Fingerhut FreshStart: Could This Program Jump-Start Your Credit?

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Are you trying to rebuild your credit? Fingerhut, an online mail-order retailer, says it wants to help you with its FreshStart program. It’s a new twist on the catalog card or magazine offers of yesteryear.

The program, which involves a special credit card used to shop from Fingerhut’s online product catalog, is designed for customers who don’t have the best credit. If that’s you, FreshStart could give you a second shot at proving your creditworthiness and qualifying for a regular credit card.

But does FreshStart deliver on its claims? First, here’s an overview of the program:

  • Good credit isn’t required. Do you have poor credit? With lenient application requirements, FreshStart could be a way to regain some credit traction.
  • You pay low payments and no annual fee. Unlike many credit cards, FreshStart has no annual fee and the payments tend to be low.
  • You may pay a high interest rate and other costs. If you don’t make your payments on time or don’t pay off the balance in full, you could be subject to FreshStart’s 25.90% annual percentage rate and other costs.
  • Your shopping power is limited. FreshStart lets you shop from Fingerhut’s catalog of products only; you can’t use it anywhere else. And you may be approved for only a small credit limit.
  • It’s not a traditional credit account. Although FreshStart lets you “graduate” to a traditional credit account after you pay off your balance, you don’t build credit with the major reporting agencies while you’re in the program.

How the FreshStart Program Works

How does FreshStart work, exactly? Fingerhut splits the program into three steps: order, pay off, and graduate. Once you’re approved for FreshStart, you place an order from the Fingerhut catalog for an item that costs at least $50 and at most your approved credit limit. You also have to make a $30 down payment. Once Fingerhut processes the order, your item is shipped.

For the next few months (the exact time depends on your program approval), you make payments toward the total balance on your account. Miss any payments and you risk paying late fees (up to $38 per incident) and interest—and you may not be eligible for a regular credit account.

If you adhere to FreshStart rules and pay off your balance, you’ll graduate to a traditional credit card account with WebBank/Fingerhut Advantage. This account lets you shop more often, build credit with the major monitoring agencies, and potentially qualify for credit line increases and other perks.

FreshStart resembles a more legitimate version of “catalog card” programs that are marketed as credit cards for rebuilding credit but can only be used to shop from the issuer’s catalogs. With those offers, the merchandise is often severely overpriced, and customers usually don’t benefit from these programs much because their credit scores scarcely change.

Fingerhut, on the other hand, has a popular catalog dating back to 1952. The catalog currently comprises over 700,000 items, including big brands like Sony, Dell, and KitchenAid. With its focus on issuing small credit limits to buy products, Fingerhut’s FreshStart program is often great for customers who have been turned down for the company’s Fingerhut Advantage credit card. From the company’s standpoint, it’s a brilliant move—shoppers with poor credit aren’t immediately turned away and Fingerhut gains a paying customer.

The Downsides of the FreshStart Program

Now for the costs. We’re concerned that some customers may focus on only the small down payment and monthly payments and lose track of how much they’ve spent in the long run. If you don’t pay off the balance within the set limits, you could pay high interest amounts. You’ll also pay up to $38 for late or returned payments.

Instead of saving money by purchasing an on-sale item, you could end up paying more than the item’s value by the time you pay off the balance. And with a 25.90% APR—which, honestly, is not unusual for a retail card or credit card if your credit is on the lower side—the potential costs could be higher than cards with the average rate of about 13% to 14%.

What’s more, you may not be able to get out of paying at least some interest on purchases. While Fingerhut says you can pay off your balance faster, the terms and conditions include this warning:

However, if you elect to pay your entire balance due at the same time as your down payment, then this will cancel your Loan and you may not be eligible to be considered for a WebBank/Fingerhut Advantage Credit Account. You may not be eligible to be considered for a WebBank/Fingerhut Advantage Credit Account if you die, file for bankruptcy, enter a consumer credit counseling service program, make any past due payments, or have any payments returned unpaid, or if you enter any other negative credit status.

Also, if you don’t read the offer carefully, you might miss the fact that you don’t build credit with any institution other than Fingerhut when using the FreshStart program. You must pay off purchases on time under this program before (possibly) graduating to a regular credit card. FreshStart isn’t designed as a way to build your credit with the major credit reporting agencies but as a way to build credibility with Fingerhut.

FreshStart Program Reviews

What do customers think about the Fingerhut FreshStart program? Unfortunately, when we searched for customer reviews, Fingerhut didn’t return stellar ratings. The FreshStart program has plenty of detractors online. We found several reviews that matched the tone of this one:

I opened a fresh start account. My credit increased due to opening a new account. Great! After paying off my items with every payment being 10 days early they closed and reopened a new fresh start account. Closing accounts decreased my credit by more points than the opening of a new account in the first place.

And this one:

Husband and I both have accounts, I pay at same time with one check and both payment stubs enclosed in envelope. They call me every time I use one check to make payment and say I didn’t make my payment, then charge late charge. Clearly it is marked on the check and both payment stubs are included. I do not always have the extra check that month to send, but regardless it is paid every month, I can’t wait till all accounts are paid and I will be DONE with this company!

Fingerhut also got into some trouble for its habit of using robocalls to solicit customers. A 2014 class action lawsuit against the company claimed that Fingerhut “negligently places multiple calls to consumers’ cell phones using autodialed robocalls, without prior express consent.”

So what’s our final take? If you love the idea of shopping from Fingerhut’s catalog and you can’t qualify for a traditional credit card, you may want to try the Fingerhut FreshStart program as a way to start building credit. It’s a good idea to limit yourself to a small purchase—perhaps something you’d buy anyway—and pay off the balance exactly on the program’s terms. Then Fingerhut may offer you its Advantage credit card that will help you build your credit with the major reporting companies.

If you’re really serious about getting a credit card to rebuild your credit, we recommend you get a secured credit card and pay the balance in full each month. To track your progress over time, you can get your free credit report summary every month on Credit.com.

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