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What is a Finance Charge on a Credit Card?

The definition of a finance charge is any charge associated with using credit cards. Learn more about credit card finance charges and how to avoid them.

By Megan Doyle | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

3 Min Read | January 17, 2020 in Cards

 

At-A-Glance

Finance charges are defined as any charge associated with using credit.

Credit card issuers use finance charges to help make up for non-payment risks.

You can minimize finance charges by paying off your credit card balance in full each month.

Imagine lending a significant amount of money to a stranger. You’d probably want some kind of extra compensation or collateral to justify the risk, right? Now, imagine you’re a credit card company extending credit to millions and millions of people, despite the chance that some card members will fail to make their payments.

 

Enter the “finance charge.”

 

Most credit cards come with finance charges, largely to compensate the lender for the risk of non-payment. But what exactly do finance charges include, how are they calculated, and can they be avoided?

 

What is a Credit Card Finance Charge?

Put simply, a finance charge is any charge associated with using credit. In the language of the law—more specifically, the Truth in Lending Act—a finance charge is “the sum of all charges, payable directly or indirectly by the person to whom the credit is extended, and imposed directly or indirectly by the creditor as an incident to the extension of credit.”1

 

When your card issuer sends you your monthly statement, it lists any finance charges along with your purchases and payments. How your finance charge shows up on your statement will depend on your card issuer. For example, it might be listed in a separate finance charge category, or the statement might just list all the components that make up a finance charge (e.g., interest, foreign transaction fees, annual fees, cash advance fee, etc.) right in with your purchases and other activity.

 

What Fees are Included in a Credit Card Finance Charge?

Finance charges include any fees paid to the lender, such as:2

  • Interest
  • Annual fees
  • Foreign transaction fees
  • Cash advance fees
  • Late payment fees
  • Balance transfer fees 

 

The most common type of finance charge is the interest that you’re charged if you don’t pay off your credit card balance in full every month. Most other fees are usually flat fees, such as annual fees or late fees. Some credit cards may charge flat fees for cash advances or balance transfers, too. Other finance charges, such as foreign transaction fees, are typically calculated as a percentage of the transaction value.

 

Finance Charges for Loans & Mortgages

While the term “finance charge” is typically used in the context of credit cards, other forms of credit—personal and auto loans, or mortgages—may have finance charges, too. With any kind of credit, finance charges help lenders cover the nonpayment risk of extending credit and give them a way to make money by lending money.3

 

With loans and mortgages, finance charges can include a one-time loan origination fee as well as interest payments.

 

How are Finance Charges Calculated?

Since your finance charge depends on multiple factors, including the account balance and your card’s interest rate, it will typically vary from month to month. Each charge is calculated separately, based on the rules in your card member agreement. To understand how interest charges are calculated, see “How to Calculate Interest Rates.”

 

By way of example, say you didn’t pay off your credit card balance in full by the end of the grace period. You also withdrew a cash advance and made a few foreign purchases this month. Depending on your credit card’s terms, your finance charge might include:

  • Any interest accrued from carrying the balance
  • A flat cash advance fee, plus any interest on the cash that you withdrew
  • Any foreign transaction fees (a percentage—usually 3%—of each transaction in a foreign currency, sometimes plus a flat fee as well) 

 

Some card companies have a minimum finance charge (often $1); you’ll be charged a dollar even if your calculated finance charge is less than that.

 

How to Minimize Credit Card Finance Charges

It can be tough to avoid finance charges altogether, but there are ways to minimize them:4,5

 

The Takeaway

Extending credit to millions of people is a risky business, so credit card and loan issuers use finance charges to generate revenue and make up for the risk of non-payment. Your credit card finance charge may vary each month, but usually includes a combination of percentage-based and flat-rate fees like interest, foreign transaction fees, and annual fees.

Megan Doyle

Megan Doyle is a business technology writer and researcher whose work focuses on financial services and cross-cultural diversity and inclusion.

 

All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

The material made available for you on this website, Credit Intel, is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal, tax or financial advice. If you have questions, please consult your own professional legal, tax and financial advisors.