Business as usual for credit-card holders means, of course, more bad news today. The banks are raising cardholders' late and over-limit fees and interest rates; USA Today delivers the sordid details. The lenders couch their rising interest rates as a means to offset unprecedented delinquency (when customers make payments more than 30 days late) and charge-card charge-offs (when they don't pay the full balance, as the terms demand). American Express, a charge card, is raising its 45-day late fee to $39 from $29.

Don't get them wrong. Banks and card issuers love late payments -- at least when customers aren't too late. Last year U.S. cardholders ponied up $19 billion in the twin windfalls of late and over-limit fees. That figure is expected to swell by nearly 8% this year, reaping banks $20.5 billion in essentially free money.

The catch on that free money? Customers are having increasing trouble paying it. Soaring unemployment and mortgage rates, and plummeting savings, have forced the public to make some tough decisions about which debts to pay off. Some debt experts suggest that paying off your mortgage is more important than paying off your credit cards, because mortgages are backed by the collateral of your home, which can be seized abruptly, whereas credit-card loans are unsecured by collateral. But the banks are as yet powerless to repossess that Super Value Meal you bought on credit --and then wolfed down -- three months ago.

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