It seems like using credit cards should be pretty easy. You insert the chip or swipe the magnetic stripe at a store checkout, sign, and go on your merry way. But the dirty little secret about our ubiquitous credit-card usage is that most of us don’t really have any idea what we’re doing with them.
That’s because each of those cards has one or more service agreements—those thin-papered pamphlets full of terms, conditions, and fees, all in teeny-tiny font—and for many people, the contents of those agreements are as impenetrable as a medical school textbook.
According to a new study of 2,000 credit card agreements conducted by CreditCards.com, the average document is written at an 11th-grade reading level—one grade level higher than the book of Exodus in the King James version of the Bible.
“These unreadable contracts pose a great risk for cardholders,” said Matt Schulz, the site’s senior industry analyst. “If you don’t know about all of the fees associated with that card, for example, you can’t do anything to avoid them.”
Although nearly 90% of Americans today have a high school diploma, this doesn’t mean they can understand their credit card agreements, experts cited by CreditCards.com say, since most students’ reading comprehension tops out a couple of grade-level years below their actual educational attainment.
That 11th-grade average also means that quite a few cards out there have agreements that are even harder to understand. The agreements from Synovus Bank’s Visa and MasterCard, for example, are written at a mind-crunching 17th-grade level readability—that’s grad school, folks.
And agreements from some of the biggest banks require considerable schooling to comprehend. Those from Barclays Bank Delaware, for instance, have an average grade-level rating of 14.8. In other words, you’d need to be an upperclassman in college to grasp the fine print. Agreements from TD Bank and Bank of America both clocked in with grade-level ratings of 13.9, or the rough equivalent of an associate’s degree or a sophomore at a four-year college.
Not only are credit-card agreements difficult for many Americans to comprehend, they also take people a long time to read—and no wonder, given that the average agreement is 4,900 words. For most of us, that equates about 20 minutes’ worth of reading.
What’s more, nearly half of cardholders contacted in a poll conducted by CreditCards.com admitted they don’t even bother to read their agreements because they’re so long and hard to understand. Poll respondents used descriptions like “wordy,” “confusing,” and “complex” in reference to their card agreements.
Amazingly, the readability of these agreements is actually better than it used to be, according to CreditCards.com. When it conducted a similar study five years ago, it found that the average agreement was around 5,400 words and written at a 12th-grade level.
Still, Schulz pointed out that today’s agreements go over the heads of many American consumers. “No one should ever enter into any financial agreement if they don’t understand the terms of that agreement,” he said. “There’s simply too much risk.”
Although it might be tough or tedious, it’s worth wading into the fine print to know what you’re getting into, he added. “Make sure you grasp the basics of the card agreement, including fees, interest rates, and other terms before you ever sign on that dotted line.”