Despite sky-high interest rates, Americans are charging record amounts to their credit cards as the holiday shopping season heats up, risking hefty fees and credit score fallout that personal finance experts say can be mitigated with a little planning.
Inflation, which was running at 7.7% in October, shows some signs of slowing but still hovers around historic highs. And while 37% of American households say their finances are worse now than last year, 74% plan on spending at least as much this holiday season — about $1,455 per consumer — according to a survey by consulting firm Deloitte. But respondents estimated that same budget would cover only about nine gifts this year, down from 16 last year.
Consumers are “going to find ways to combat the challenges they find,” says Rod Sides, global leader at Deloitte Insights. For example, households may cut back on holiday decorations at home to leave more budget for gifts.
Some retailers have said consumers are holiday-shopping earlier than usual in search of deals. As the season progresses, many Americans’ spending will pile onto credit card balances already at a record $866 billion in the third quarter, 19% higher than the same period last year, according to credit reporting agency TransUnion. In some cases, cash-strapped households are leaning on credit to pay for pricier necessities like winter utility bills.
Failing to pay down those card balances on time is costlier than it’s been in decades. To combat high inflation, the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates this year at the fastest clip in 40 years. Those hikes have pushed credit card interest rates to an average of 19.04%, according to Bankrate, surpassing the last record set in 1991 to hit the highest level recorded in data going back to 1985.
Experts say there are sensible ways to shop with cards this holiday season while safeguarding both your bank balance and credit score.
Ted Rossman, senior analyst at Bankrate.com, suggests stacking discounts. If you have a rewards credit card, for example, look for opportunities to combine cardholder perks with store discounts. The goal is to “find multiple ways to save on the same purchase,” he says. “Use the rewards credit card, assuming that you’re going to pay in full and avoid interest, but combine that with other things like a store coupon or coupon code.”
Rossman also suggests making purchases through retail portals such as Rakuten, an e-commerce site where consumers can earn cash back on purchases, or on perks platforms operated by the major consumer banks, where customers can browse and activate deals and cash-back offers.
As with every holiday season, many retailers are dangling discounts for shoppers who sign up for their own branded store cards, which can slash price tags at the register. But analysts warn that high interest rates and potentially unfavorable terms can trip up shoppers, eroding the hoped-for savings.
The average new store card’s annual percentage rate, or APR, is 26.60%, up from 24.27% a year ago, according to a recent report from LendingTree. That’s the highest interest rate since the credit card marketplace began tracking it for store cards in 2018. Still, some 35% of Americans say they’re “somewhat likely” to apply for a retail card, up from 29% last year, LendingTree found.
“I think that probably tells you that people are looking for whatever help they can find to extend their holiday shopping budget,” says Matt Schulz, LendingTree’s chief credit analyst.
Americans have a history of holding multiple credit cards. Cardholders were carrying an average 3.8 cards by the end of 2020 versus four in 2018, according to the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (The decrease over that period may reflect reduced demand for new cards during the pandemic as well as heightened card closures by issuers looking to stem potential losses during the recession, among other factors.) Today, half of U.S. adults have at least two credit cards and 13% have five or more, according to data released this month by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Equifax.
Using credit cards can help build credit. By paying off balances on time and in full, a borrower can develop a history of strong creditworthiness. But juggling many cards and high balances can be a sign of struggling to manage debt, which can harm a borrower’s credit score.
And with fees and rates for new store cards even higher than the current record levels for traditional credit cards, “many people’s financial margin for error is basically zero,” Schulz says. In other words, if you think there’s even a chance you’ll miss a payment or carry a balance, don’t sign on the dotted line.
Shoppers should look for ways to stay in control of their credit card spending this winter, says Malik Lee, a certified financial planner and managing principal at Atlanta-based Felton & Peel Wealth Management. That means, for example, making card payments far ahead of the due date if possible — given that spending is higher during this time of year — and minimizing the number of cards used to pay for holiday hauls.
“Don’t put money on all of the six cards you’ve got, because that’s a good way to lose track of some of the spending, to lose track of the balances,” Lee says.
At least some of Americans’ burgeoning credit card debt suggests many are attempting to maintain lifestyles similar to those of the “before” times, Lee adds — before eye-popping gas prices, grocery bills and interest rates. So this holiday season, he’s advising clients to keep their financial goals in mind.
“You have to make a switch,” Lee says. “You have to adjust.”