You’ve been running a credit card balance for a few months, but finally, you have enough cash on hand to zero out the statement balance.
With great relief – and not a little pride – you pay it off. Thank goodness you’re done with that debt.
But wait: did you also pay the residual interest?
What is residual interest?
Residual interest is the interest that’s accrued on the unpaid credit card balance all this time that you’ve not been paying it. It’s also called trailing interest – because it trails into the next month.
The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau investigated residual interest charges on credit cards in 2015 as part of its biennial credit card report to Congress.
“We recognized, based on our research, that there is some confusion about this so-called ‘ghost charge,’ said Wei Zhang, the bureau’s credit card program manager. “People wanted to know, ‘What is this? Why is it happening?’”
The bureau did not find issuers doing anything illegal; however, they did discover that many details were buried in the fine print of credit card agreements. Card owners often were unaware of or did not fully understand what happened if they failed to pay their bill in full or how interest on the balance was calculated.
Before we get into those details any further, though, let’s start by explaining some terms:
- Billing cycle – That’s the time between two bills. Many billing cycles are about a month long.
- Closing date – That’s the date on which the billing cycle ends. When the closing date occurs, the card will post a statement balance. That’s the amount of purchases you charged during this billing cycle.
- Grace period – This is the period of time between when the billing cycle closes and your payment is due. This can be a few weeks, or even up to a month.
- Due date – This is the last possible day to make your payment without penalty. After this day, interest will start to accrue on the balance.
That interest that accrues? That’s residual interest.
See related: How to lower your credit card interest rate
How does residual interest work?
Here’s an example of how residual interest comes into play:
- You have a credit card with a billing cycle that closes on the 15th of every month. On March 15, your statement balance is $1,200.
- Your due date on the bill is April 14th. But when the date arrives, you can only afford to pay $900 – meaning you leave a balance of $300 on the credit card.
- That $300 starts accruing interest the very next day. How much interest? Depends on your particular credit card. Let’s say, for this example, your card charges an APR of 22%.
- To figure out how much that will be, divide the APR by the number of days in the year. So 22 divided by 365 – 0.0602%.
- Multiply this by your current $300 balance, and you get 18.06 cents. That’s the amount of residual interest you will get charged on the balance each day.
- By the time the next month’s due date rolls around, 30 days later, you will owe $5.41 in residual interest.
This is where things get tricky. Maybe you decided to clean up your financial act. You’ve only charged $200 this month, and now you can afford to pay off both the new balance and the $300 from last month. Everything’s squared away, right? Nope, not so fast. You still owe that $5.41. And if you don’t notice it and neglect to pay it, it will continue to accrue interest.
Or, you do pay the entire bill by sending a check in the mail. Interest may continue to accrue on the balance between the time you mail the check and the time the bank receives it and cashes it. Remember, once you enter the land of accruing interest, there is no more grace period.
“Because it accrues after the billing period closes, [residual interest] won’t appear on your current statement – meaning that this could be a surprise amount you discover in your next statement,” said Megumi Smisson, who discusses personal finance on her podcast Ms. Money Moves and her website, Money With Megumi. “Or, worst case, you think you’ve paid off your card, don’t check your next statement to make a payment, and incur a late fee and potentially damage your credit.”
See related: What happens when you miss a credit card payment?
Do all cards charge residual interest?
Residual interest is a common credit card feature. Supposedly, there are banks that don’t charge it, though those are increasingly hard to find.
“I’m not saying it’s impossible, but … [scoring a credit card that doesn’t charge residual interest] is kind of like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow with a unicorn standing next to it,” said Bruce McClary, spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling in Washington, D.C.
There are many credit cards that offer 0% APR on new and transferred balances for a number of months. To find out how your card deals with leftover balances, look at the back of the statement. It probably won’t say “residual interest” in those words.
Scan instead for writing like “finance charges may be assessed even if we receive payment in full in the current billing cycle.” Other ways to get this information, and discover what the APR is for your card, are to look at your card’s terms and conditions, go to the card issuer’s website or call the issuer.
How to avoid residual interest
There’s no reason you should have to pay months’ worth of residual interest on your credit card for a balance that’s quickly resolved. Here’s how to make sure this isn’t a problem for you.
- Pay your card in full each month. “The No. 1 rule, the best advice for avoiding residual interest altogether, is to pay off your purchases immediately,” McClary said.
- First timer? See if you can get a break. There’s no harm in calling your credit card issuer and asking if you can get an extension on your payment deadline, so you can avoid late fees, finance charges and any residual interest on this one cycle. “You never know what you’ll get until you ask,” McClary said.
- If that’s not possible, check your balance and pay it online. The credit card issuer should post real-time information about your leftover balance and any accruing interest.
- Get confirmation from the card issuer. This is particularly important if you are paying your balance by mail, either from a paper statement or from what you see online. Interest on the balance continues to accrue until the moment the bank cashes your check. If the check is insufficient because it doesn’t include those extra few days of interest, interest will accrue on the unpaid balance. Instead, before you write the check, pick up the phone and ask the credit card issuer for the payoff balance. “That is the best, the most foolproof way to accurately know the balance that would pay off the account,” McClary said. He advises overestimating the day the payment will arrive by a day or two; the company will repay you any overpayment but will charge more interest if you fall short again.
See related: Should I pay off my credit card all at once?
Remember, if you’ve let a balance carry from one statement to the next, you don’t just have to pay off the balance on your statement. You may also owe residual interest that is not included in your current statement. Check your total online. Call the card issuer to double-check. You can also check your credit card agreement to find out about residual interest or minimum finance charges.
And after you’ve paid what you believe you owe, check again, to be sure.
“Don’t just anticipate ‘I’m off the hook’ next month,” Zhang said. “In many cases, you are probably not off the hook. Make sure there are not any residual balances next month.”