It's been 18 months since the first provisions of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act went into effect, and consumer behavior seems to be changing as a result.
The required disclosure in each credit card statement -- how much a consumer is paying in interest and how long it will take to pay off a balance making minimum payments -- is having an effect, said Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com, an online credit card rating service.
"That is one of the best provisions the CARD Act had," he said. "Right in front of you is your own personal financial picture. I think that's why you are seeing a better credit card environment."
The Federal Reserve's example shows that a $3,000 balance at 14.4 percent interest would take 11 years to pay off at $45 per month, the minimum, and cost $1,745 in interest.
But the chart also shows that paying $103 a month can erase the balance in three years and save $1,033 in interest.
Or better yet, just pay the balance each month, and you won't pay any interest at all -- which Hardekopf says is the ultimate way to use credit cards wisely.
The new chart on the back of your credit card statement -- along with a general recovery of the economy -- is helping consumers wake up and pay off credit card debt in large numbers, Hardekopf says. Consumers' revolving credit has also been falling since late 2008, however, about the time the financial crisis took hold.
In any event, late payments on credit card accounts have been dropping since last summer at the six big card issuers, he said. Five of the six also continued to show a steady decline in charge-off rates, the rate at which banks have to write off balances after they become six months past due.
"We're dropping to default rates not seen since before the economic downturn," Hardekopf said.
Though the minimum-payments disclosure grabbed consumers' attention, another provision of CARD -- the phone number on each credit card statement linking the borrower to a credit counseling agency -- has not proved as popular.
The National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which represents about 800 credit counseling agencies in the country, recently estimated that 500 million statements list its toll-free phone number. But only 150,000 people have used the free service.
The Association for Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, which also provides a toll-free number to local credit counselors on credit card statements, had a similar response. Of the 40,000 calls a month association members receive, just 9 percent come from their CARD hotline.
"Some people have learned their lesson," foundation spokeswoman Gail Cunningham said of the low response rate. "We've had a significant shift from credit cards to debit card usage. Many consumers are committed to not reliving their financial sins of the past."
Also, some credit card users were cut off during the recession as lenders tightened standards, and that forced some to change their behavior, she said.
Still, Cunningham believes that plenty of people could use the help of a credit counselor. In addition to helping debtors prepare a monthly budget, credit counselors can show them which bills to pay first, she said.
"We teach priority paying -- pay the mortgage, the light bill and other living expenses first," she said. "Then pay secured debt like a car payment, then nonsecured creditors. Sometimes, you hear from [nonsecured] creditors first and get a lot of pressure from them. The creditor might be happy, but your lights are off."
Cunningham said credit counselors are seeing more consumers pay off credit card debt with money that used to go to their monthly mortgage.
"So many people think foreclosure is inevitable, so they try to stay in good standing with their credit card lenders," she said. "But your credit score takes a big hit when you go into foreclosure, and if you move into an apartment, landlords check your credit report. It's not a good financial strategy."
Another problem facing Americans with unmanageable debt is that they are waiting too long to address the problem, said Dave Jones, president of the AICCCA.
"A whole lot more people are in a financial shape where we can't help them," he said. "Before the recession, we could help about one-quarter of them through a debt management program. Now only 12 percent can be helped that way."
Debt management programs are used by credit counselors to consolidate a client's unsecured debt -- credit cards, student loans, medical bills -- into a single monthly payment agreed upon by the creditors and paid to the credit counseling agency. Often, late fees and other accrued charges are dismissed, and interest rate charges are reduced, though principal generally must be paid in full. Most such programs take three to five years to complete.
On the flip side, CARD credit counseling hotlines also draw people whose debts are not bad enough to warrant counseling, said Jeff Davis with Money Management International, a national credit counseling agency.
"A lot of people calling our number are not people who truly need credit counseling," he said. "They are not at a point where they are seriously behind in their payments."
Davis said Money Management has also experienced a 40 percent drop in its CARD call volume, compared with the highs of last year.
"People have worked their way through the system and resolved their debt or had their line of credit dropped or their accounts closed," he said.
But if you're underwater with your credit cards, it might be worth it to tap into this free financial counseling program. Just look at your statement and make the call.
Teresa McUsic's column appears Fridays.