will be allows me to keep a low checking account balance and keep everything else in high(er)-interest yielding OSAs.… Read more »

beforewisdom
beforewisdom

Useful, interesting and easy to understand post!

Shara
Shara

I think it’s a mixed bag. And I noticed a lot of the things I liked are already done by my credit cards. So in some ways this is a case of the government telling businesses to do business the way they are already. A lot of times we read these laws and think, “Yeah, that’s the way it should be! Screw the XXXX companies!” and we don’t realize that what was outlawed was already being done 98% of the time. It’s like making it illegal to ride a horse through the city unless you’re part of an official display.… Read more »

Savinginthe40s
Savinginthe40s

I am on the fence about the 21 year old rule. As a parent of a child who just graduated college, my daughter needed a credit card. She studied abroad for six months in Spain and we liked the security that a credit card offered verses a debit/credit bank card. She applied fora card and got one in her name only. I believe that they should have a specific limit…maybe 1,000. My husband and I would not have co-signed for a credit card for her. We do not want our credit – mixed with hers. I feel if at 18… Read more »

Diasdiem
Diasdiem

The “No cards for people under 21” will probably have the unintended consequence of hurting the t-shirt, frisbee, an miscellaneous swag industry. I doubt if card companies will start doing only annual fees and totally eliminate rewards. This would totally chase off the customers who pay their balances every month and only use cards for the convenience and because the rewards give them a de facto discount on everything they buy. If you have enough cash so that you don’t even need credit, the only reason to have a card in the first place besides convenience (pretty much essential for… Read more »

Mike Piper
Mike Piper

“The law had something nasty buried in the fine print – no part of the law would take effect immediately. Instead, certain pieces of the law didn’t take effect until August, and many others have an effective date of February 2010.”

My understanding is that this is pretty standard for legislative changes, not something “nasty buried in the fine print.”

Jen2
Jen2

At what age are you an adult in this country? You can vote, be drafted into the military and die for your country, gamble, be convicted as an adult, have babies, and all sorts of things at age 18. Why would you have to wait until the random age of 21 to own a credit card? Make up your minds. I think we need to set an age and stick to it.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski

These laws wont affect my life at all, because I don’t use credit cards.

I think the pro-capitalism/anti-regulation commenters are funny. Should we repeal the law banning lead in children’s toys, too? The marketplace will sort it all out, right? What about environmental regulations for corporations, or safety standards for automobiles? The federal no-call list for telemarketers? It’s all the same general idea.

Chett
Chett

There is actually a bill rolling around in legislature that senator Christopher Dodd (who will soon be leaving the senate) was going to try to push through that would limit interest rates on credit cards nationally. Right now there is no national cap and banks can move their offices to states who have the highest interest rates or no caps at all and then pass that percentage to customers nation wide. There needs to be more discussion about a limit to what banks can charge in interest or usury laws as they were once (more appropriately) called. If you’re interested… Read more »

Atticus
Atticus

Crediting payments to the highest interest debt is crucial. It’s ridiculous that in the past credit card companies refused to pay off the more expensive debt first, even if you asked them to.

Glad that Congress put a stop to these shenanigans.

prodgod
prodgod

I disagree with the under 21 rule – do these “college” students not have the brains to realize that what they charge needs to be paid back? If they get themselves in trouble and establish bad credit, that’s their fault. It would’ve been quite inconvenient to not have credit cards when I was 18 and living on my own. However, I do like the laws that limit CC companies’ deceptive behavior.

kaitlyn
kaitlyn

Cap One actually called me and tried to make me believe that the CARD act was going to hurt me! They painted this dire scenario where if i wasn’t allowed to go over limit, I was in danger for my life! Something about running out of gas on the side of the road in a dark neighborhood with no access to credit because I had maxed out my card. If I were as stupid as the person in that story, I’d deserve it! Needless to say, I firmly refused their offer to allow me to keep the ability to go… Read more »

Shara
Shara

@Tyler Just because someone is pro-capitalist/anti-regulation doesn’t mean they believe in no regulation. But you can over-regulate a system and there are usually unintended consequences. I don’t even remember the specifics, but there was a ‘safety’ law recently (last year?) for toys that had the unintended consequence of making many toys on shelves completely unsellable. It rendered four wheelers and other vehicles used by children illegal. I think that law was wrong. Not just because of the damage it caused, but because the danger they were mitigating was minor when compared to the damage. Regarding the examples you gave, those… Read more »

Kevin M
Kevin M

Adam,
Any word whether credit card companies will be required to report your credit limit to credit reporting bureaus? Chase doesn’t report my limit so my card is always shown at 100% credit utilization when I check my score online. Not a big deal, but it affects my score.
Thanks.

Ulrike
Ulrike

I was a bit… put off… by the under 21 rule at first, too. I got my first Visa card when I was 18. In retrospect, however, I believe that my parents co-signed on that card. I was going to Europe with my German class, and they wanted to make sure I had a credit card in case of emergency. I also had a debit Master Card attached to my own checking account (I’d been working part time for 2 years at that point), which I used for almost all my expenses overseas, as there were fewer fees & exchange… Read more »

namesarehardtopick
namesarehardtopick

I agree with Trisha. This government action is like a parent buying a toy for a child who doesn’t work while requiring another kid to work for a toy. People are charged higher rates due to their irresponsibility, and it is those hard lessons which teach people to be responsible.

In the long run, this will encourage more feckless behavior (just like American’s savings’ rate declined after social security). People either accept their own responsibility in life or fail because of their own irresponsibility.

Little House
Little House

#23 Chett, mentions that the new CARD law says nothing about putting a cap on interest rates. I recently read an article on MSN.com that First Premier Bank, a card known to target people with poor credit, will begin offering credit cards at a 79.99% interest rate to make up for the money they’re losing in their upfront fees. Many of the new laws will benefit the consumers. However because the credit card companies are so used to making outrageous profits off consumers, they will surely find new ways to gouge their clientele. The best solution to these loan sharks,… Read more »

Suzanne
Suzanne

For the age discussion, I think it seems fair to categorize credit cards and drinking in the same way. If we don’t think people under 21 can drink one glass of wine responsibly, what makes us think they can use a credit card responsibly? (Or on the other side of the equation, if you think they should be able to use credit cards because many CAN be responsible, then we should also acknowledge that many CAN drink responsibly as well).

CB
CB

@Tyler In theory, if there is transparency, the market will regulate itself. For example, if the law banning lead in children’s toys was repealled but companies were required to include something that told people what materials went into the manufacturing process, with what people know about harmful materials, they would not purchase an item that contained something potentially harmful. If public wasn’t buying the product, the company would not discontinue the manufacturing of that product. Hopefully, then the company would decide to make a similar product without harmful materials. The problem is that we’ve regulated so many things that the… Read more »

Suzanne
Suzanne

The market will self-regulate? Are you kidding? Look at the housing crisis and the banking crisis. No regulation = escalation of unethical practices. Companies will push it far over the line because executives have to answer to stockholders that expect to earn a profit. Period. That’s why in unregulated countries there is child labor.

Chickybeth
Chickybeth

@CB (#33) For once, I actually agree with Tyler. The problem with “free-market” thinking is that there will never be complete transparency for the market to regulate itself and for transparency to exist, there must be regulations in place to require it. Therefore, regulations of some sort are necessary even in a “free market”. Even if complete transparency was required, the greediest companies would still find a way to buy a loop-hole for themselves as they are doing now with the toy lead-ban law. Total disclosure will never be in the best interest of profits, so without regulation, consumers will… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1

I have mixed feelings on the over-21 restriction for card issuers. On the one hand, as others have pointed out, nationally the drinking age is 21 so why shouldn’t it be 21 for having a credit card. BUT that is so inconsistent with other rights that young adults do accrue at age 18 (joining the military; leasing or buying property) or 16 (marrying, in some states; driving a car; getting a job; leaving school). I do think it would be helpful if *nationally* we decided what constitutes an adult, and then set about revising our educational system so that when… Read more »

mike
mike

What amazes me is the comments complaining about the “21+ rule”. All people 18 and older (except those in the extremely small category who suffer mental and/or physical handicaps that make gainful employment impossible) should be able to provide proof of income, because they should be working! College demands are not a sufficient excuse for preventing young adults from contributing to society. And for anyone of any age who isn’t drawing an income, there is no reason for using a credit card. That said, I agree with folks who want to limit the regulation. Make the credit cards disclose in… Read more »

Ed
Ed

No…banks and credit card companies do not self-regulate very well. For that matter, neither do cable companies, cell phone companies, telephone companies, etc. Many of these companies engage in business practices designed to take advantage of the average consumer. They write contracts loaded with unintelligible “fine print” for the consumer and escape clauses for themselves. The bottom line of most credit card agreements is “We can do anything we want, anytime we want. If you don’t like it, too bad.” We wouldn’t need the new credit card laws, if banks “played fair” and if there was real competition in the… Read more »

Samantha
Samantha

I agree with #21 Jen, “At what age are you an adult in this country? You can vote, be drafted into the military and die for your country, gamble, be convicted as an adult, have babies, and all sorts of things at age 18. Why would you have to wait until the random age of 21 to own a credit card? Make up your minds. I think we need to set an age and stick to it.” I’m surprised at #37 mike’s comment – “All people 18 and older… should be working!” Really? That’s a pretty strong stance. I’m in… Read more »

TeresaA
TeresaA

I think this is all great news. So what if it is more difficult to get a credit card? It should be difficult….if only to save us from ourselves. I am all for the “21+ rule” as well. I think anyone who has a son or daughter that has recently turned 18 years old can attest to the predatory practices used by the credit and banking institutions with regard to this age group. They may be ready for college, but until courses in “Finances 101” become mandatory for all high school seniors with a refresher course in college, they are… Read more »

Holly
Holly

#37, Mike: How do you know that the credit card companies aren’t going to expect you (if you’re under 21) to provide proof of a significant source of income, rather than just a 12-hr. weekend job (a job suitable for full-time students)? What if working is not the person’s main agenda, i.e. the person is studying abroad or is a missions volunteer or is an intern w/little or no income? I guess when my teen uses/needs a c.c., she will have to call me before every single transaction and get my approval since my name will be on the card… Read more »

Storch Money
Storch Money

The point that Mike is making at #37 and many people seem to be missing is that people under 21 are not barred from owning credit cards. They just need to (1) verify income; or (2) have a co-signer. All this provision does is stop young people without income from getting credit cards. This would have no effect on the person above who was “living on my own at 18″ assuming that person was earning verifiable income.” Holly #41 I just saw your post. If your concern is, “How will my child who does not have income get a credit… Read more »

katie
katie

What if a credit card has double cycle billing, but calls it something different (Amex gave me the run around on this recently)?

Beth
Beth

Full-time university coursework is both demanding and expensive. A part-time job steals time from studying, so my parents (who were investing in me) discouraged me from working during the school year. Most of my fellow alumni find work a breeze after school work weeks that far exceeded 40 hours in college. During college I worked summers to earn the cash for textbooks and small expenses during the year. I got a credit card as soon as I was 18 and have paid it off every month since, using savings rather than regular income while I was in college. Under the… Read more »

occhiblu
occhiblu

I was so happy to read that the payment due dates will now need to be the same each month. I had one credit card (now canceled) that had some weird floating due date every month; I would send in payments 30-31 days apart, but they’d occasionally label the payment late because the due date would move back and so the payment would be credited for the previous month. It was totally infuriating.

Nicole
Nicole

#42 Storch Money: Thank you for that clarification.

pixipanda
pixipanda

I really appreciate having these laws broken down. I’ve been curious about them, but hadn’t yet convinced myself to stop being lazy and go read up on them. ;P One thing I’m concerned about: If you opt not to use credit cards, as JD suggests, how do you build credit? My coworker (according to him) has a high credit scores, pays his bills responsibly, and has money set aside from an inheritance, but he was unable to procure a home loan because he didn’t have 4 (maybe it was even 5) credit cards to his name. He said he’d always… Read more »

thisisbeth
thisisbeth

I disagree with the “under-21”. Under 18 makes sense, since those under 18 can’t be held accountable due to minor status (I’m okay with that).

Personally, every age group should have the requirement of income to get a credit card. I know people unresponsible at 31 as the debt-laden college student being personified. Are younger adults more likely to get into credit card debt? Definitely.

kelleigh2
kelleigh2

I agree that there should be a cap on the interest rate… I would love to get 30% for having them use the money in my savings account to fund the loans of others, but instead I only get 1-5% depending on how the economy is doing. I think they should only be allowed 5% over prime.

Dave S.
Dave S.

For me I think the best item of all these rules is enforcing the due date being on a business day. I absolutely hate when a payment is due on a Sunday and I have to part with my money three days earlier in order to ensure that I don’t get a late payment. I have been burned once or twice because there are some institutions in their posting frames state that anything paid for on Friday will not get credited until the following Monday. So now I have to pay 4 days early. I’ve alway found that to be… Read more »

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