Coming this month to your home mailbox - if they haven't already - are higher minimum payment requirements on those ubiquitous credit card bills.

Last summer, federal banking regulators - the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, to be specific - stiffened the guidelines that govern minimum credit card payments.

Most credit card compa.nies adopted the new way of calculating minimum payments in the past month or two.

Under these new regulations, monthly minimum payments must cover at least 1 percent of the principal owed, plus interest, fees and extra charges.

Before, guidelines were less stringent, requiring consumers to pa.y 2 percent of the total credit card balance, which usually only covered interest and other fees.

Thus, heavily indebted consumers often took a lifetime to pay off their principal, plus interest, especially when the interest rate was exorbitantly high to begin with.

The effect of higher monthly minimums is akin to taking medicine that's good for you but tastes terrible, especially at the first swallow, most consumer advocates agree.

While ruing that higher pa.yments are hard on consumers at first, they acknowledge that higher monthly payments mean consumers will pay off balances earlier and accrue less interest.

Consider this example: Making only minimum pa.yments, it would take a consumer 60 years and $34,931.25 in interest to pay off a $12,000 balance, assuming an 18 percent interest rate.

If your credit card issuer implements a monthly minimum that covers at least 1 percent of the principal balance, along with interest charges and fees, it will take you 30 years and five months, and cost you $17,683.59 to pa.y off that same balance.

About 7 percent of Americans routinely pay only the minimum monthly amount due on their credit bills.

According to Patricia Hasson, president of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of the Delaware Valley, toughening up the guidelines hits particularly hard if your credit card interest rate is already high.

The new payments also pa.ck an extra wallop if you routinely pay your bill late and get socked with a late fee.

Hasson urges consumers who don't think they can ante up the extra dough each month to contact their credit card compa.nies immediately. She also suggests that you:

* Switch to a lower interest rate card, if at all possible.

* Monitor your interest rate because it can change. "You may not be paying attention, but your interest rate may have gone up since the last time you checked," she said.

* Whatever you do, don't ignore those new payments. Hasson urges: "Don't think this will go away. The cycle will only get worse."

Commented Jim Donahue, a spokesman for MBNA, the credit card company based in Wilmington, De., "We want to work with our customers and ensure that they make their payments. If they foresee a problem, then they need to get in touch with us. We can work out some kind of payment adjustment."

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