He'll be out of debt in 17 centuries

If you only send the minimum, how long will it take to pay off that nagging credit-card balance?  And how much will you eventually fork over?

How about 1,738 years and $854,329?

Those were the numbers that confronted Barry Weintraub of Philadelphia when he opened a recent statement on his BJ's Wholesale Club Visa, issued by Barclay Bank.

A retired accountant, Weintraub understands why the numbers are so huge.  BJ's periodically offers consumers a little extra "breathing room" by lowering their usual minimum payments.  This month, BJ's says all he needs to pay to stay current on his $4,600 balance is $20.23. 

The minimum-payment calculations were included in Weintraub's statement thanks to one of the less-heralded provisions of the Credit Card Act of 2009.  Consumer advocates argued for years that card users would think twice about frivolous expenditures if they understood they could be paying off that pair of shoes or dinner for the next 10 or 20 years - a more common payoff period than 17 centuries. Banks fought the requirement but finally lost the debate.

The law also requires banks to tell cardholders how much to pay to retire their debt in three years. Weintraub's statement also notes, helpfully, that if he sends in the requisite $140 a month, he'll save an astounding $849,289 in interest.

Weintraub - who typically pays well more than the minimum - likes the new requirement, though he thinks an explanatory footnote might be in order when projected interest starts running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  "There needs to be some common sense applied to it," he says.

Of course, the absurdly high numbers obscure an important point: If your card company is confident you'll keep paying, it's more than happy to accept lower payments and let interest accumulate.

Weintraub suggests a contest to see who has the longest payoff period.

I'll bite. Can anyone beat 1,738 years? Go home, check your statements, and get back to me.

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