NBC News
updated 2/14/2004 6:08:27 PM ET 2004-02-14T23:08:27

If you're like most Americans, you hit the stores with a charge -- on your credit cards, that is. If you're not careful, your shopping may cost you a whole lot more than you might think. You could be surprised at how it really adds up.

"I typically charge gas for my car, groceries, any clothing I might buy,” says 23-yearl-old Lisa Epstein, who’s purchases are ballooning into a long term credit card loan.

"There are many more ‘gotchas’ in a credit card contract than there used to be,” says Travis Plunkett of the Consumer Federation of America.

Many credit card companies are now allowing you to pay lower monthly payments, but paying less may cost you a whole lot more in the long run. For example, Epstein owes $4,200 on her Citibank card at a 15.99 percent annual interest rate. So if she only pays the monthly minimum: a $3.41 cup of coffee at starbucks will ultimately cost $8, a $19 tankful of gas will cost $45, and a $74 grocery bill will cost $177.

Epstein now tries to pay more than the monthly minimum, but if she doesn't, it will take her 22 years to pay off that $4200 balance. And she'll pay an extra $5,800 in finance charges, $10,000 for just that $4,200 balance.

And credit card companies now have other terms that can drain your budget. Some now give you less time before charging interest and less time to make your payment, and then hit you with a high late fee if you miss that due date.

"It's all a very studied calculated way to increase their income on interest and on fees,” says Plunkett.

Even the industry says don't ever be afraid to ask your credit card company to lower your interest rate or waive fees and if it won't, find a lower rate credit card and transfer your balance.

It may sound obvious, but consumer groups say always really read all that fine print. Some cards increase your interest rate if you miss a payment -- even on another card -- or if your credit rating changes.

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