Image: Woman holding set of fanned-out credit cards © Sheer Photo Inc., Photodisc, Getty Images

I wanted to call this piece, "Lessons from someone who has 50+ credit cards, a great credit score, and hasn't paid interest on a credit card balance in 15 years." But since that's a little long, I'll stick with the shorter title.

This article is an excerpt from a recent interview with Scott Bilker, the founder of DebtSmart.com. He is the author of several books, including one of my favorites, "Talk Your Way Out of Credit Card Debt." Scott joined me on Talk Credit Radio to share his strategies for getting your card issuers to lower your interest rate or waive fees. The interview excerpt has been edited.

Gerri: Scott, you know, I think there's a sense these days that sometimes people feel lucky they even have a credit card and have a credit line. So really, what are issuers willing to do now in terms of negotiating with customers?

Scott: Well, you know, it's still true that banks need profitable customers to be profitable. So as consumers, we do hold the cards, so to speak, because we decide where we spend our money. And even if interest rates aren't the best for banks, they still make money by charging merchant fees.

Gerri: There are a lot people that are still paying pretty hefty interest rates, given the fact that these banks are paying practically nothing to borrow this money.

Scott: Yeah, that's absolutely true. It's not like the banks are going to lower the interest rates just because they're getting a better deal. The only time banks are going to give out really good rates are to credit cardholders who have excellent credit scores and have had a relationship with the bank for years.

Gerri: For a long time, there was no downside to asking for a lower rate. Then we went through a period about I'd say, 2009, when it actually got a little bit risky because sometimes it would trigger an account review and (your issuer) would say, "Oh gee, well you have a lot of credit card debt, we'd like to lower your credit limit," and that lowers your score and when your score goes down your other (credit lines may) get lowered. So tell me, where are we and where have we been in this process?

Scott: Well you're absolutely right, it might've been a little riskier before, but if you're paying high rates and if you're getting gouged for a lot of fees, it's important to stop that. So it's always important to call the banks and try to negotiate better rates and have fees waived.

Today, you know, the swing is now toward more credit card usage in the last few months. There had been many reports that people are now using their credit cards more, certainly during (the past) holiday season. So once again, the banks have to decide if they're going to give good deals to people or if they're going to let people just transfer the balances or use (other) cards during the season.

Gerri: OK, so let's talk about what you do if you feel that your credit card rate is too high. What do you think is too high these days?

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Scott: You know, anything you're paying is too high. Unless it's zero. Just look at your credit card statement right now, whatever it is, if it's not zero, you want to try to get toward zero, I mean, zero is perfect. I gotta tell you, I haven't paid any interest for like, 15 years already. I mean zero, absolutely nothing.

Gerri: Tell me what your credit score is. It has to be pretty good.

Scott: It's 790. It's been better. Yesterday it was 790, but the best it's ever been is 819.

Gerri: That's out of 850 on a FICO score, so that's still a prime credit score.

Scott: Yeah, it's a good score. Anything over 720 is quite good, and you know, I've got 50 credit cards. I used to have, like 60, but a whole bunch of them got lost during that credit crunch.

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Gerri: OK, I want to talk about that a little bit later on the show. But let's start with what to do when you talk to your credit card companies. So we've talked about the fact that you do want to negotiate if you're paying more than 0%. You get on the phone, you're a little bit nervous, what do you say to them?

Scott: That's exactly why I wrote my book ("Talk Your Way Out of Credit Card Debt"). People are nervous, they don't know what to say, so what I did was I recorded the banks. You know, how when you call the banks they record us for training purposes? Well I recorded them for training purposes, to train everyone on how to deal with the banks. So the book has a whole bunch of calls -- the actual transcripts from the calls. In the book I have 52, but I've made hundreds. I just picked the ones that would represent the basic outcome that you would have.

So I would say that, you know, if you're nervous about calling there are many things you can do, but you should always call. There's nothing to be nervous about. Just pick up the phone, give them a call and, let's say, do something easy like waive a late fee. That's pretty easy to do.

If you have a late fee, call your bank, get that thing waived, especially if it's your first one. Just call up, talk to the first person: "Hey, I was looking at my credit card statement, I noticed this late fee, can you waive that fee for me?" And I have never heard of a case for a first-time late fee when they didn't waive the fee. They always waive that fee no matter what, throughout the years, they always do it.

Gerri: So you don't have to have some kind of good excuse as to why you were late? You just have to ask for them to waive it?

Scott: Yep, that's correct. And you can make up an excuse if you want but it doesn't matter, they're going to waive it. I've never heard of somebody calling for the first time and not having it waived. And I've made dozens and dozens of calls just for that thing, just for that purpose -- having the first late fee waived. Even if you've had a couple of late fees in a row they'll still waive one or two of them. They might not waive them all, if you have six in a row it's going to be a little trickier -- you might have to call and let them know they're going to get paid. But the bottom line is, if you do something like that, just call up, talk to the first person; they'll probably be able to do it.

Now when you try to lower interest rates or do more difficult things like multiple late fees, something like that, chances are the very first person you're going to speak to will not be able to do it. So you're going to ask to speak to their supervisor, say, "Hey, can I talk to your supervisor?" They're going to say, probably, "My supervisor's going to tell you the same thing." And you just say, "Wonderful, I want to talk to your supervisor anyway."

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Then the supervisor's going to get on the phone, you're going to go through the whole thing again, and now we'll see what the supervisor's going to do. If you're just asking, it's going to be difficult. You want to have a deal breaker ready, something you're going to do when they don't do what you want. So you say, "Listen, I got all these credit offers, I want to transfer my balance so what do you want to do? Do you want to just lower my rate or get rid of this fee, or am I just going to leave you and not do business with you and close my account?"

Prior to 2009, that worked really well. After that, I definitely heard of cases where people would say they didn't care.

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Gerri: OK, so if your issuer says no, you talk to a supervisor then, at that point, do you give up on that issuer?

Scott: Well, that might be. You know, and if you go through the whole thing, "I'm going to close my account," and you're persistent. What I like to do, too, is run the numbers. I'll just tell them how much I spent. I'll say, well I spent $10,000 over the last five years, and this much of it was interest -- of course in my case it's zero so all they're getting is the merchant fees. But they're getting merchant fees on that, and interest, and I'm like, "You really want to let that go?" And again, they're not too bright, so sometimes they'll be like "sure."

But if that happens, you have many options. At Credit.com, there are a whole bunch of credit cards you can turn to to get lower rates, and I would start there and start looking for a new bank if you don't have one. But if you do, the best place to turn to transfer your balance when banks don't do what you want are to the other credit cards that you have, that you've had for a while. Like I've said, I have 50 cards. People think it's ridiculous, you know. If I used them all, Gerri, today's show would be about bankruptcy and how to get out of it, because I cannot use all those cards and pay them all.

So what happens is I have so many cards with a zero balance that if any one of the few cards that I'm using gives me trouble and then they don't do what I want when I try to negotiate better rates and better deals, then I'll just call all the other ones --and it's the same kind of negotiation. . . . So I'll call one bank, "Hey I want to transfer my balance to you, I'll transfer $10,000 right now but you got to give me zero or 1% or whatever's better than what I'm getting now." And I'll just go through all of them until someone does that, but I have a lot of options. That's why I like to have a lot of open lines of credit.

Scott goes on to explain how he takes advantage of credit card rewards programs. For example, in addition to not paying interest for years, he hasn't paid for a movie ticket in years -- and he has three kids. As he says, "That's a lot of popcorn and movie tickets."

Listen to the entire interview with Scott here. (The link will download an audio file you can open in your audio player, or download to an mp3 player.)

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