By Eileen A.J. Connelly, AP Personal Finance Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Consumers struggling to pay their bills in the first few months of the year got an immediate benefit from credit card reforms.
Late credit card payments fell sharply in the first quarter, and at least part of the drop can be attributed to the law that kicked in Feb. 22 curbing interest rate hikes and various fees.
The rate of borrowers who fell 90 days or more behind on their cards dropped to 1.11% for the first quarter, down from 1.32% in the 2009 period, according to credit reporting agency TransUnion. The delinquency rate was also down from the fourth-quarter of 2009, when it stood at 1.21%.
The rate hovered between .5% and .75% before the recession, and was at its highest in the first quarter of 2009.
Average credit card debt also fell in the first quarter, to $5,165. That's down 10.6% from $5,776 at the start of last year.
"We seem to be headed in the right direction," said Ezra Becker, director of consulting and strategy in TransUnion's financial services unit. The company culls its data from 27 million consumer records each quarter, about 10% of its database of active credit files.Becker pointed to credit card reforms with making it easier for consumers to pay their bills.
Before the law took effect, a bank could have raised a customer's interest rate without warning. That would have driven up the minimum payment due. Now, banks can't raise interest rates before giving customers 45 days notice, and can't hike rates on existing balances. The law also curbs over-the-limit fees and penalty fees, and mandates that payments above the minimum be applied to balances with the highest interest rate first.
These restrictions helped keep balances down, which in turn kept minimum payments lower, Becker explained. Minimum payments are usually a percentage of total balance.