When you sign up for a credit card, you might be thinking about the things you'll buy with it or the rewards you'll get for using it. You probably aren't thinking about what will happen if the company discontinues the card. But like everything else, credit cards have a life cycle -- and it may end before you're ready for it, says Liz Weston, author of "Your Credit Score." "Cards come and go, and since the credit crunch started in late 2007, many programs have been curtailed or shut down," she notes.

One of the most visible card terminations came in March, when Starbucks kicked its Duetto Visa card to the curb. If you discover that you're holding a card that a company will no longer support, you have a few options -- but you'll often have to act fast to make sure you can take advantage of all your current perks before they disappear. Here are a few key tips on the process.

  • Pay attention. You don't have to worry that you'll be standing at the cashier with a cart full of groceries when you find out your card doesn't work anymore, according to Betty Riess, a spokeswoman for Bank of America. "If we discontinue a card program, we communicate with customers well in advance," she says. You can expect a letter or an e-mail that details the changes and the time frame for those changes. It's just one more reason to make sure you open the mail from your card company promptly, rather than letting it gather dust on the kitchen counter.
  • Use your rewards. If you've got a card that offers rewards, you'll generally want to redeem them promptly. For example, if you've got a canceled card from Citi with which you've accumulated ThankYou rewards, you will need to use them within 90 days, according to Citi spokesman Samuel Wang. (If you've got another card that's linked to the ThankYou rewards program, you won't lose the points.) Sometimes, you'll receive a check or a gift card for the rewards you've accumulated; users of the Starbucks Duetto Card received Starbucks gift cards for any reward balance on their card. Other programs send the customer a check for any rewards within 30 to 90 days. In a few cases, the rewards you've earned are yours for good -- the miles on the Citi AAdvantage card accumulate within the customer's AA account, for example. Thus, even if the card were to be discontinued, the miles would remain.
  • Examine your options. Often, a company will be eager to keep you as a customer, even if it's not keeping the card you use. You may think it's a lovely gesture for the card company to offer to swap your current card for another in its catalog of options, but make sure it fits your needs before you agree. "Your history with the old card may be imported into their files in terms of how they report things to the credit bureaus, but basically, you're starting from scratch" in terms of interest rates, fees and charges, says Weston. "This is a new card, and you'll want to take a look at all the terms."
  • Consider paying off the balance with your old terms. If your alternative options don't sound appealing, you aren't required to take a new card. If you're willing to accept that you can no longer rack up new charges, you always have the option of simply having the account closed and paying down the balance as you've been doing. "Typically, you have the option of paying a card off under the old rates and terms when it's closed down," says Weston. Although your credit generally takes a small hit when a card is closed, it may be worth it to keep your current terms so you can pay off the balance quickly.

While these tips cover the most common scenarios, they aren't the only ones. Bank of America's Riess says that while they're always going to let customers know about changes in any program, they don't use a one-size-fits all approach. "We look at each program on a case-by-case basis," she notes.

Companies aren't shy about dropping cards, says Weston.  "These days, card companies are looking more closely at a lot of their programs to see which ones make financial sense for them and which ones don't," she says. It's a strategy that's wise for individual consumers as well, so if you find that one of your cards is going to be discontinued, be sure you're also making smart financial moves. 

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