I have yet another confession to make. Even though I often tell others to read their credit card agreements, I have never done so until now. And I’d be lying if I told you I got much further than the first page.
It’s not that I have an aversion to reading. In fact, I love a good book, newspaper editorial etc., but there is a reason that I don’t reach for my credit card agreement when I want to unwind. It’s seriously the most boring and tedious text I’ve ever tried to understand. And I think that says a lot coming from a recently graduated journalism/neuropsychology student.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who has trouble stomaching the fine print. The average credit card agreement is written at a 12.37 grade level, making them incomprehensible to approximately 80 percent of Americans, according to a recent study by CreditCards.com.
The average American reads at a ninth-grade level. I read above a 12th-grade level. I’ve been tested. But even still, skimming my contract made me wonder whether or not I’m in need of some remedial classes. What tripped me up were the insanely long sentences and the feeling that traps lurk within every paragraph.
My Express retail credit card agreement contains about 6,600 words. A cursory skim revealed that I understand most of the vocabulary by itself. But when slung together with general disregard for the grammatical placement of a period, all clarity is lost. Even the sentences that aren’t technically run-ons are stuffed full of so many subjects, objects and conditional statements that it’s hard to keep track of everything.
Here’s an example: “If you do not pay the total amount of the purchase before the end of the promotional period, we will add the amount of the purchase to your Regular Revolving balance and will begin to charge Finance Charges on the purchase from the first day after the promotional period ends.”
The sentence above is 50 words long. That’s longer than the introductory paragraphs of the classic novels “Crime and Punishment” and “Anna Karenina” — combined. I’m not patient enough to endure that throughout an entire document. Not only is it wordy, it’s also unclear. At first glance, I thought the fine print meant that the remainder of the unpaid purchase would be added to the regular revolving balance. Then my editor pointed out that it may mean the total amount of the original purchase would be added to the regular revolving balance. I still can’t figure out which the contract actually condones, even after attempting to use context clues. Perhaps it is designed to be read both ways, giving the card company flexibility to execute in any manner it wishes. Lucky me.
Short is good. Clear is better.
The biggest obstacle, though, is feeling that no matter how thoroughly I read, I’m still bound by the card company’s wishes. The gist I got from the first page of my agreement was, “When you use this card, you agree to whatever we say.” No, the contract didn’t say that verbatim, but caveats like the following make me feel like my card company’s little puppet: “we may change your Credit Limit at any time” or “we may cancel your Account at any time for any reason.” How does reading that help do anything but depress me? I tried to find where my rights as a customer were listed. Those would be worth reading, regardless of sentence length. But they weren’t there.
Linda Sherry, national priorities director for Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based consumer group, sums up my views best:
“The agreements tell you little about your so-called ‘rights’ and focus solely on your responsibilities under the one-sided agreement. Since these are contracts of adhesion, and consumers can’t amend the terms, they are useless in that regard, no matter how simply they are written,” she said in a CreditCards.com article titled “Credit card agreements unreadable to four out of five Americans.”
In case you’re wondering, I probably won’t ever finish reading my Express credit card contract… unless I need help falling asleep.