With general interest rates coming down, when can you expect rates on your own loans to drop?

Variable-rate loans will drop on a schedule written into your lending agreement (which you may not have read). Loans with fixed rates normally don't change, but might in some cases. Here's what to expect:

- On credit cards:

Nearly half of all cards currently carry variable rates, said Robert McKinley, president of CardWeb.com, which keeps track of the industry. They're often tied to the bank prime lending rate, which dropped again last week the third decline this year.

The prime rate currently stands at 7.5 percent. Variable-rate cards are charging an average of 14.66 percent on unpaid balances, McKinley said.

The majority of banks adjust their card rates monthly, so many customers will already have seen a cut.

The remaining banks generally adjust quarterly, and April starts a new quarter. This month, virtually all consumers with variable-rate cards should be on track to lower rates. Watch for it in your next billing cycle.

So-called "fixed-rate" cards are another story. When you sign up, you probably assume that "fixed" carries its normal English meaning that is, a rate that won't change. Poor you. The meaning is far more slippery than that.

Credit card come-ons

As an example, take a recent offer from Fleet Bank for a card with a "revolutionary low, fixed rate" of just 7.99 percent. The mailing said that this wasn't a mere "introductory rate" that would rise after "only a few short months," but a real, fixed rate.

The reader who showed me this mailing signed up for the card. Six months later, her "fixed" rate rose by about 2.5 percentage points.

And yes, that's legal. Fleet spokeswoman Deborah Pulver said it's "well recognized" that credit-card terms can be "modified," at the will of the bank.

Oh? Well recognized by whom?

You should probably expect any super-low "fixed" rate to be "modified" upward. The fine print in credit-card agreements gives the bank the right to change the rate at will, as long as you're notified at least 15 days in advance.

For top credit risks, fixed rates today range from around 9.9 percent to 12.99 percent. The average fixed rate: 16.04 percent. If interest rates keep on going down, some fixed-rate cards might be forced to cut rates to keep people from switching to something better.

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